London is preparing to host the greatest olympics of all-time this summer. 2012 is also a jubilee year for Helsinki, the current World Design Capital, as it has been exactly 60 years since the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952.
Embassy of Finland organised an Olympics-themed event where the 1952 games were reminisced, while looking forward to the coming summer. The event was honoured by the presence of athletes who took part in the 1952 games, along with His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, who as a 16-year old young man visited the Helsinki Olympics and made an unforgettable impression on the Finnish housewives.
During the years preceding the Helsinki Olympics the Cold War tensions were felt not only in Europe and Asia, but also in other parts of the world. Finland’s position between the East and West was a challenge to the Western countries, such as Great Britain, who had to remain cautious with their political actions towards Finland.
If Britain increased their foreign policy activity towards Finland, the Soviet Union would be sure to respond in kind, and the good intentions would turn against Britain itself. On the other hand, if Britain did nothing, Finland, disappointed to the West, would be compelled to fall into the Soviet’s grip. In 1948 the British Foreign Office feared this might happen.
In this context it is easy to understand a good-humoured journal entry by the then President of Finland, J.K. Paasikivi, from 1947. His view of the future Finland was quite gloomy otherwise, but he was happy to hear that Finland was chosen to host the summer Olympics of 1952. “This is great news – also from a political point of view – because it proves that the world has not forgotten us”.
Historian Juhana Aunesluoma shed a light on the British Foreign Ministry’s other type of strategy to acknowledge Finland during the Cold War: when it was not possible for the Brits to use obvious power, they took on the Soft Power. Britain took advantage of the platform provided by the Helsinki Olympics to increase their positive influence by applying ducal diplomacy.
The 1952 games was honoured by the presence of the 31-year old Duke of Edinburgh - without his spouse Queen Elisabeth, who had just few months ago inherited the throne from her father – and the 16-year old Duke of Kent, Queen Elisabeth’s cousin. According to Aunesluoma the “[participation of the Duke on Kent] proved to be a very good decision, at least on the basis of the Finnish media reports about the young Duke’s appearance in the dinner parties and dances in the warm summer nights in Helsinki”.
Large crowds of curious Finns tried to see even a glimpse of the British Royals. At the time when the world’s attention was in Finland, it seemed the Finns' attention was momentarily in the Dukes. “Wherever they went, thousands of people – out of which a large proportion were housewives – followed and cheered” Aunesluoma illustrated.
The concept of public diplomacy was hardly known in the 1950s, but archives show that both Finland and Britain thought the Olympics was a success to the countries’ bilateral relations. “Even though Finland is a republic, the tradition of monarchy is in the hearts of the Finns. People showed enormous respect and affection towards the prestigious guests” described Sir Andrew Noble, at the time Ambassador of Great Britain to Finland, the attention the Royals received in Helsinki.
“I can’t remember it raining during the opening ceremonies..”’
In addition to the historical introduction, the evening was made perfect by the athletes who took part in the Helsinki Olympics. Hannu Posti and Frank Sando took part in the men’s 10 000m final, which was wonby far by the best contestant of the Helsinki Olympics, Czechoslovakian Emil Zátopek.
In the final, Posti finished fourth and Sando fifth. “Sando and I had a tough dual on the final stretch. I beat him, but I believe only because he had lost his shoe!” Posti amused the audience. Sando had indeed lost his left shoe already on the first lap. Even though he ran 9 700m without his other track shoe, he was only few seconds short of bronze, and he broke the British record for 10 000m at the time.
Other great stories were shared too during the event. Terence Higgins, a former sprinter and a present member of the House of Lords, recollected the flight over to Helsinki. “Our plane was not airtight, nor did the navigation system work properly”, he remembers. “Because of this we were close to entering the Soviet airspace. I think we might have been shot down!”
The uppermost thing about the Helsinki Olympics in the athlete’s minds was the great atmosphere during the games. The events were perfectly organised, and foreign athletes were warmly welcomed by the Finns.
”I was surprised to hear [from the earlier presentations] that it rained in the Opening Night. Did it? My memories of Helsinki are rosy” recalled Sylvia Cheeseman, a 4x100m relay bronze medallist. “It was not left unnoticed by any one of us how much into athletics Finns were.”
Charles Garrett, the Head of International Relations of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, enlightened the audience about the coming games. At the time of writing this there are 107 days to go, but according to Garrett London is more than ready to host the best games ever. Summer Olympics have grown since Helsinki’s: this summer the athletes shall compete in 26 sports, 200 000 people are working to enable the Games, and 23 000 representatives of media are expected in London.
”The 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games were held halfway between the first contemporary summer Olympics (1896) and this summer’s Games in London. They were special in many ways. For instance, more world records were broken in Helsinki than ever before, or long after. It wasn’t until the 2008 Olympics in Beijing that the title was taken from Helsinki”, Garrett revealed.
“By the way, Ambassador [PekkaHuhtaniemi] was clever to invite me from the organising committee to come talk to you. As far as I know, I’m the only member of LOCOG who happens to have been born in Helsinki!”
Text and photos: Tiina Heinilä, Embassy of Finland