Immigrant Athletes from Finland
Skrivet av Les E.Niemi   
2007-07-06 18:05

Immigrant Athletes from Finland

While the Finns were among the first immigrant groups to journey to America, joining the English, Dutch, and Swedes in the early 1600s, Finnish Americans compose one of the smallest ethnic groups in the United States. However, they built over 300 social halls, which included athletic clubs where they engaged in gymnastics, track and field, boxing, and wrestling. Many of these halls (e.g., those in New York; Fitchburg, Massachusetts; Ashtabula and Fairport Harbor, Ohio; and Covington, Michigan) produced fine athletes. Suomi College, Hancock, Michigan, the only college the Finns founded in America, also promoted a sports program.

The sometimes stocky, muscular, sometimes wiry, not-too-tall, fierce Finn made a good distance runner, ski jumper, and ice hockey player. Those sports produced the most outstanding athletes. Strength, fearlessness, and endurance were the Finns’ strong suit as opposed to wit, quickness, and trickery. They preferred slower, but sustained, movement, combined with rhythm.

Distance Running

Ville Ritola ran most of the distance runs in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, winning five gold and three silver medals. Ritola’s achievements are relatively unknown, being overshadowed by those of Finland’s Paavo Nurmi. In the 1924 Olympics in Paris he won gold medals in the 10,000 meters (setting a world record), the 3,000-meter hurdles, the 10,000-meter cross country team race, and the 3,000-meter team race. He captured silver medals with second place finishes to Paavo Nurmi in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events. In 1928 in Amsterdam, Holland, he was victorious in the 5,000 meters and finished second to Nurmi at 10,000 meters. In each Olympics he ran for Finland, but the Finnish American community paid a large part of his expenses. Ritola resided in the United States for fifty-eight years (forty-eight of them in New York City). Ironically, he did not receive his citizenship papers until the last decade of his life, when he was living in Finland. Prior to Ritola, Hannes Kolehmainen ran the Finns to world recognition in the 1912 Olympics while he lived in New York for two years. In later times Bob Kempainen is the all-time greatest Finnish or Finnish American marathon runner, with a time of 2:08:45 at Boston in 1996. Other fine marathon runners have been Carl Linder, David Komonen, Otto Laakso, and William Wick, all from the 1920s.

Ice Hockey and Skating

In mainline sports, the first professional hockey league in the United States centered in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula (Houghton) in 1903, with the farthest team being Pittsburgh. A number of Finns played on the world championship team of 1904 for the McNaughton Cup, including Sam Kokko and another Kolehmainen. The Olson family of nine boys and two girls is the classic symbol of second-generation Finnish American skaters. Ruth Olson-Matt was a speed skater; Virginia Olson-Carlson became a figure skater and teacher, while all the brothers (Wesley, Allan, Paul, Gordon, Edward, Roy, Theodore, Marcus, and Weldon; born 1911 to 1932) played amateur, semipro, college, professional, and Olympic hockey. Six of them (Allan, Ed, Roy, Ted, Mark, and Weldon) played college hockey for Michigan Technological and Michigan State Universities. Their family originated in Hancock, Michigan, where most Finns stopped upon arrival, and resided primarily in Marquette. They produced their own family hockey team. Eddie Olson reached the highest laurels of the nine, enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame (1960). Parents Frank and Ida (née Anttila) were Finnish immigrants. No other Finnish American family so exemplified the Finnish spirit on ice as did the Olsons. Other fine hockey players among Finnish Americans were Willard Ikola of Eveleth, Minnesota (Hall of Fame, 1970), Gus Hendrickson of Duluth, Minnesota, Eddie Maki and Rod Paavola of Hancock, Michigan, and the Joupperi brothers and Charles Uskila of Calumet, Michigan. Ikola was a prominent player for the University of Michigan and a member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic hockey team; he later became a coach. Uskila was the first American-born player to participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In addition to his career in professional hockey, he teamed up with his sister Leena (an internationally famous skater) for figure skating tours in the United States and Australia. Later he officiated in the National Hockey League and became a producer and choreographer for the Ice Capades. Respected as one of the foremost skating authorities on the North American continent, he was inducted into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 1978.

The Finnish affinity to ice and snow is borne out further in the final decade of the 1900s by the representation of dozens of hockey players from Finland in the National Hockey League, led by stars such as Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, Teemu Salanne, Pentti Lund, Pay Timgren, Henry Akervall, and others. It is not uncommon for Finnish names to appear on modern college hockey rosters, but they usually retain Finnish citizenship.

Ski Jumping

The oldest ski jumping tourney in America of continuous existence began in 1887 at Suicide Hill in Ishpeming, Michigan, which is why the Hall of Fame is located there. It was begun and perpetuated by Norwegian and Finnish jumpers, particularly the Bietila brothers. The legendary Bietila family of six brothers of Ishpeming, Michigan, is without parallel in the early history of ski jumping. The sons of Jacob and Mary (née Snell) Bietila became known as the “Flying Finns” and dominated the American jumping scene from the 1930s to the 1960s. The brothers, sons of an immigrant iron miner, were Anselm, Leonard, Walter, Paul, Roy, and Ralph Bietila. Walter competed in the 1936, 1940, and 1948 Olympics and served in 1960 as the coach for the U.S. Olympic team. He was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1965. Ralph, the best ski jumper of the family, won six national titles and was a member of the U.S. Olympic teams in 1948 and 1952. He was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame in 1975. Some other flying Finns over the years were Leo Anderson of Ironwood, Michigan, Rudy Maki and Coy Hill of Ishpeming Michigan, and Willie Erickson of Iron Mountain, Michigan. Walter and Ralph Bietila, Maki, Hill, and Erickson are U.S. Ski Hall of Fame members. Other skiing accomplishments include a Finnish immigrant, Asario Autio, who was the American national cross-country ski champion in 1907, claiming the title in Ashland, Wisconsin. Mary Seaton-Brush of Hancock, Michigan, represented the United States in downhill skiing in the winter Olympics in 1976.

Other notable American sports personalities with Finnish ancestry include Richard “Dick” Enberg and Greg Norman. Enberg, one of the nation’s premier television sportscasters, is the son of Finnish immigrants who migrated to the United States in the early 1900s. A graduate of Central Michigan University in 1957, he also earned a Ph.D. in health science from Indiana University in 1961. Norman’s mother, Toini Hovi, was a Finnish immigrant to Australia who introduced her son to golf in his early teens. Norman, known as the “Great White Shark” because of his light blond hair, joined the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) tour in 1983 and then relocated from Australia to Hobe Sound, Florida. A two-time British Open winner, in 1995 he set a tour season record for highest earnings and received the PGA Tour Player of the Year honor. He has won the Arnold Palmer Award for being leading money winner three times, having earned over $1 million a year worldwide seven times up to 1996.

At least seven Finnish Americans are in national Halls of Fame of skiing and hockey, and over two dozen Finnish Americans have participated in the modern Olympics. For an immigrant folk numbering only one-third of 1% of the American population, Finnish Americans can hold their heads high that sports is one of their favorite pastimes, along with the sauna, Sibelius (music), Saarinen (design), and Suomi College (education). “S” seems to be their favorite consonant. On one hand, Finns in America are like the football team whose coach, when asked to comment on his players, said: “They’re small but they’re slow.” More like the tortoise than the hare in the old story, Finnish Americans may not be as slow as once thought. Small, maybe, but still winners. The 1996 Olympics serve as a case in point. Thanks to Annette Salmeen and Dan O’Brien, their two gold medals were one more than the total earned by Finland.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: John E. Ketonen, Finnish American Horizons (1976); Werner Nikander, Amerikan Suomalaisia (American Finns) (1927); Harri Siitonen, “Sports,” The Finnish American Reporter; Kaarlo P. Silberg, The Athletic Finn (1927); Finnish American Historical Archives, Finnish-American Heritage Center, 601 Quincy St., Suomi College, Hancock, MI; National Ski Hall of Fame, Ishpeming, MI 49849.

Les E. Niemi

Pay Timgren in the article has to be Ray Timgren (Loffe)

Senast uppdaterad 2007-07-06 18:24
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