Kinship and Sexuality in Elite Sports, or, The Legacy of the Winner’s Self-esteem

In sports, the aims often seem to be clear enough. In this sense, science and art, characterized by fumbling, contradictions and a constant state of renewal, are very different. The researcher’s owl of Minerva flies at dusk, while the artist re-imagines the world over and over again. The ethos of an athlete is different; run faster than others, score more goals than the rival, keep your bodily position as poised as possible.


Invited by the Finnish Olympic committee, we participated in the accelerator program of the Excellence in Finland -network. On our way to the Sports College Kisakallio near Helsinki, we reflected on the encounter between our own research field – margins of kinship, inheritance and diverse sexualities – and the world of sports.


Especially when talking about top-level sport, personal qualities such as talent, motivation and commitment seem to characterize a top-level athlete’s success. In the American dream of sports, Pelé and his successors work their way up from poverty to athletic royalty by means of their personal excellence. But there also has to be somebody who discovers Pelé and supports him. Without such a person, Pelé would, for all his unique gifts, remain a local hero, and not have become a world-wide celebrity.

The champion Elina Gustafsson brought the World Championship bronze medal to Finland in 2016. Pictures are taken from Elina Gustafsson and Nooralotta Neziri archive.


Who are the people that support a successful athlete? Is it only the individual that counts? What kind of impact do community and social context have on an athlete’s self-esteem in top-level sports?


Family background, economic prosperity and race have an impact on success


Both in the light of the history of sports, and our own research and personal experiences, family background, gender and sexuality make a conclusive difference for a talented athlete’s choice of sports discipline and their possibility to succeed. Additional questions follow from this: in which ways does, for example, the relationship between the coach and an athlete resemble family dynamics? Can a coach become a parent, or even more important than a parent? And what kind of meaning does the team have?


Even though the division of sports into Suomen työväen urheiluliito (The Sports Union of the Finnish Workers) and Suomen valtakunnan urheiluliitto (The Finnish National Sports Union) is a bygone era in Finland, class tensions have of course not all of a sudden vanished from the field of Finnish sport. Athletic hobbies cost money. For example, men’s ice-hockey, one of the foremost sports that raise nationalistic sentiments in Finland, is expensive and time-consuming for the parents. Given the fast-moving contemporary world of work, the middle class, not to mention families with lower incomes, will soon not be able to afford it. Is it even possible for a single parent to stand cheering at the corner of the hockey rink or by the running trail?


There are signs indicating that a division between aristocracy and the rest is reappearing (even though in a new form) in sports, as it is in the rest of society.

When we talk about expensive sports this means – to put it crudely – that those who have capital, freed from the constraining hours of wage labor, have time to cheer from the sidelines. Alternatively, they can afford sending a non-working partner or servant to do it.


On the other hand, the status of various sports undergoes quick alterations as societal circumstances and power relations change. Just a few decades ago, ice-hockey was played among groups of kids without fancy equipment, just with skates and sticks. Meanwhile, tennis was a sport for the elite, a gentleman’s sport by means of which the moneyed classes distinguished themselves from wage earners. Nowadays, tennis is an affordable sport: sporadically used tennis courts can be found in every Finnish city or village, while big budget ice hockey arenas are built and the precious time on ice rink is hotly contested. But who knows how long the current sports discipline hierarchies preserve their status?


Race also makes a difference. The soccer legend of Pelé lives on, and in track and field as well as in basketball the supremacy of black athletes is celebrated. But how many athletes considered non-white can you name in the Finnish ice hockey championship league or in the national skiing clubs? Do the children with backgrounds in immigrant families have access to the national sports in the Nordic countries? What are the dominant attitudes towards children from lgbtq families or queer athletes in various sports?


In the absence of supportive adults or a socially just society, what are the sources of self-esteem for a top-level athlete?


Sprinter Nooralotta Neziri in Rio, Brazil Penedo sports camp with coach Jussi Ihamäki. Pictures are taken from Elina Gustafsson and Nooralotta Neziri archive.

Coach and team as a second family

The coach can be a supportive and encouraging adult to the young athlete. It is not uncommon that the coach is said to be a second (or third) mother or father. After all, you might spend more time with your coach than you do with your own parents. The coach expresses demands and supports, and, assumingly, makes one to grow to be better and better. On the other hand, in the stories we hear, the coach is sometimes described as a hero that sees potential in the disadvantaged child, who succeeds because of the coach’s guidance.


But what does it take for these children and coaches to find one another? Such encounters rarely take place without proper supporting structures. When structures are lacking, there is only coincidence.


What about the families that spend all their money and time on one child only? Are we going to see sibling quarrels in court, where some of the children require to be compensated when their parents have wasted the family income on one siblings’ athletic careers (e.g. on hockey licenses), that remained unfulfilled promises.


Family relations overlap with sports also in the context of team sports. An endless amount of hours is spent with the team, practicing or going away on camps and tournaments. The team often turns into a kind of second family. Top-level teams sometimes even try to control the sex life of the team members before important games.


However, the team with whom an athlete practices is an important factor also in individual sports. The team supports the athlete psychologically, boosting their self-esteem whenever s/he is failing. To take but one example: the Finnish female boxers support one another as a team. Elina Gustafsson, the World Championship bronze medalist, has talked about her coach’s not really understanding her coming-out as a lesbian.


We still haven’t really talked about this. We don’t really discuss other things than boxing. That’s OK, but a bit heavy at times”, Gustafsson confirmed to us.


“The Mutual encouragement without boundaries is crucial  among the top level athletes “, says Elina Gustafsson, World Championship bronze medalist. Pictures are taken from Elina Gustafsson and Nooralotta Neziri archive.

Other female boxers have supported Gustafsson. Crossing disciplinary borders, other athletes in the same area have done the same. Nooralotta Neziri, an Olympic-level sprinter, is one of them. “We are a huge support to one another. It’s great that somebody understands the pressure of an individual athlete”, Gustafsson states, happily.


Who is good enough for the team?


But does everyone get to play? Is everybody allowed an entry into the inner circles, in which team support and interaction are emphasized in a positive way?


Research has indicated that competition has grown tougher also in the world of exercise. Only those that are good and talented enough are brought along. For somebody whose prospects of success are not that promising, team solidarity often brusquely stops. For example, in ballet, a young person may dedicate years and years to get to the top. But the wrong bodily development of a teenager can mercilessly deem them unsuitable for a further career.


There are perhaps attempts to alleviate these risks by taking factors related to inherited traits into account: do coaches and team leaders choose persons, whose prospects look good based on genetic inheritance and the family culture and genealogy? The self-esteem already born out of the many-layered family-like relations may help create new relations with the help of the required skills and abilities. The importance of background and conditions for an athlete’s possibility to succeed is one way to mirror how family relations are centrally linked all over society.


Is it a few particular families – much like in music, science and theatre – that get selected into the disciplines of sport? Does this type of athletic reproduction maintain a high standard of sports? Or does a concentration of athletes into “sports families” lead to a pig-headed repetition of the same things from one generation to the next – who perhaps get close to the real top, but never fully reaching it?

However, many athletes who reached the top have had difficulties in their family backgrounds but still succeeded. Perhaps remaining outside of the normalized rituals of the community can sometimes work as a source of strength and energy? The young Finnish Olympic Sprinter Nooralotta Neziri is a good example of this: her mother was severely injured in a car accident, and her father is not a white Finn. Interestingly, Neziri did not choose a typical sport in which Finnish female athletes have traditionally been successful.


Finnish Olympic Sprinter Nooralotta Neziri ran at the semifinals at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Pictures are taken from Elina Gustafsson and Nooralotta Neziri archive.

To inherit a place outside the norm might thus produce new energy and creative capacity also in the world of sport. This kind of transformation – where an issue related to family background that is considered an obstacle becomes a source of strength – could arguably apply also to many closeted elite-athletes: when a child is free from the hetero-norm, s/he could figure out her own ways.


This issue should however by no means be truncated into a concern for exceptional individuals, to shame/blame people who do not cope in difficult circumstances.


Everybody needs to be supported. Everybody needs a community.


Antu Sorainen and Anna Heinonen collaborate in the Academy of Finland -funded projects “Wills and Inheritance in Sexually Marginalised Groups” (2014-2019) and “CoreKin – Contrasting and Re-Imagining Margins of Kinship” (2016-2020). They participate in the accelerator program of the Excellence of Finland-network. Here you can follow their ideas born through the program – related for example to creative management and the rhetoric of excellence.


Translation: Mari Lindman

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