Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

J. Sigfrid Edstrom and the Nurmi Affair of 1932: The Struggle of the Amateur Fundamentalists against Professionalism in the Olympic Movement

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

J. Sigfrid Edstrom and the Nurmi Affair of 1932: The Struggle of the Amateur Fundamentalists against Professionalism in the Olympic Movement

Article excerpt

In April 1932, the International Amateur Athletics Association (IAAF), led by its tough-minded and flamboyant Swedish chairman, J. Sigfrid Edstrom, suspended Paavo Nurmi for violating amateur regulations. Many athletics experts consider that Nurmi was definitely the foremost runner of his time, and some, particularly in our neighbouring country to the East, see him as the world's foremost sportsman of all time. The decision shook the world of sport and aroused particularly strong reactions in Finland. Edstrom became the most hated person in Finland; in principle he bore the brunt of the Finnish dissatisfaction alone. The ban led to Finland boycotting all athletic competition with Sweden for three years. Inhabitants of Helsinki even refused to travel on the city's trams, since they were manufactured by the large Swedish company ASEA (the present ABB), of which Edstrom was the managing director. Threats were also directed against Swedish sports officials, and the Finnish aversion towards "big brother Sweden" was fuelled as never before. (2)

The ban was extra sensitive as Edstrom, a Swede, lay behind the decision. No other sporting incident has caused such feelings of indignation between Sweden and Finland. It was not only in these countries that Nurmi's ban created a stir. The American Olympic historian John Lucas notes that Nurmi was the world's leading sportsman after the First World War and that the ban created headlines around world, particularly in Europe and the USA. (3)

The Nurmi affair was not only about sport, but also, as will be seen in the article, about power, racism and nationalism. The aim of what follows is two-fold: firstly, to analyze the dramatic events surrounding the banning of Nurmi, and secondly, to discuss the reasons behind the ban. The following issues form the framework of the presentation:

* Who were the main protagonists? How did they act?

* Who took the initiative in banning Nurmi?

* What consequences did the Nurmi affair have for relations between Sweden and Finland?

* In what wider perspective will the Nurmi affair be perceived?

The Protagonists

The main protagonists in the Nurmi affair were, or became, central figures in the world of sport and/or in society as a whole. Here we have not only the above-mentioned Sigfrid Edstrom (1870-1964) and Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973), but also, above all, the future Finnish President and national father figure, Urho Kekkonen (1900-1986). At the time of the ban he was the chairman of the Finnish Athletics Association. Kekkonen, who had been elected as chairman of the Finnish Athletics Association when he was only 28 years of age, was one of the representatives of the nationalist forces in Finnish society around 1930. (4) Another of the main protagonists in Finland, Lauri Pihkala, belonged to the extreme right wing of nationalist politics in Finnish society, unlike Kekkonen, who was representative of the Centrist Party.

The other main protagonist, Sigfrid Edstrom, was Sweden's leading industrialist for a long period of time, with great influence over industry, society and sport. He had been the chairman of the IAAF since its formation in 1913, and was a member of the IOC and, eventually, President of the IOC between 1946 and 1952. He also held several top positions within the national and international sports movement for decades. (5)

Nurmi has remained something of a popular hero in Finland in our time as well. His halo was not tarnished after the ban in 1932. Quite the opposite, Nurmi was considered to be a victim of Sweden's' envy and nit picking. In Finland, the decision to ban Nurmi was considered to be wrong, and this is still the case. (6) It is well documented that in Finland people refuse to see him as a "cheat," (7) one of many in the world of sport in the 1930s, but rather as a hero: he was given the honourable assignment of lighting the Olympic flame at the stadium before the Games in Helsinki in 1952, together with his contemporary, the legendary Finnish runner Hannes Kolehmainen. …

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