Finnish ski jumper Matti Nykänen as trickster

Matti Nykänen, a famous Finnish ski jumper, passed away in February. He was both a superior athlete and a very troubled man – inc­rea­singly so over the years. This cont­ra­dic­tion makes both him and the finnish public discourse following his death relevant subjects for anth­ro­po­lo­gical analysis.

Anthropology of religion may shed light on the character of the man who, in his day, was con­si­de­red the world’s best ski jumper. The trickster is a mythical hero who breaks down the boun­da­ries of a community. He doesn’t care about the status quo of mora­li­ties, but despite this — or because of this — is able to cross pre­do­mi­nant boun­da­ries and create something new.

At the same time, the trickster also assists his community, elevating it to a higher level. This is what Nykänen did during his ski jump career. As he was awarded a medal after a medal, he was also creating an image of Finland that boosted Finnish national pride. After all, sports is one of the most important forms of expres­sion for everyday natio­na­lism, as both an outlet and strengt­he­ner of national feelings. Nykänen’s halo was made ever brighter by the fact that he remained “clean” in the world of com­pe­ti­ti­ve sports that is riddled by doping and drugs.

As a trickster figure, Nykänen also had his dark side. The world’s best ski jumper was also a violent drunk, whose mishaps enter­tai­ned Finnish public through tabloids for decades. As he trans­for­med from a valiant athlete to a karaoke singer, he became inc­rea­singly ridiculed in the eyes of the Finnish public and media.

Immediately after Nykänen passed away, public discourse shifted back to treating him like a mythical national hero. Philosopher Rene Girard’s thoughts on the logic of sacrifice may help us unders­tand this shift. After his career as an athlete, Matti Nykänen was stuck between cate­go­ries: but in his death he finally fulfilled his potential as sacrifice, and was elevated by it. During his latter years Nykänen was publicly sac­ri­ficed by the media at the altar of public ridicule. Now Finnish society is expe­riencing col­lec­ti­ve guilt, and people want to raise their old hero high once more.

Nykänen is an example of heroes getting away with things that a layman would be heavily judged on. His problems with alcohol and his violent behavior towards women are aspects that Finnish society heavily frowns upon – although in practice both are still unfor­tu­na­te­ly common. These tom­foo­le­ries were, however, not enough to dim Nykänen’s halo.

This became apparent when a Finnish jour­na­list described Nykänen, after his death, as a woman-beater. The journalist’s tweet raised an active public discus­sion, including very hostile feedback. The discus­sion can be interpre­ted as a division in the public created by the cont­ra­dic­tions of a once great man – or as proof that people need heroes.

Radical com­men­ta­tors often want to break down prevalent myths and shake people’s pers­pec­ti­ves. Sometimes this is well founded, as some myths can be harmful. Even so, people need role models and myths to bring them together. This is why the unra­ve­ling of myths cannot be seen as solely liberating.



Juuso Koponen on valtiotieteiden maisteri ja antropologi, joka valmistelee väitöskirjaa huono-osaisuudesta ja kolmannen sektorin tarjoamasta ruoka-avusta. Juusoa kiinnostavia tutkimuksellisia teemoja ovat huono-osaisuus ja eriarvoisuus, yhteiskuntaluokat, hyväntekeväisyys, talouden antropologinen tutkimus, diskurssianalyysi ja ideologiakritiikki.