Main sources: Preben Gorud Petersen, Skøytenytt.
Tradition, glory and failure
The natural conditions for speedskating in Finland are excellent, with long, cold winters and lots of inviting ice surfaces everywhere. Also, the amounts of snow aren’t quite as huge as in western Scandinavia, but without the organisational element of clubs, the activity for a long time was restricted to random amusements in occasional years when frost preceded snow. For a long time, organised skating was available only in the capital Helsingfors, where the conditions in the harbour waters were good in cold weather. But the country was poor and severely suppressed by the Czarist regime. Skates were expensive and it took a while to make the sport a really widespread pastime.
Johan K. Lindstedt was the first participant at an international championship. He entered the Stockholm 1894 world championship without achieving anything remarkable. But in 1896, at the World Championship in St. Petersburg, the two Finnish participants Gustav Estlander and Johan Wink left the home favourites way behind in the long distances and according to modern samalog reckoning were inferior only to the champion Eden. The following years, Estlander established himself as one of the best skaters in the world and travelled to various championships where he finished high up in the standings. Mostly, the German Seyler and the Norwegian Østlund came in his way, but on his home ice at the European Championship 1898, his breakthrough came as he won all 4 distances and the title with a good margin. These first skaters were probably sent by the Helsingfors club or travelled at their own expense. Now, a national skating federation was formed and joined the ISU. Gustav or ‘Gösta’ Estlander was Finland’s first great skater. When his career was over, he took up sailing and participated in the Olympic Games.
Estlander’s home win was a mighty stimulus for the poor grand duchy. Myriads of talents sprung up the next years, and in the early 20th century, Finland was undoubtedly the most powerful speedskating nation in Europe. The Helsingfors club fought club matches against the Norwegian top club and won most of them. Probably, only the USA was ahead in the numbers and quality of skaters at the time.
The successor of Estlander was Franz Fredrik Wathén, who answered well to the expectations with a clear win in the Stockholm world championship 1901. But the championship on home ice next year was disappointing, as no-one fulfilled the requirement of winning 3 distances and no title was awarded. Home favourite Jussi Wiinikainen won the two longest distances and had the best place numbers, but the Norwegian Rudolf Gundersen won the two shortest distances and had the best samalog points. The following years, several championships went by without Finnish participants simply because they couldn’t afford to send any, but at the European championship in Stockholm 1905, boycotted by the Norwegians, the Fins sent a strong team and won the title for John Wikander, as well as all the distance victories. Wikander in 1908 set a world record in the 500m in Davos, the first world record set by a Fin.
The second world championship in Helsingfors in 1906 again was disappointing, without a champion because of the spreading of the distance wins. The Russian Sedov however was the best by any reckoning, winning the long distances in Eden style. The Fins also sent a strong team to the world championship in Trondheim 1907, and Gunnar Strömsten, who won the two longest distances, had the best place numbers along with his teammate Antti Wiklund, who won the 1500 m, but again, no title was awarded.
From 1908, the Norwegian Oscar Mathisen became a prime obstacle for all title aspirations, and the few titles he did give away, strong Russians were there to take over. Both of the 1910 championships were held in Finland, the European championship in Viborg, Wiklund's home town, and the world championship in Helsingfors. But the Finnish achievements level was low this mild winter. Gunnar Strömsten, silver medallist in both championships 1912 was the best Finnish skater in this period, but he disappointed his home audience in the world championship 1913. The number of good Finnish skaters still was good enough to take a few Fin cups home, but the poverty was still crippling. Helsingfors still was the only place with a healthy club activity, and as their opponents skidded along on nice inland rinks, there was only sea ice available in Finland until the early 1930s. The federation sent skaters only to about half of the championships, the ones outside Scandinavia mostly took place without Finnish participants. Even the championships in Norway 1911 (which their Russian overlords were particularly eager to secure) were arranged without Finnish participants.
Wiklund from Viborg was the only skater from outside the thriving club in Helsingfors to make his mark before the First World War. But in the last few championships before the war, a skater from the Pyrintö club in Tammerfors (Tampere) was beginning to show some potential. Arvo Tuomainen was the next great skater from free Finland, winning the Nordic championships 1919 and 1921. When the international championships re-started in 1922, he was overtrained, and never recovered his form. But he laid the foundations for a good environment in the Pyrintö club, which produced several international skaters in the years to come.
Tuomainen's miscalculation could have made the first post-war championship, the European in Helsingfors 1922, another home failure. But it wasn't because the 29 year old Clas Thunberg here made his breakthrough, winning the two shortest distances securely and even took the 5000 m narrowly before the strong Norwegian stayer specialist Ole Olsen. Olsen was even beaten on the 10000 m by Walter Bergström, making the success total for the Fins. This was the start of an niqe career which brought Thunberg 5 world championships, 4 European championships, 3 olympic golds, 4 world records and 31 distance wins in international championships. His last championship, the European one in Davos 1932, he won in the age of nearly 39!
Thunberg was unique, a primeval force, perhaps the most interesting speedskating personality of all time. His childhood was tough. He lost his mother 13 years old, and was not looked after in his teenage years. Many nights were spent in bad company in dark taverns with booze and tobacco, petty thefts, brawls and a language as foul as anything in the world. What would have become of him if he hadn't found out about his talent for skating is difficult to say. Sporting activities hadn't quite acquired the same social prestige as they did later at the time, and hence, it was popular with the gangs of street thugs in the ducal residence. In 1911 he had the stroke of luck to contract a vicious flu and lost his taste for the smoke. And in the olympic year 1912, he began taking skating more seriously, and joined Helsingfors Skridskoklubb, the club of the best Finnish skaters. Here, he encountered Ragnar Stenberg, who was to become a valuable advisor and a kind of manager and accomplished to polish his language and temper somewhat. But Thunberg never followed his advice slavishly and often acted on his own impulses, like in the case of the USA tour in 1926. And in training, he was constantly experimenting.
The early years were difficult. His clubmates were mainly Sueco-Finns who didn't care too much about fraternising with the natives, even those that were polite, respectful citizens themselves. They didn't exactly exert themselves to make him feel welcome. When a new club, Sparta, was formed just after the outbreak of war, he decided to switch clubs. And the federation as well left him out when he was ready for his first internationals. Then, he lost the 1917 season because he was arrested by the Russians. The start of the 1918 season was promising, but then the liberty war broke out, and in 1919, he was suspended by the federation for pawning some silverware. Neither was this to be the end of his conflicts with the federation. Enough frustrations to baffle a handful of hardy men, but not him. And the 1920s became his. When Tuomainen fell ill before the 1920 national championship, he won it, along with a silver medal in the Nordic championship. I 1921 he came to Norway for the first time, and beat the 1000 m world record in a non-sanctioned race.
The new age of liberty was a golden age for the new king of speedskating, and for his compatriots on the thousand ices in the young republic, a bright future ought to be around the corner. They had been dominant, if not always in the top level, then at least through the depth of their talent, no other country in Europe had so many good skaters as they. But with the freedom and the row of Thunberg golds, it seemed as if the strength was failing them. They hadn't had a supreme leader since Estlander, they always had a bunch of championship candidates. Now, the leader was there, but he seemed unbeatable, he guarded his victories jealously, noone stood a chance against him. And the country still was poor, they didn't have such racing and training facilities as the Norwegians, and neither the same opportunities for illicit income as they. The Finnish amateur regime was strict, and there wasn't that much money to share anyway. Also, Clas Thunberg deviated somewhat from the sporting ideal of the time, the humble amateur, devoted to his country and his teammates, the champion of elegance and fair play. He was popular like noone else, but no ideal. The fathers didn't drag their young to the rinks so they could be like him.
In 1923, Thunberg and the world champion Strøm switched roles, and the second Finnish world championship was secured in Stockholm. The olympic games 1924 was a major success, with Thunberg winning two gold medals and the 10k gold going to Julius Skutnabb, another pre-war veteran. But the first defense of the olympic triumphs at the Europen championship in Kristiania was a failure, although Thunberg won the 1500 m, for Roald Larsen comfortably won overall. Then came the world championship in Helsingfors. Thunberg found himself 2 place numbers after Larsen already at the first day. He didn't feel well, and pulled out. It was not a very popular decision. The speakers were reluctant to announce it, and the reactions on the stands strengthened a pattern that was to haunt the Finns in years to come, the failure to satisfy the home audience. The remaining olympic winner Skutnabb had to endure being beaten by a junior in his golden distance, the then totally unknown Ivar Ballangrud. The saviour was to be another young wonder from Tuomainen's club, Uno Pietilä, who won the 10000 m and came second overall, but Larsen's victory margin again was huge.
Next year, Pietilä again won the 10000 m and an overall silver behind Thunberg in the first Bislett world championship, but created another pattern that was to become a curse for Finnish skating - the talents who came, saw, and went away. The level of international skating had become tougher, more training was required as well as more resources, and those were not plentiful. Facilities were badly needed too, the skaters knew they were behind from the start, and came to doubt if the hard work they had to do to catch up with the best was worth the while after all. Their chances of getting any rewards were small with Thunberg still around, as well as all those Norwegian that seemed now to pop up like mushrooms in the rain. But a third and more cheerful pattern was started at the same time, Finnish success at Bislett, it was not to be the last.
In 1926, Thunberg actually wasn't around. He had been invited to a tour of the USA, hoping to repeat the fabulous success of Nurmi the year before. But Stenberg warned him. In America, the racing was different and fair play unknown. He suffered a series of sour defeats. At last, he managed to beat the olympic winner Jewtraw in a race, and after setting a series of world records in yards and miles, he was content and went home. Skutnabb won the European championship in Chamonix that year against weak opposition. Before the next season, Thunberg had his preparations ruined by a flu in the pre-season training period, and both championships went to the new Norwegian Evensen. Thunberg was the only Fin to stand his ground in Pietilä's home town Tammerfors, the Norwegians were attacking on a broad front.
He wasn't so young anymore and thought about retiring, but next season there was another olympic games, and the thoughts soon evaporated. Two new championships resulted, and two more olympic golds. This was the beginning of the second golden age for Thunberg. Ballangrud managed to nick the European championship 1929 from him in Davos through a superhuman 5000 m, but the 4th world championship was Thunberg's at Frogner. At the European championship, he set his first official world record in the 500 m with 42.8, only 5 days after the oldtimer Mathisen's sensational 43.0 race. But the 1500 m was still intact, Mathisen's last record, and early next season Thunberg went to Switzerland to snatch it while he still had the legs, he held the distance to be his own. It didn't work out, but he set another 1000 m time, 1.28.4, a record for the next 25 years. He planned going to the world championship, but some grumblings in the papers made him change his mind. In 1931, he was stronger than ever, he was invincible in the championships, and this time, he was accompanied by his clubmate Ossi Blomqvist from the new "Racer" club, formed to cater more for the interests of the skaters than before. Blomqvist won all the long distances and came 2nd in the European championship, but on home ice at the worlds, he fell in the 1500 m and only finished 7th. In St. Moritz, Thunberg set another 500 m record in 42.6, and the 1500 had some narrow escapes in the late season, first in Trondheim, where he skated 2.18.1, a race worth 2.15-16 in Davos, and then in Oslo, where they had decided to skate a mile instead, which he won in world record time 2.29.6 (passing the 1500 in 2.18.8), and the day after in even better conditions, they arranged an unapproved 1000 m, which he won in 1.27.4, probably worth 2.16 in the 1500 m.
The next olympic season was a letdown. Thunberg secured an easy European championship in the absence of the Norwegians, but stayed home from the mass start races in the USA. Blomqvist did go, but already, his form was failing, and in the world championship, he was anonymous. The following seasons brought signs of dissolution. Thunberg was ending his career. In the Trondheim world championship 1933, he was best Fin in 6th place despite winning the 1500 m in old grand style, the last of his 31 distance wins in championships, and Finnish skaters came home from a championship without overall medals for the first time since 1913.
Clearly, a successor had to be found, and quickly, a skating talent who would be willing to sacrifice blood, sweat and personal wealth to defend the glory of the fatherland. The one they found was Birger Wasenius from the traditional Skridskoklubben, the grandson(?) of the old enthusiast, fire officer Gösta Wasenius. At the world championship in the new Helsinki stadium 1934, he had his chance, but lost it through a tactically weak 1500 m and had to settle for silver. Next year, he fought well for the European championship on home ice in Helsinki and won the bronze, but the Oslo worlds, where Thunberg bid his farewell, was a disappointment. In the olympic season, the Fins stayed home from the European championship, but at the worlds in Davos, Wasenius again came second, behind the invincible Ballangrud, and won the 10000 m. Blomqvist now had returned, and skated well both in the world championship and the olympics, where Wasenius won both long distance silvers, not far behind Ballangrud, and a bronze in the 1500. But more pleasantly surprising was the bronze medal in the 5000 m from the totally unknown Antero Ojala, who finished 12th in the world championship. These three took a good proportion of the olympic points between them, and it seemed as if a new, strong Finnish team was growing up, but it was not to be. Skating didn't pay back enough at home to defend the training efforts, and transient olympic peaking was to become characteristic for the Fins in the years to come.
The Finnish women were quick to take up skating when the authorities lifted their restrictions, and Liisa Salmi from Tampere and Verné Lesche from Helsinki both were among the first to set ISU-sanctioned records.
Ojala did continue his promising run for another year and finished 5th in the 1937 world championship, but then top skating was over for him as well. This was a good season for Wasenius, who finished 3rd in the European and 2nd in the world championship, but still the title eluded him. The following year, he was not in shape and only finished 6th at best in the Davos worlds. Here, young Lassi Parkkinen showed promise with his 9th place. But in the Europeans, Wasenius was top Fin with a 9th place, the poorest championship for Finland ever. For the following year, they were awarded the world championship to be arranged in Helsinki. Besides, the olympic games were coming up, and the frightening decline of the last season elicited another bout of concerted effort to rise from the ashes. As a team, they did well at the European championship in Riga, but again, they finished without overall medals. However, at the world championship in the rainy capital, facing a bunch of Norwegian fresh from a record-smashing tour in Switzerland, Wasenius secured the championship through a superb 1500 m, Thunberg's old weapon, the distance by which he lost it in 1934. Åke Ekman followed up with a good 5th overall, and things looked nice again. And to top it all off, Verné Lesche one week later won her first world title in Tampere. But bad luck struck again. The war broke out, the Russians were knocking on the door, and instead of fighting for olympic medals, the world champion was sent home from the battlefield in a casket.
Parkkinen now was fitted out to become the successor of Wasenius, and reached a high level, although international competitions were missing, and especially after 1940, when the Norwegians went to strike, both he and Lesche were among the 2-3 best skaters in the world in their gender, probably the very best some of the years. Parkkinen was inconspicuous in the first post-war season, and neither did he achieve much at the 1947 European championship, the first after the war. An 8th and a 10th place overall was Finland's reaping there, and things looked sad. But Parkkinen didn't go to Oslo to defend Wasenius' championship without serious intents, and encouraged by Verné Lesche, who defended her championship easily in Drammen, he delivered a strong and level series and defeated the new sprinter locomotive of the Norwegians, Sverre Farstad, by the 22.3 seconds he needed in the last distance.
With all these laurels, things looked really rose before the first post-war olympic season, and as usual, preparations for the olympic season were special. Even Antero Ojala returned, though not as strongly as last time. But Pentti Lammio was a promising talent, who won a surprising bronze medal in the 10000 m with a good time when several of the favourites had problems with the thin air and the Foehn. Parkkinen didn't start the olympic games well, but then gained a 4th place in the 1500 m, and the silver in the 10000. A fairly good finale, but then, they had to defend the medals. The Fins sent a B-team to the European championship in Hamar, they concentrated on defending the world championships, both being arranged on home ice. The women's championship was first, in the same weekend as the European men met in Hamar. This championship was not so easy to defend, because now, the Russians were coming, and they had acquired a famous reputation after some stunning exhibitions in the post-war years. But now, Lesche was meeting opposition from the home skaters as well in the form of Eevi Huttunen from Kokkola, a good force in the long distances, who won the Finnish championship, the first one ever to be lost by Lesche. Turku was the battlefield that awaited the old enemy who had draied so much Finnish blood in the recent war. The Finnish strength in the long distance showed, they won double in the 5000 m. But overall, Maria Isakova was too strong. Lesche seemed to take the silver position easily, but was robbed of it by a fall in the 1000 m, the Russians took all the medals, and even the Norwegian Thorvalden beat both Fins. At the men's championship in Helsinki 2 weeks later, further disappointments followed. It started so well. To the games, the Fins didn't send any good sprinters, but now, Mauri Suomalainen, who stayed home then, won the bronze in the 500 m behind the Russian Kudriatsev and the American Werket. However, now, Parkkinen had lost his olympic form. Lammio came 5th in the 10000 m, but his short distances were terrible. Overall, Kalevi Laitinen was best, but only with a 9.-place, and the two others ended 10th and 12th of the 12 finalists. The worst world championship for the Fins ever. They were reduced to mutes before their home audience.
From this relapse, they never recovered. The nation still was poor, the Soviet war compensations still weighed heavily. Next season, Lammio and Suomalainen again was gone from the top level. No Fins were sent to the European championship in Davos, and in the worlds in Oslo, Laitinen again was their best with a 9th place, but this time as sole Fin in the 10000 m, and not the slightest chance of a medal in the distances for the first time. A worst ever world championship again. In Kongsberg, Verné Lesche finished her career by beating Schou-Nilsen's world record in the 5000 m with 9.26.8, just 3 10ths ahead of the new Russian Rimma Zjukova. But the Russians had improved considerably since the year before, particularly in the short distances, and she had no chance for an overall medal. Lesche found love in Kongsberg, and trusted the abilities of her heir Huttunen to defend the Finnish traditions. In 1950, the European championship was arranged in Helsinki, and here, Parkkined returned in peak to claim a silver in the 500 m and a 5th place overall despite a hopeless 10000 m, where he was the only Fin to qualify. But the world championship in Eskilstuna yet again was the worst ever, with a 10th place for Laitinen as the best and only final achievement. And even Huttunen failed to reward Lesche's trust in her at the women's championship in Moscow. Finnish skating seemed to be dying. In 1951, a 9th place by Laitinen, the most faithful Fin in this period, was the only achievement, and no Fin was sent to the worlds in Davos. However, the Russians for some reason stayed home from the women's championship in Eskilstuna, and Eevi Huttunen, now back in good form, took the championship home after three strong races in the longest distances.
Before the new olympic season, some resources for preparations were made available again. Parkkinen trained well and Lammio and even Ojala started preparing again. Parkkinen finished 4th at the Östersund European championship, winning the 500 m, Lammio joining him and 9th overall, with a 5th place in the 10000 m. But the preparations proved insufficient, the slump of the preceding years had been too deep. Parkkinen's 6th place in the 1500 was the best achievement when Lammio in the 8th pair of the 10000 m finished in second best time behind the famous Andersen after a tremendous race taking out his absolute all and more like a true Fin. But in the next pair, both Broekman and Asplund went past him, and the Fins were without medals for the first time, except 1932. The teenager Toivo Salonen from Pieksämäki showed some promise in the sprint with his 8th place in the 500 m. But Pentti Lammio finished his season directly after the games, and to the worlds in Hamar, only Parkkinen and Ojala was sent. Here, Parkkinen made one of his best championships with a silver in the 5000 m and a bronze in the 10000 and an undisputed silver overall. In the same weekend, Huttunen achieved 5th place overall in the women's championship in her home town Kokkola after winning a bronze in the 3000 m and meeting Zhukova in the 5000 m just like Lesche in Kongsberg, fighting an exciting close battle with her just like Lesche had done, but failing to win with just a few tenths of a second.
The 1953 season turned out much like 1948. Salonen held his promise and won the 500 m in the European championship at Hamar, but Parkkinen stayed home to prepare for the worlds in Helsinki, and thus, again, no Fins completed the programme. The home world championship was no more successful than the 1948 version, a 12th and last place was all Parkkinen achieved. The Russian men, now themselves much feared after their Medeo records, were back to stay now, but Salonen again won the 500 m with a margin. In the women's championship in Lillehammer, the ice conditions were unusually good, and Eevi Huttunen set a lowland world record on the 5000 m in 9.06.1, only 4 and a half seconds behind the world Zhukova's Medeo record. Parkkinen quit after the world championship, and Salonen had to specialize in allround to take over as Finnish hope. He was the only Finnish participant in the world championship in Sapporo, Japan, early in the 1954 season, finishing 11th with a 4th place in the 500 m. The European championship took place in Davos, and this time, the Fins sent a full team, now strengthened with Juhani Järvinen, who had skated well in the races arranged by the workers' federation. Järvinen displayed an impressive consistency and ended 5th, only 0.175 points behind the bronze winner Ericsson. Salonen won the silver in the 500 m behind the new Russian sprinter phenomenon Grishin. At the women's world championship in Östersund, Huttunen again won the 5000 m, and missed the overall bronze this time by only 0.107 points. Maybe Finnish skating wasn't quite dead after all.
However, the 1955 results didn't bode so well for the future. In the Falun European championship, Järvinen was absent. Salonen won a silver in the 500 m, but then vanished. In the world championship in Moscow, Järvinen was present, but skating like a tourist. Salonen won the 500 m here, even ahead of Grishin, but was nowhere near a place in the 10000, which was held without Fins for the first time in the world championship. In the women's championship in Kuopio, Huttunen again finished 4th, but this time lost the 5000 m, again to Zhukova. The Russians now had grown fed up with losing medals in the long distances, and had the women's programme changed to include the 1500 m instead of the 5000 for next season. Huttunen did not like this, and failed to enter the next world championship, where Iiris Sihvonen took a fine 6th place as the best non-Russian. The continuing failure to include the women's skating in the olympic games also was annoying. It had been planned originally to include it in the cancelled 1940 games. In Cortina 1956, the Russians proved as dominant as expected. The games were not particularly successful for the Fins, especially in the longer distances, but the 1500, Thunberg's old property, was a highlight, as Salonen achieved the sensational time 2.09.4 in the 1st pair and Järvinen followed up with 2.09.7 in the ninth, only to by beaten by the joint winners Grishin and Mikhailov in the 11th and 12th pair. But at least, they didn't have to go home without medals this time. At the Bislett world championship, the results were appalling, for the second time, no Fins appeared in the 10000 m, despite the increase of the participation to 16, and Salonen's shared bronze in the 500 m was the only prize. For the upcoming European championship on home ice in Helsinki, this wasn't the best concievable rehearsal, but after all, the 6th and 8th places overall for Järvinen and Salonen and the bronzes for the latter in both the 500 and the 1500 m was something.
For 1957, Huttunen had returned, and at the home world championship in Imatra, she won the 3000 m, while Sihvonen won a silver in the 1000 m, just missing it in the 500, and again was 6th overall as the best non-Russian. Among the men, there was no improvement. Järvinen was the only one to achieve anything overall with a 12th and an 11th place in the championships, and Salonen's 500 m in the worlds the only medal race, but with his two 4th places just behind the medal trio, Järvinen proved that he was still one of the best 1500 m skaters in the world. In 1958, the world championship was to be arranged on home ice in Helsinki again. The olympic season was approaching again and some money became available for preparation. In the European championship, Salonen and Järvinen won the silver and bronze in the 1500 m and ahowed clearly where the best olympic hopes lay. Salonen finished 6th. Järvinen skated 2 good races, but lost a decent position through a bad 500 m and a terrible 10000 m. Toivo and Juhani were a popular duo, and the olympic stadion was filled well during the championship on Feb. 15-16. Salonen won the silver in the 500 m in 44.3, only 1/10 behind the winner Merkulov, but the rest of the championship was a failure for him and he finished 10th. Järvinen did an excellent 1500, way ahead of the rest except Goncharenko, who won the championship, but he was too far behind in the other distances and finished 8th, not exactly fulfilling the expectations of the public. The two other Finnish participants achieved nothing remarkable. As for the women, Huttunen again was absent, and this time, Sihvonen didn't respond to the challenge. Her 11th place made the world championship the worst ever for the Finnish women.
The 1959 season started promising with a double country-match arranged by Norway, who split their skaters in two teams against Finland and the Netherlands on Bislett. Järvinen crushed Roald Aas in the 1500 m and had the best points overall in the small combination with Salonen in third place. And although the bronze winner in the Finnish championship, Jorma Sinkkonen, was unable to skate the second day, the Fins won the country-match in 88 points while the Norwegians only scored 56. The first Finnish victory over Norway in a regular country-match. The Norwegian, ignorant of the Finnish improvements, did select their strongest team against the Dutchmen. But if the two countries had met with all their best skaters in place, it's hard to tell the outcome this season.
It continued the following week at the European championship in Gothenburg. Here, Salonen won the 500 and Järvinen the 1500 m, and Järvinen was so far ahead of Knut Johannesen after 3 distances that Kuppern needed a superhuman 10000 m to secure the championship. But with silver and bronze overall, the mighty Fins were more buoyant than they had ever been since World War II.
It was time for another world championship in the Finnish lucky arena Bislett. They went through their 500 meters in good order, but didn't win any medals, as curiously many specialists were assembled here in the pre-olympic season. In the 5000 m, Salonen failed, but the home favourite Johannesen was unsuccessful as well, and Järvinen skated a strong, level race in 8.13.6, only 1.4 seconds behind him. He won the bronze in the 5000 m and held the lead overall after 1st day. In the 1500 m, Järvinen first beat Merkulov in an exciting battle. Then, Salonen, helped by the sprinter Gjestvang, started well off and won the distance in 2.15.8, regaining much of his loss in the 5000 m. Two Fins first in a distance for the first time since 1939, and overall, the situation was the same before the 10000 m. Salonen skated well in the first pair. Merkulov, now considered the biggest threat, only needed to beat him by 3,5 seconds, but ended a tenth of a second behind. In the 5th pair, Järvinen made another strong, level race, put the title holder Goncharenko a 100 meter behind him and took over the overall lead with a good margin. Johannesen now was the only one who could beat him, but had his hands full with his pairmate Pesman, and in the end, both gold and silver was Finnish for the first time since the first Bislett championship 1925! The junior Tapiovaara completed a happy weekend with a good 5000 m and a 14th place overall. Järvinen finished off his golden season with a historical world record in the 1500 m in the olympic tests in Squaw Valley: 2.06.3. In the same weekend, Eevi Huttunen again won the 3000 m in the women's championship in Sverdlovsk and finished 5th overall with Sihvonen, bronze winner in the 500 m, in 7th, both beating all the non-Soviets. The Suomi skaters were back on top again at last.
Another olympic season loomed ahead; the preparations were intense. Too intense, it seems, because when the season started, it was clear that Järvinen was overtrained. At the rainy European championship in Bislett, he was totally behind himself and failed to qualify for the final distance. Neither was Salonen as good as before, and only finished 5th overall, with a 500 m bronze as his only honours. But Keijo Tapiovaara broke through, winning the 5000 m silver and finished 8th overall. At the women's championship om Östersund, Huttunen only won the bronze in the 3000 m, far behind the winner. The strange world championship in Davos was catastrophic for Finland, none of their team qualified for the 10000 m, and no distance medals. The olympics went a little better, but not enough. In the two first distances, unhappy 7th places were their best, through Salonen and Tapiovaara. In the Finnish specialty, the 1500 m, they won the 4th, 5th and 7th places, with Jouko Jokinen surprisingly ahead of the rest from an early pair with less wind. Huttunen saved the games for the Finnish skaters with her second 3000 m bronze. But next year, dissolution set in. Järvinen returned to workers' sport. Huttunen stopped skating and Sihvonen just about joined her. At the European championship in Helsinki, the public failed to turn up for the first time in a championship. No Fins reached the 10000 m, and Jokinen's 500 m 5th place was the best in the distances. Next year, Tapiovaara skated well, reaching 10 overall in the European and 12th in the world championship. And new hope was kindled in the women's class when Kaija Mustonen qualified for the final distance. Before the 1963 season, Järvinen was back, but far from his old form. Tapiovaara was declining as well. But Jouko Launonen, who made his debut in the sad European championship 1961, showed good promise in the European championship with a level series and 11th place overall. He was the one who was selected to be the new successor, to sacrifice blood, sweat and money to defend the glory of the fatherland.
The olympic season 1964 did not start promisingly. No Fins in the final distance in the Bislett European championship and modest distance achievements. And the olympic games were terrible for the men, with the 4th place of Launonen in the Finnish distance 1500 m as the only top 6 achievement. But Kaija Mustonen broke through here with a silver in the 1500 m and a bronze in the 1000. In the Kristinehamn world championship, she was 4th overall with a 1500 m bronze. Then followed the world championship for men in Helsinki. But now, the patience of the public had ended, and only scattered flocks found their way to the olympic stadium, which greeted the two Finnish skaters with cold, empty stands. Launonen failed here and was unplaced overall, but Järvinen just salvaged a 10000 m place and managed a 9th place overall. Finnish skating had lost its audience. Was it ever going to rise again after this fall?
Did Finnish skating die that weekend? Well, possibly as a outdoor public sport. TV had arrived, and many followed the broadcasts, but the people who used to flock to the championships instead continued partying at the hockey rinks which these days were becoming an increasingly popular venue. Helsinki 1964 was a hard blow for the Finnish skating people. But they didn't want to give up without a fight, at least not all of them. The world championship meant brutal economic loss, but still, resources were more available than in the struggling post-war years, and they still had their skill and work capacity. And a couple of skaters who were willing to train. The 1965 season did not start well. The European championship was the worst ever. Launonen fell in the 500 m and failed to reach the 10000 m. No top 10 places in the distances. But Launonen rose after his defeat. He knew that he could do better. The world championship was coming up at Bislett, the Finnish lucky arena. He had decided. He was going to be the world champion! The first two distances went well, and he was 2nd overall after Antson, who had shown far inferior long distance form. He passed him by after a terrific 1500 m race with Ard Schenk. The Norwegian Moe won the distance and they were to meet in the 10000 m, but everyone knew that the Norwegians didn't win world championships in Bislett. As usual, he skated aggressively from the start, his advantage was small, and there was no reason to let the Norwegian control the pace. But Moe was famous for his rapid pace changes, and his form was excellent this Sunday. When he attacked half way, Launonen could not respond. But still, he won the silver, neither Nilsson in the 3rd nor Antson and Schenk in the 4th pair caught up with him, even if all were pretty close, particularly Schenk. The speedskating world breathed a sigh of relief. Finland was back. Launonen swore that this was not going to be the last Finnish overall medal in an allround championship. He may still be right. But still, 36 years afterwards, we don't know. In the women's world championship on home ice in Oulu, Mustonen did not impress like last season, but qualified for the 3000 m and was joined there by Kaija-Liisa Keskivitikka, who could have achieved well overall without her 1000 m fall.
The ensuing years brought a series of commendable achievements from Launonen and Mustonen. He was seventh in the European championship 1966, but failed to place in the worlds. She was 5th in her championship, with 4th places in both the longer distances. Encouraged by Launonen's silver in '65, the federation decided to apply for the European championship 1967. But they didn't dare to hold it in the big olympic stadium, the only rink of international standards in the capital. In Lahti, they were hoping to stage the olympics, and they had a rink of good standards and good traditions for outdoor spectatorship, so the championship was held there. But it was ruined by a cold wave; the Lahti championship was remembered with horror by those who were there, and the propaganda effects for Finnish speedskating and for the Lahti olympic ambitions were rather negative. The spectators were even fewer than in '64, only a few hundred, and the majority foreigners. In terms of achievements, it went just as bad, with no Fins in the final distance again, although Rauli Helen was close. Launonen compensated a little with his 8th place in the Bislett world championship, while Mustonen did the same in her championship, winning bronze medals in both the longer distances. For the third time, Keskivitikka joined her to the 3000 m. After all, Finland still was one of the bigger skating nations; they featured in all the 5-country matches from 1966 on, and they produced talents to set up reasonably competitive teams.
The home world championship in the olympic year was fairly successful with a 5th place and a bronze medal in the 3000 m for Kaija Mustonen, who was joined in the overall standings both by Keskivitikka and Arja Kantola. In Grenoble, Mustonen started well with a 6th place tie in the 500 m. Then in the 1500, the world champion Stien Kaiser only barely beat the Norwegian Sundby's time in the 5th pair, and in the next, Mustonen managed to beat hers with more than 2 seconds. Two pairs later, Geijssen was close, but the Russians were nowhere near, and in the end, the blue-white flag flew to the top of the pole! Mustonen also had the best inofficial overall points of all, and won a silver in the 3000 m. The Finnish leaders swore that this would not be the last olympic medal, and 32 years later, they may still be right. On the men's side, the teenager Kimmo Koskinen was a great promise. In the European championship, he blossomed, and for the first time since 1960, more than one Finnish man was ranked overall in a championship. The achievements were moderate, but Koskinen's 8th place in the Finnish specialty, the 1500 m, gave some hope. The hopes were not fulfilled in the olympic games. Koskinen wasted himself in the 5000 m, where the level had risen frighteningly high, Launonen was below par, and Seppo Hänninens's 8th place in the 500 m was the highest Finnish position. For the first time, the men went home from the games without olympic points. A disappointed team performed poorly in the Gothenburg world championship, Koskinen being the only ranked skater at 16th and last place.
Next year, Mustonen and Launonen had quit, and Koskinen was to be the new successor, who would sacrifice blood, sweat and money to defend the honour of the fatherland. But he ended up with a series of 11th and 9th places and thereabouts. Good enough to secore his teammates three-men quotas, but not good enough to create any goodwill for skating among the public. In 1971, Koskinen was out of shape, and Raimo Hietala took over his successor role and secured a 14th place in the European and a 12th in the world championship. With the olympic season coming up, Koskinen specialized for the 1500 m. However, neither in the European championship nor in the games, he fulfilled his potential. But in the Bislett world championship, he delivered a good race and came 5th, only half a second behind Verheyen's bronze time. The women struggled to reach the final distance in the championships. A series of talents had turned up in Mustonen's wake, Arja Kantola, Tarja Rinne, Anneli Repola and others, but they didn't have the resources nor the incentive to develop, and after being the best Nordic nation in terms of women's skating, they were now surpassed by Norway. Tuula Vilkas was the one who carried the burden in these years, with 9th places in the Helsinki world championship 1971 and the Inzell European championship 1972 as her best, and reasonable marks in the longest distance. She stayed on till 1976, and was a prominent force in the Nordic country-matches for women which were arranged regularly from 1966, and was won by Finland in 1967, 1972 and 1974.
Then, in 1970, the international sprint championships started. The 4th place of Hänninen in the 500 of the allround championship at Bislett implied that he had his chances there, but he ruined them with a bad fall in the first distance. Next year, things went better. The 12th place was within the quota-increasing limit, and both he and his teammate Leo Linkovesi skated good 500 meters. For the olympic season, they prepared intensely, and when they started thinning out in the end of January, they achieved astonishing times in Davos. Linkovesi set a new world record in the 500 m in 38.0 - being the first of a series of people to skate this time, and he also set a record in the newly introduced sprint combination: 155.800. He swore that it would not be the last Finnish world record, and yet, 28 years later, he may still be right. Japan and the olympic games was next stop. Their form was peaking well, the coaches knew their stuff; either of them could win a medal. But they had Gösta Estlander, Arvo Tuomainen and Clas Thunberg sitting on their backs and they proved too heavy for them. Their 5th and 6th places were the only Finnish Top six positions from these games. However, in the first official sprint world championship in Eskilstuna at the end of February, the weight was gone. Erhard Keller, the top favourite, was unfortunately absent. But the rest of the world's best sprinters were there, and none of them could match Linkovesi in the 500 m. On the Sunday, he was 68/100 ahead of the number two, Muratov. His slight problem in the 1000 meters didn't matter then. He brought the laurels home. Hänninen finished 12th overall and 4th in the second 500 m, and everyone swore that these were not to be the last Finnish laurels in an international championship.
Now, this was something to build a sweet sprinting future upon. But unfortunately, one of Jouko Launonen's hardest rivals, Jonny Nilsson, at this point had a fateful idea. He was going to create a professional league in speedskating, and used pictures from packed Bislett stands to catch the eye of some American moneybags. Linkovesi and Hänninen joined this brief adventure, and achieved well in the championships (silver in the world 73 and bronze in the European 74 championships for Linkovesi). Thus, they made some income in a lawful way, but were hardly seen at home, and public interest fell to an all-time low. The same thing happened to the achievements is the amateur championships. The men didn't achieve anything at all, but on the women's side, Vilkas finished 10th in the European championship 1974, and a new talent, Paula Halonen came as high as 6th place in the world championship 1975. The same year, a team was sent to the junior world championships for the first time, and the results here gave some hope with as many as three of the skaters, Pirjo Hyvärinen, Matti Liimatainen and Pertti Niittylä making the overall ranking. Before the olympic season, a totally unknown skater, Olavi Köppä, agreed to act as successor, to sacrifice blood, sweat and money to defend the honour of the fatherland. He salvaged a 15th place in the European championship, the first ranked Finnish male skater since 1972, and didn't do too bad in the olympics, but the 8th places from the junior Niittylä in the 1000 m and Paula Halonen in the 500 was the best rankings, and for the first time, there were no top 6 places. Had Finnish skating finally died now? Well, some twitches could be observed. Niittylä finished 6th in the junior championship, and Halonen 5th in the women's world championship in Gjøvik, with a bronze in the 500 m, and 4th in the sprint world championship in West Berlin.
Next year, Halonen won a silver in the 500 m and finished 12th overall, but her achievement level was sinking. At the Helsinki world championship 1978, neither she nor Tarja Rinne made the overall ranking. Köppä finished 14th in the European championship 1977, but then disappeared from skating. The federation' economy worsened, and they stopped sending skaters to championships involving extensive travel again. Still, there were people who had the willingness to sacrifice blood, sweat and money, and there were coaches who knew more about skating than almost anybody. They had a chat with Pertti Niittylä, who agreed to become the new successor, and a bunch of new sprinting talents appeared in the wake of Linkovesi. They had an excellent technique and began displaying some good results. Nittylä's results in the European championship 1979, finishing 8th in both the shortest distances, were promising. But he failed to hit his peak right in the following olympic season. His two 14th places in Lake Placid were the best the Fins could muster, an all time olympic low. Then, in the world championship in Heerenveen after the games, he suddenly was 4th overall after 3 distances - but then he missed a changeover in the 10000 m and got disqualified.
Now, it looked like the new Finnish sprinters were heading for a golden age. To the sprint world championship 1981, they had a quota of only 1, since they couldn't afford to send any to the championship in West Allis in the olympic season. But Jukka Salmela did well and finished 12th overall with good 500 meters. Like the other new sprinters, Nittylä, Jukka Ala-Louko, Esa Puolakka, Jouko Vesterlund and Urpo Pikkopeura, he had an excellent technical schooling, admirably suited for the super-fast ice in Alma Ata, where he was the first to skate the 500 m below 37 in 36.8 in a non-approved race. There was hope. The first artificial rink, Oulunkylä, was opened in the outskirts of the capital, and they participated in Nordic sprint country-matches with good merits. Sprint was speed and excitement, and it was hoped that a focus on sprint would win a new, young audience for skating. An application for the sprint world championship 1983 was delivered and approved by the ISU. But a faction in the federation still contended that allround was the only real speedskating, and refused to relinquish their fair share of the sparse economic resources. The women also had to have theirs, and headed by Aila Tartia, they managed to qualify for a full team of 4 in the European championship 1982. The sprinters were not as lucky. In Alkmaar 1982, Ala-Louko fell and Salmela was disqualified. Thus, only one home sprinter was allowed to participate in the home championship next year. Vesterlund did his job reasonably well, with a 9th place overall and a 5th in one 500 m. But the hoped-for party atmosphere was missing.
The olympic season did not bring any more progress for the Finnish sprinters. Their rankings in the international meets were modest, although they managed to increase their world championship qouta to 3. But Niittylä had trained for the allround distances, and impressed in the European championship, skating some strong 5000 and 1500 meters. He could have ended higher up than 10th overall if he had skated the 10000 m to his full strength. But thinking about the olympics, he just skidded through the distance. In Sarayevo, he finished 6th in the 5000 m, the first Finnish top 6 since 1972. And in the world championship, he also finished 10th, with a 5th place in the 1500 m. After the olympic season and the hopes that were thwarted in the 1983 championship, the Finnish sprinting team was thinned out severely. But Niittyla continued on a good level in allround. He had enough quality for the public to notice and appreciate him in the championships, and he became one of the more popular skaters internationally. However, this had no appreciable effect at home. He completed the full programme in every allround championship from 1984 to 1987, and his best effort was the 7th place in the European championship at Bislett 1986. Here, at the last championship on this Finnish arena of luck, he also won the bronze medal in the 10000 m. No way this were going to be the last Finnish distance medal in a championship, the Finnish leaders thought. Now, 15 years later, we can say that they still may be right. Aila Tartia was the successor in the women's class. Her level was slightly lower, but she achieved a fine bunch of 14th and 15th places at least. Jouko Vesterlund finished 7th in the 500 m at the sprint world championship 1987, but no Finnish sprinters managed to satisfy the rather tough demands for the olympic games in Calgary 1988, and this put an end to the Finnish efforts to build a sprinting team. Niittylä came through, but had lost his good form and only managed a 16th place in the 5000 m as his best. So again, a worst ever olympic games for Finland.
The Pertti Nittylä-era was over after the olympic games. But now, a series of new allround talents were ready to take over. Perhaps the most promising was Timo Järvinen, the son of the former world champion. But Ari Leppänen and Mikko Mäkinen showed good promise as well. Which one would be the new successor? Leppänen (with some luck) came to the finals in the world championship 1988 (just like a young Norwegian in the same situation, J.O. Koss). Järvinen achieved the same in the European championship 1989, and Mäkinen was close in the world championship 1989. Now, new ideas were gaining hold in Finnish skating. All the technical perfectionists of the golden age were getting old, and their successors were gazing interestedly at the success of the young speedskating nation East Germany. Everyone seemed to agree that their achievements were the results of doping, and that their technique was hopeless and primitive. But some Finnish trainers tried to copy them, and in Outi Ylä-Sulkava, they breeded a talent who did well in the junior championships with a very typical East German style. In the senior level, the experiments were less fruitful. 1990 was yet again the worst season ever, and the following ones were not much more encouraging. Harri Ilkka appeared as a promising sprinter with a 5th place in the junior world championship, but vanished fast as a senior. In the olympic games 1992, Järvinen's 21th place in the 10000 m was the best Finnish result, once again an all time low. The federation had no longer any means nor ambitions to pick and train a successor who would sacrify blood, sweat and money to defend the honour of the fatherland. Was Finland finally annihilated as a speedskating nation?
Järvinen's son had settled for 23rd-25th places in the championships. But he was not the only one to have a son. Seppo Hänninen also had one, called Janne. At 17, he copied Ilkka's 5th place in the junior world championship 1993. Was he destined to vanish into the vast void, like the other Finnish talents? At the senior level, it was hopeless, not a single skater was sent to the olympic games 1994, an all time unbeatable low. But Hänninen crawled up another step to 4th in his next junior championship, and on home ice in Seinäjoki 1995, he won the bronze in the distance, and both he and Vesa Rosendahl qualified for the 5000 m. In the 1990s, social trends made it easier to draw new recruits to traditional and urban sports like speedskating, and the surviving enthousiasts managed to whip up more new talent than they had done for decades. In the olympic season 1998, Finland was awarded the European championship to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the federation. Hard work by key people lead to good progress on all fronts. The results in the championships were below par, but still, it was a success in many ways, a thoroughly well-organised event and with more tickets sold than in any championship on Finnish ice since 1961, although only a very small minority of the spectators were local. Janne Hänninen, now living in Calgary, coached by the local trainers, was the only Finnish participant in the olympic games, and with an 18th place in the 500 m as his best result, but he finished 15th in the sprint world championship and 10th on the 500 m in the single distance championship in Calgary. He established himself as group A skater in the world cup. Progress continued in the 1999 season with an 8th place in the sprint world championship and several 4th to 7th places in the world cup. The 2000 season was less successful, but he finished top 10 several and he's now established in the sprint world top. And the 2001 season has started excellently, with the first Finnish world cup medal since 1987. At the same time, the Rosendahl brothers Vesa and Risto started showing signs of progress with good times in the European championship 2000 and nice 1500 meters in the world cup, and at the junior world championship in Seinäjoki, another talent, Pekka Koskela, qualified for the finals. Finnish skaters have finally put the golden age behind them and started doing firsts instead of lasts, they have brushed Thunberg, Skutnabb and Parkkinen away from their shoulders and started climbing to a level where they will again make a real impact on international speedskating.
World championships: 12
World champions: 7
European championships: 7
European champions: 4
Sprint world championships: 1
Sprint world champions: 1
Female world championships: 3
Female world champions: 2
Total male championships: 17
Total male champions: 9
Male allround championships: 16
Male allround champions: 8
Female allround championships: 3
Female allround champions: 2
Total allround championships: 19
Total allround champions: 10
Total championships: 20
Total champions: 11
Finnish overall champions:
Gustav Estlander, European champion 1898
Franz F. Wathén, world champion 1901
John Wikander, European champion 1905
Clas Thunberg, European champion 1922, 28, 31, 32, world champion 1923, 25, 28, 29, 31
Julius Skutnabb, European champion 1926
Birger Wasenius, world champion 1939
Verné Lesche, world champion 1939, 47
Lassi Parkkinen, world champion 1947
Eevi Huttunen, world champion 1951
Juhani Järvinen, world champion 1959
Leo Linkovesi, sprint world champion 1972
Finnish distance winners in international championships:
1.Clas Thunberg 31, 17 in ECh, 14 in WCh
2.Verné Lesche 13 in WCh
3.Eevi Huttunen 7 in WCh
4.Franz F Wathén 6, 2 in ECh, 4 in WCh
5.Ossi Blomqvist 5, 3 in ECh, 2 in WCh
Toivo Salonen 5, 2 in ECh, 3 in WCh
7.Gustav Estlander 4 in ECh
John Wikander 4, 2 in ECh, 2 in WCh
Birger Wasenius 4, 1 in ECh, 3 in WCh
10.Julius Skutnabb 3 in ECh
11.Jussi Wiinikainen 2 in WCh
Gunnar Strömsten 2 in WCh
Uno Pietilä 2 in WCh
Lassi Parkkinen 2, 1 in ECh and 1 in WCh
Leo Linkovesi 2 in SWCh
16.Walter Ylander 1 in the 10000 m at the ECh in Stockholm 1905 (20.13.2)
Antti Wiklund 1 in the 1500 m at the WCh in Trondheim 1907 (2.33.0)
Walter Bergström 1 in the 10000 m at the ECh in Helsinki 1922 (18.35.0)
Ismo Korpela 1 (shared) in the 500 m at the WCh in Tampere 1927 (46.3)
Juhani Järvinen 1 in the 1500 m at the ECh in Gothenburg 1959 (2.15.5)
In total 20 distance winners, winning 96 distances, 36 in the male world championship (12 in the 500, 11 in the 1500, 6 in the 5000 and 7 in the 10000 m), 38 in the male European championship (15 in the 500, 12 in the 1500, 6 in the 5000 and 5 in the 10000 m), 20 in the female world championship (1 in the 500, 5 in the1000, 6 in the 3000 and 9 in the 5000 m), and 2 in the male sprint world championship (both in the 500 m).
Finnish top 6 achievements in the olympic games:
|500 m men
|1000 m men
|1500 m men
|5000 m men
|10000 m men
|500 m women
|1000 m women
|1500 m women
|3000 m women
|5000 m women
Finnish olympic gold medallists:
1.Clas Thunberg, 1500 and 5000 m and overall in Chamonix 1924
(2.20.8 and 8.39.0), 500 and 1500 m in St. Moritz 1928 (43.4 og
2.Julius Skutnabb, 10000 m in Chamonix 1924 (18.04.8)
3.Kaija Mustonen, 1500 m in Grenoble 1968 (2.22.4)
The most frequent participants in international senior championships and olympic games:
1.Pertti Niittylä 27 times
2.Toivo Salonen 25
3.Clas Thunberg 23
4.Juhani Järvinen 18
5.Tuula Vilkas 16
6.Jouko Launonen 15
7.Jouko Salakka 14
Aila Tartia 14
Timo Järvinen 14
10.Kalevi Laitinen 13
Lassi Parkkinen 13
Kimmo Koskinen 13
13.Julius Skutnabb 12
Birger Wasenius 12
Kauko Salomaa 12
Eevi Huttunen 12
Kaija Mustonen 12
Seppo Hänninen 12
19.Ossi Blomqvist 11
Antero Ojala 11
Janne Hänninen 11 (catching up on dad)
22.Franz Fredrik Wathén 10
Arja Kantola 10
24.Åke Ekman 9
Kaija-Liisa Keskivitikka 9
Raimo Hietala 9
Outi Aunula 9
28.Gunnar Strömsten 8
Pentti Lammio 8
Iiris Sihvonen 8
Keijo Tapiovaara 8
Jouko Jokinen 8
Paula Halonen 8
Urpo Pikkopeura 8
35.John Wikander 7
Walter Tverin 7
Kurt Skutnabb 7
Verné Lesche 7
Leo Tynkkynen 7
Leo Linkovesi 7
Olavi Hjellman 7
Jouko Vesterlund 7
43.Wäinö Wickström 6
Uno Pietilä 6
Jaako Niemi 6
Olavi Köppä 6
Pirjo Hyvärinen 6
Taina Salmia 6
Vesa Rosendahl 6
49.Gustav Estlander 5
Asser Wallenius 5
Toivo Ovaska 5
Anneli Repola 5
Jukka Ala-Louko 5
Maila Lehtimäki 5 (total 169)