World Championships

Creswell, Finns solidify bond at open house

BOBBY STEVENS / CHRONICLE PHOTOS-Members of the Finnish National Team watch speeches at Creswell’s open house.

 CRESWELL – Years of effort and planning culminated Friday night with an open house celebration of the Finnish track and field team in Creswell. The community-wide event, held at Creswell High School’s football field, made an impression on the Finns.

“We all have traveled quite a bit around the world,” Finnish team leader Jani Tanskanen said. “At least for myself, I can tell you that never, nowhere in the world, have I been met with such hospitality.”

The games are scheduled at Hayward Field in Eugene from July 15-24. 

The themes of the event were appreciation and history. Appreciation for both sides, and recognition of the history between Oregon and Finland.

Lonn Robertson, the longtime Creswell dentist and well-known running enthusiast, took in the scene like a proud papa. Along with Mayor Dave Stram, the two have spearheaded the initiative from the start. 

Robertson’s pride was impossible to miss when he spoke to the crowd.

“On behalf of everybody here, I want to thank everybody here,” Robertson said. “This is a thank-you party.”

The enthusiastic gathering included many wearing shirts made by Creswell Middle School students that featured Finland’s flag on them, and read, “Finland Sisu.” Sisu is an important word to the Finns that roughly translates as determination and strength of will.

Julie Johansen, the principal at Creswell Middle School, has incorporated Finnish culture and history into the curriculum. Robertson noted the commitment by Johansen, her staff, and the students.

“(She) took this on and said ‘Let’s do this. And let’s help the students really get involved,’” Robertson explained. “‘Let’s have them learn about Finland. Let’s have them learn about track and field. They have done everything.’”

Sandi Green, the legendary music instructor at CHS, had the band on hand to perform the national anthems of Finland and the United States.

Beyond the recognition and “thank-yous” in Robertson’s speech, he discussed the history that connects Finland and Oregon. It should be no surprise that track and field was a bonding agent.

One of the best-known connections is the result of Oregon track legend Steve Prefontaine. He had lost to Finland’s Lasse Viren in the 5000-meter race at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. “Pre” became good friends with the Finnish runners, and was with them the night he died in 1975.

The history between Oregon and Finland doesn’t stop there. The first World Athletic Championships were held in 1983 in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. The 2022 Championships mark the first time in history that the event will be held on U.S. soil.

And while Pre may be the most famous connection between Finlandand Oregon, this latest renewal of the relationship is sure to have a lasting effect on both groups.

“All of us, we’ve met so many, so many wonderful people, had beautiful encounters,” Tanskanen said. “I can already tell that all of us in the delegation is going to leave a lifelong mark, create lifelong experiences and memories.”

Robertson agreed. “I love track and field. I’m so glad that we brought Finland back one more time to a small community in Oregon,” he said.

At the end of the speeches, team leader Jarkko Finni presented Robertson with an exact replica of the stopwatch used by Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi as a thank you for his partnership.

“I’m not gonna look at it because I will start crying,” Robertson said after the ceremony.

The open house concluded with demonstrations by some of the Finnish athletes in two track and field events – sports that few in the crowd seemed to know much about. The first demo was race walking, a unique endeavor where athletes essentially speed walk for 20 or 35 kilometers (12.4 or 21.7 miles). Race walker Aleksi Ojala explained that race walkers must always have a foot touching the ground in order to not get disqualified. Some of the fastest competitors average 6-minute miles throughout the entire race.

The snd demo was hammer throw, a field event where athletes spin and launch a heavy metal ball attached to a steel wire. The ability to practice hammer throwing was paramount to getting the Finnish team to Creswell, and was made possible by former Olympic hammer thrower Lance Deal, who built the practice cage at Creswell High.

“It’s really exciting to drive into Creswell and see the banner over Main Street welcoming Finland athletics,” Deal said. “It’s just great to have y’all here and it’s really great to see all the community members here.”

The Finnish team has 36 athletes competing in the World Athletics Championships, their biggest team ever in the event’s history. The team is composed mostly of throwers and distance runners, with a few racewalkers. The first of the Finns to compete will be the hammer throwers and the racewalkers July 15. Fans can watch the marathons and racewalks for free at Autzen stadium, and buy tickets to Hayward Field at worldathletics.org.

Ultimately, the Finnish team won’t be in Creswell long as most of the team will be staying in the athlete village at the University of Oregon once the competition is closer. While the stay may be short-lived, it’s clear that the impact on Creswell, and the Finns, will be anything but.