The Life Course of a Top Athlete – a Study of Sportsmen in 2000s Finland

(In Finnish: Huippu-urheilijan elämänkulku. Tutkimus urheilijoista 2000-luvun Suomessa)

Mikko Salasuo, Mikko Piispa and Helena Huhta 

The study focuses on how a group of young Finns have grown to become successful top athletes. The research data consists of the interviews of 96 sportsmen and women. Of them, 78 are top athletes and 18 have abandoned their sport on the verge of reaching the top (drop-outs). The interviewees represent a total of 45 disciplines, at the time of the interview at various stages of their sporting careers, which allows the study to open up an extensive view of the current state of Finnish top-level sport. The interviewees are grouped according to their sport discipline into team, traditional individual, and lifestyle sport athletes. An additional perspective is introduced by the fact that 20 of the interviewees come from multicultural backgrounds. 
The primary research tool is life course analysis. This permits the identification of common factors in the athletes’ life courses that have helped them to reach the top, or that have been obstacles on the way. In addition to the analysis, the study draws on extensive international research findings, particularly in the field of athletes’ career research. Life course analysis reveals the importance of social networks to achievement. The family is prominent as the athlete’s most important breeding ground. At least one of the parents of more than one in every two interviewees are themselves former competing or top athletes. The role of siblings, especially elder sisters and brothers, has also been significant. In families with a sporting orientation, values and examples favourable to sport have been passed on, and physical activity has been incorporated as an important part of child-rearing practices. 
Through life course analysis, athletes’ growth narratives are linked to the social situation of the period and its structures. This reveals the kind of framework provided to athletes by Finnish society, which has undergone extensive changes in the recent decades. Urbanization and the increased importance of organized exercise as a hobby are particularly in evidence in the kind of Finland in which the interviewees grew up. These development paths are reflected especially in the degree of difference in terms of physical activity between the oldest and youngest interviewees’ growth environments, and around them, also the organizational structures of physical activities and sports. 
The significance of the organization of physical activity and sport is also shown by the kinds of choices young athletes have made and the way in which their activities as athletes have evolved. Crucial factors are the timings and content of the phases in the athlete’s growth and the transition periods between them. Analysis of the interviews shows that top athletes have been involved in several different sporting activities in their childhood and youth, and most have not needed to select their main discipline too early. This way, the fun has also been retained in the pastimes of youth, and the development into an athlete has taken place at a natural pace. Attention is also drawn to the differences in the pace of growth processes – some develop earlier, others only at a later age. Moreover, it is possible to identify a turning point in the life courses of all top athletes, when awareness of the possibilities of reaching the elite level has crystallized. This moment of insight – a tipping point – is often located in the mid-teens and linked to the first significant sporting successes. At the same time, it reinforces the sporting identity and is set to define the athlete’s agency and future choices. 
The interviews of drop-out athletes provide an important point of comparison for top athletes’ life courses. Concentration on a single discipline and too early timing of a sporting hobby turning serious are linked to dropping out. A further important factor appears to be the psychological dimension: top level sportsmanship demands such strong commitment that if the young person is unable or unwilling to make it, the pursuit of the highest pinnacle and a sporting career fall by the wayside. 
Analysis of the growth narratives of multicultural athletes furthers the knowledge of a subject that has received scant research attention, but is part of the daily life of top-level sport also in Finland. The factors behind multicultural athletes’ development are largely the same as those of indigenous Finns, such as the great importance of the family. Nevertheless, multiculturalism also introduces differences. For many young people, networks outside the family have been particularly valuable, when the parents’ cultural and financial resources to support their child have been limited. Racism has also been present along the careers of many interviewees. However, they also felt that they had benefited from their multicultural background. 
The top-level phase of sport appears very different depending on the discipline and gender. In certain disciplines, such as men’s team sports, sportsmen can achieve very large incomes, at least at the global elite level. Athletes in the traditional individual disciplines, on the other hand, are often dependent on various grants or bursaries. Particularly the publicly funded sports subsidies emerge as an important factor. Grants also even out the inequality between the sexes. Most athletes in the lifestyle sports do not earn their living from sport, but it becomes otherwise an integral part of their life and identity. 
The research provides a multitude of perspectives on physical activity in Finland, sport and top-level sport, as well as their development. These form the basis of the ten recommendations put forward in the final chapter. The main conclusion is that a policy aiming to promote extensive and equal opportunities for citizens’ physical activity and top-level sporting success are not at odds with each other, but on the contrary, they are mutually supportive. The higher the number of children and young people who engage in physical activity, the wider is the reserve of top-level sport. Conversely, the greater their enjoyment and scope of exercise, the more certainly the most promising of them will continue all the way to the top. However, the structures of top-level sport must be educationally ethical and sustainable, and the development work must be grounded on research.