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.