It’s war on the school playing ground. Pitch and duck, run and take cover. The just barely disguised educational aims of Finnish sports are more cruel when you scratch the surface. Obviously, it applies to all sports, especially in school, with the cruelty that only kids are capable of. But there is something curious about some of the Finnish sports that kids like me had to – and still do – play on a regular basis, for years during their school career.
pesäpallo, what intrigues me are its military roots. Invented by Lauri “Tahko” Pihkala, a far right leaning cultural spokeman and sportsman, pesäpallo took form as a Finnish variation of the American and already existing European versions. However, what the rather militaristic Pihkala planned, just in the after wake of Finnish independence, and the bloody civil war, was a form of education of the body. I would like to think of him as the Finnish equivalent of Ernst Jünger, of sorts. War is the mobilisation of the body, and drilling of the national body to the specific requirements of war. Of course, there was a sense of antiquated aspiration in this. In the coming militarised war, the blitz, a different sort of management of speed was needed, although one has to say that for such specific war fronts like the wintery Finland of 1930s and 1940s, men on skis had their use. Indeed, for Pihkala, preparation for military manoeuvres starts from the sports field.
With roots in late 19th century, the idea for this particular game grew in his head for twenty years, with the first test match in 1920 in Helsinki between a military battalion (Pioneeripataljoona 1) and a quasi-military right wing group (Suojeluskunta). Even the rules of the games were officialised as an appendix to a military brief in 1921 (Armeijan päiväkäsky).
Reading Pihkala’s thoughts is fascinating in the jungeresque way. It is a form of cultivation – a cultural technique one can say – of the physical body in relation to a wider set of social goals for survival.
”What else than training for hunting and fighting was the basis of sport in those times: running and jumping, throw-ing, clubbing, shooting, wrestling and boxing. In those times every man who wished to stay alive had to be an able huntsman and a soldier, that is a good athlete – thus became sport both an everyday task and a national service.”
This is an important part in the cultural history of 1920s and 1930s – both in terms of a prelude to WWII as well as the anthropological theories of play articulated at that time. Indeed, in Pihkala’s ideas, plans and writings, the two streams coalesce.
”Only man is capable of training, an activity requiring systematic, far-sighted deliberation and patience that are essential for sport.”
Play/sports are a second-order cultural technique of cultivation: training of the bodily senses which as an activity attaches to such widely discussed modern themes like patience and attention. So much of the anthropology of the urban, modern life was of course geared towards this specific theme that is not solely about observation, but that more specific nature of attention (indeed, psychopower of sorts, that with theorists like Stiegler has been the recent years been picked up as part of analyses of attention economy, but has these long roots in media and social theory).
Sports is war, and war is less about killing than about the drilling, training of the body. In Pihkala’s words:
”Sport is more or less methodical training for martial tasks that appeal to our instincts either because of their ancient origins or because of the speed they implicate in order to gain the maximum performance.”
Aim and throw, duck and run -- the mobile warfare. Hit and run: the game is a modulation of speed. Apparently Pihkala had considered that whereas the American version is more like trench warfare, his version would be equipped for a more speed-oriented mobile war that according to some sources was planned to support the specific requirements of the milieu of Finland: forest warfare. Shoot and move. It’s a sort of a simulation of warfare in this sense.
Much later, in the 1960s, Pihkala was introducing another new sport, “flash ball” (salamapallo). Worried about the increasing sitting down that is crippling our culture (remember, Finland was too on its way from primarily agricultural mode of production to a more service based urban culture), Pihkala was keen to pitch running as a key to healthy cultural state. Here too, in a radio column by him, Pihkala is talking about how running/agility/movement are essential to ability to defend oneself, which I am sure he allegorically meant as part of a national task as well. In general, the column is an interesting listen from the perspective of cultural techniques of running.
A further chapter to this invention of Finnish national sport as a military mode of training is when one would discuss that through Friedrich Kittler. Kittler’s enthusiasm for war and media technologies is known, as is his fondness, of sort, of Jünger. There would be curious narratives to be written from the Finnish perspective too, as a way to understand cultural techniques of drill and distraction.
Also, here as PDF the Finnish art group Iconoclast (Söderlund & Suonpää) publication “Hit and Run” that acted as key inspiration for this little text. Some of the Pihkala quotes are from that art publication.