Exceptional Life Courses

Elite Athletes and Successful Artists in 2000s Finland

Mikko Salasuo, Mikko Piispa and Helena Huhta 


This is not a guide book on how to become an elite athlete or a successful artist, in detail or in general. Instead, this book examines how a group of young Finnish people have become elite athletes and successful artists, and been socialized into athleticism and artisthood, respectively. At the same time, we analyse what it means to be an athlete or an artist in the 21st century Finland.

The research data consists of the biographical interviews of 96 athletes and 29 artists. The key research problem of this study is derived from the interpretation framework of the life course analysis. We try to retrace the life courses of those elite athletes and top artists who have succeeded in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s – precisely how and why these athletes and artists have made it to the top in their respective fields, in this particular historical time?

Of the athletes, 78 are elite athletes and 18 have dropped out on the verge of reaching the top. An additional perspective is introduced by the fact that 20 of the interviewees come from multicultural backgrounds. The interviewees represent a total of 45 disciplines. The average age of the athletes in the research data is 25 years and 6 months. In addition to the analysis, the study draws on extensive international research findings, particularly in the field of athletes’ career research. Along with the athletes, 29 successful young artists were interviewed. They represented various fields of art and their average age is approximately 33 years and 6 months. In arts, as in science, success is typically achieved some 10–20 years later than in sports, thus, the artists interviewed for the purposes of this study can be considered to have succeeded at a very young age. 

The life courses of successful athletes and artists are often considered ‘exceptional’. Life stories of exceptional individuals generally attract and interest people. A large number of different beliefs and myths are related to, for example, elite sports. A very different picture is drawn when studying the lives of elite athletes and successful artists, the different phases and contexts of life, and factors influencing them. This perspective pulls the superhuman or the genius down from his or her stand. This is the key idea of this publication. Examining the life courses of successful individuals in two very different walks of life opens up a very comprehensive and interesting research perspective.

What are the factors behind the success of those age groups that have spent at least part of their childhood and adolescence in the final and culmination phases of the Finnish welfare state in the 1970’s and 1980’s but built their careers in the new, post-depression and technology-driven information society of the 1990’s, in the ”Nokia Wunderland”? Placing the life course in a particular time and place is the key starting point of this study.

The research method is called the life course analysis. In its analysis framework the vertical life history of the interviewees and the horizontal turning points – whether they relate to the interviewees own life or to the surrounding society – intersect. The analysis framework is a tool through which the life story interviews of the athletes and the artists are interpreted, viewed and analysed. This framework has, during the course of development of the life course research method, been recapped to five principles or axioms to trace and reconstruct the psychological, social, cultural and structural factors in an individual’s life.

The first principle of the life course analysis is the cumulative nature of human life meaning that everything that has taken place also has an impact on the present and on the future. The second principle in the life course analysis is the meaning of social networks. Family, relatives, friends and acquaintances build up different networks in everyone’s life. According to the third principle of the life course analysis, each individual is born to a certain historical time and place. In this case, the time is the end of the 20th century and the beginning of a new one. According to the fourth principle  people actively strive to steer their lives, within the existing possibilities. This axiom, called the principle of agency in the field of the life course research, suggests that people intentionally plan and execute actions and practices in their lives. The fifth and last principle of the life course analysis: transitions. The life course consists of phases in life and transitions between them. The individual’s position changes along with the transitions which has an impact on the individual but also on other people. 


An athlete’s or an artist’s family is the primary institution of socialization. The parents of more than half of the interviewed athletes were former elite or competitive athletes themselves, i.e. insiders of sport. Athleticism was passed on to younger generations in many ways at the ‘family table’, either by active guidance or by merely showing example. When siblings were taken into account we noticed that only about a quarter of the athletes had grown up in families where they were the only ones engaged in competitive sports. In addition, sport and exercise played a key role in the parenting practices of many families. 

The role of friends and acquaintances as well as other social networks outside the family was somewhat different. Whilst the athletes typically spent their time in sporty circles of friends, the artists had often found their peer groups only later in life. Mid-teen years, the early planning of the future career, including the choice of upper secondary school are important elements here. In those years, it also became evident how much more ‘hurried’ the career of an athlete is, compared to that of an artist. 

This typically leads to a very unusual or exceptional life, in many ways, of the young aspiring athlete. Sport becomes an agent and an institution that greatly steers the athlete’s life and its target setting whereas other life paths become secondary or marginalized. The development of an artist is the opposite. Although being an artist and the educational choices related to it undeniably build a strong identity, an artist is typically open to the world instead of excluding himself from it. At the same time, the various ways of developing as an artist open up new perspectives and widen the horizon which obviously may lead to insecurity, too. Contrary to being an athlete, being an artist is a profession, a career path and professional life that can last a lifetime. Being an athlete is a relatively short period of life after which the athlete has to look for something else in life. 

An athlete’s short career is strongly determined by different normativities. Research helps us locate important transitions and life phases in sport. Their development within the sport system should be based on research knowledge. In this way, we could guarantee the sustainability of the growth processes of children and youth. The foundations for both a sporty lifestyle and a possible career in elite sports are laid in childhood. 

Normativity is clearly less important in the growing up and the development of artists. Differences between artists were big, in terms of the onset of their creative or artistic activities and the timing of their artistic realization as well as their breakthrough as professional artists. Compared to athletes, transitions are not so obvious in an artist’s career. Some essential transitions are recognizable, however: education is a kind of a cornerstone as the gatekeepers of art are standing by at the entry and exit doors of art schools.

When talking about success in sport or art, we cannot omit the role of chance. An aspiring athlete naturally tries to avoid unfortunate coincidences and maintain symmetry in life. In art, chance may play a significant role; who surfaces as well as when and why, often depends on chance or coincidences. Artistic fields are insecure in many ways, financially or otherwise, and chance always plays a role in, for example, the continuation of making one’s living as an artist. 

The role of chance was also emphasized in the interviews of those athletes who had dropped out. One unfortunate coincidence, an injury or something else, could stop a promising career. On the other hand, many had dropped out of sports because they wanted to do something else in life – in other words, the strongly normative nature of sport did not appeal. Another underlined feature was the exceptional amount of discipline, ambition and rationality needed in sport. Without these qualities, reaching the top becomes improbable. Discipline and commitment in the artist’s work were brought up, too, as many interviewees stressed that what they do is ‘so crazy’ that you really have to believe in it and work very hard for it if you want to succeed. 

In addition to dropout athletes, multicultural athletes constituted their own ‘micro’ research data within the athlete interviews. Their life stories were different from those of the native Finns. The role of the family was equally important in the stories of multicultural athletes but there was also pluralism in their family backgrounds. Whereas some parents went as far as pushing their children to sports, others didn’t even know that instructed sport activities exist. Racism was another important theme in the interviews of these athletes. Most of the interviewed multicultural athletes, especially those with a black skin, had experienced it. To most athletes, however, multiculturalism was seen as an asset and it should be seen as such especially from the perspective of elite sports. The theme clearly calls for some further research.

The publication is available free of charge from our website: www.nuorisotutkimusseura.fi/images/julkaisuja/exceptional_life_courses.pdf

See also: www.youthresearch.fi/exceptionallifecourses