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Lauri "Tahko" Pihkala

Born 5 January 1888, Pihtipudas. Died 20 May 1981, Helsinki

Candidate of Philosophy 1912 ( i.e. MPhil. in economics, history of the Nordic countries, Latin and practical philosophy) from the Imperial Alexander University

Awarded title of honorary professor 1948 (granted by the President)
Awarded title of honorary doctor 1969, University of Jyväskylä.

Seminal figure in sports, author and chief editor.

Photo: Suomen Urheilumuseo
Author: Tero Juutilainen
Translated by: Mira Apell, Susan Huotari, Anna-Maria Jukarainen, Saara Suominen, Laura Mena, Hilda Tuomisto. Revised by: John Calton.

The practical philosopher

Lauri “Tahko” Pihkala is remembered as a practical man. But his thoughts on the nature of sports and exercise have usually received scant attention. His studies in the Imperial Alexander University had included philosophy and history, and his study trips to the United States had undoubtedly affected his outlook.

In his lifetime, he wrote several books, as well as shorter writings, where he reflects on the origins of movement and the essence of sport. Some of these texts have been compiled in an anthology dedicated to him - Tahkon Latu ( ‘Grindstone’s’ ski trail’). The texts in the book may be very selective, but they still give a good idea of the sportsman’s way of thinking.

For Pihkala, one of the biggest philosophical problems concerning sports was the contradiction between the basic need to exercise and a desire for comfort. He found the answer in stamina training as well as in making exercise an enjoyable and natural part of his daily routines. Pihkala learnt to appreciate skiing in particular according to the example set by Elias Lönnrot, the compiler of the Finnish epic Kalevala. As the book Tahkon latu, (‘Grindstone’s’ ski trail’) shows, Pihkala also saw skiing, and exercise in general, in terms of its military utility.

It is partly thanks to Pihkala that schoolchildren got a week-long ski holiday in the 1930s, although the gymnastics teacher Santeri Hirvonen had already mooted the idea in 1926. Pihkala was accustomed to dealing with elite sportsmen, the most important thing in his estimation was to get everyone to exercise. To this end, both people’s attitudes towards sports as well as the practical provision for doing exercise needed to be changed for the better. And it was this that he set about doing in the 1910s while working as a roving trainer for SVUL, Finland’s national sports league.  

One of Pihkala's biggest contributions was to suggest the formation of dedicated sports institutes. It seems he had come up with the idea during his travels in the USA, but the real decision to form such an institute was made at a meeting of the Finnish League for Gymnastics and Sports in 1924. According to the website of the college of physical education in Vierumäki, the formation of the institute was spurred on by the civil war tensions in a newly-independent Finland. Its purpose would be to train leaders and coaches as well as develop a sense of public spiritness, to bring together the different social classes. In 1927, after three years of preparation, the Sports Institute of Finland was established in Vierumäki on what used to be a campsite for soldiers.

In recognition of his work, a statue of Pihkala was erected in the park adjoining the Olympic stadium in Helsinki as well as in front of the main building of the institute in Vierumäki.

Young Lauri Pihkala. Photo: Wikimedia Commons​​.​

Sources (mainly in Finnish)

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