An important Statement published by ICNW: Pole walking - Nordic Walking - Modern Nordic Walking: Definitions, a brief history, and the development of the discipline.
Research news: More scientific evidence of the positive health effects of Nordic Walking in a study conducted by researchers from Finland, Sweden and USA.
The 20th Anniversary Celebrations of Nordic Walking in Finland, August 4-6, 2017. The summary of the historical International Nordic Walking Congress and the official video of the whole event:
Interview with Tuomo Jantunen
Sports Counselor and Master of Sport and Health Sciences, long-time executive director of Suomen Latu (a non-profit organization promoting outdoor sports and activities in Finland), Tuomo Jantunen, interviewed by Tuomo Kettunen (Nov 12, 2010).
Nowadays, the idea and concept of “suomalainen sauvakävely” (Finnish pole walking) is thought to have been born when the technique of using poles, similarly to cross country skiing, was taught to groups outside of competitive sports as a form of exercise and not as a training method for athletes. Tuomo, according to your knowledge when did this take place??
“Sauvakävely” has been familiar to people my age and older for decades now, from competitive ski training. I have knowledge of my friend and colleague Leena Jääskeläinen’s trials, ideas, and efforts to promote “sauvakävely” in schools as early as the 1960s. There could have been others at that time, maybe even earlier, but I don’t know of any. In many cases, these trials were related to how, in the absence of snow, skiers conducted their 'dry practice'."
Did you also practice or try “sauvakävely” with your ski poles in the 60s, 70s, or 80s? You were, and still are, an active skier and you promoted skiing for a long time as the executive director of Suomen Latu.
"All competitive skiers probably prepared for the arrival of snow by practicing leaping with their poles on the bigger slopes in the area and walking long distances with their poles in autumn. Even I trained like that in the 60s and 70s, and I wasn’t even a skier at the national level, just one of the best in my garrison. I heard the question, “Where did you leave your skis?” a lot. At the time people practiced “sauvakävely” so they’d be in the best possible shape when the snow fell."
So you could say that the idea for Nordic Walking was already present during the 70s and 80s, but it was not acknowledged as a “sport” and there was no clear and united project for its progress. However, a coincidence in 1988 was the catalyst, wasn’t it?
"Yes, exactly. The snow melted unexpectedly on January 5th 1988 when we were supposed to ski from Maunulan maja (a hiking lodge) to the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki for the unveiling of the statue of Tahko, so we had to march there instead. That exact day marked the 100th birthday of one of Finland’s most significant sports personalities and the developer of many disciplines, Professor Lauri “Tahko” Pihkala.
I came up with the idea to equip everyone with ski poles and we ended up pole walking the entire distance. It was the first public Nordic Walking group march in the world and it was captured and immortalised by photographers and by Finnish TV. A clip of our march was shown on one of the most important sportscasts in the country. The attention that we received from this event gave the spark we needed to further advance the discipline."
What type of promotional activities did you organise during the late 80s and early 90s?
"We promoted “sauvakävely” at various events organised by Suomen Latu: from sports day events for businesses, ministries, and organisation, to broad national campaigns promoting and exercise. One of the biggest campaigns we did was the “Puhtaan liikunnan puolesta” campaign (“for pure exercise” - a campaign promoting outdoor exercise) in 1994 in cooperation with various ministries. The main slogan for the campaign was “Kävele” (walk). “Sauvakävely” was mentioned, using this exact term, as one of the promoted forms of exercise of the campaign."
But the poles you were using were ski poles?
"Yes, our poles were fibreglass and carbon fibre cross-country ski poles; some were even using bamboo poles. The poles resembled ski poles except that the baskets were removed to prevent them from getting caught on branches in the forest. At that time, the poles were shorter than current ski poles, so they weren’t shortened for walking, but they were called “suksisauva” (ski pole). The term “kävelysauva” (walking pole) was not used until 1997."
In addition to you and Suomen Latu, were there any other parties, organizations etc., that organised events promoting “sauvakävely” during the early 90s?
"Yes, many local sports organisations, ski clubs, and especially sports institutions, such as the ones in Vierumäki, Varala, and Kuortane organised events and trials for “sauvakävely”. The Finnish Rheumatism Association and its local organization’s walking schools also used poles to help with teaching. "
What type of success did these promotional events lead to?
"The reactions were essentially positive, even though many still laughed at the idea of using ski poles while walking. To sum it up, there was interest towards it, but not much significant success. However, everyone that did try walking with poles found it to be an effective and sweat-inducing workout. It was also technically easy, as Finns have always known how to ski. Now they were just doing it without the skis."
So when did the real boom of “sauvakävely” start?
"The start of the boom was our project to publish an insert on pole exercises and “sauvakävely” in Suomen Latu’s magazine, “Latu ja Polku” (ski trail and path). We started planning this project in 1996 in collaboration with Exel, who were also sponsoring the insert. As the project progressed, our sponsor became convinced that it would also be beneficial to produce a pole solely for “sauvakävely”, which was then introduced to the public in the magazine insert as the Walker in the late summer of 1997. The photos were taken in the spring of 1997 in Vierumäki.
Then, in the autumn of 1997, not only did we have a fully formed idea of what “sauvakävely” was (which we actually had had for a long time), we also had a pole specific to the discipline. The pole was named Nordic Walker, as the English term “Nordic Walking” had also just been coined. In other words, everything was ready to go, we “only” needed to market it. The developer and product manager of the Nordic Walker pole was Taisto Manninen of Exel.
What really had the final impact on the Nordic Walking boom was a small advertisement for Suomen Latu in Finland’s biggest newspaper, the Helsingin Sanomat (Helsinki Times), on Sept. 2nd, 1997. In the advertisement we invited people to join our guided walks every Tuesday at 6pm in Paloheinä, Helsinki. People could bring their own poles, rent poles, or even buy the newly developed Nordic Walkers on the spot. Contrary to our initial expectations, about 50 people showed up to the first event and next week there was 100, then 200, then even 300.
The popularity of our weekly event led to its quick coverage by mass media. Practically every Tuesday during the autumn of ‘97 there were journalists, photographers, and TV groups, even foreign ones. We were also given the opportunity to introduce Nordic Walking on TV morning programs and other shows. So Nordic Walking had a practically explosive start."
So it must have been a busy time at the Suomen Latu office: within weeks you had already made it on TV to introduce Nordic Walking to the entire nation; the questions must have been pouring in.
"Yes, yes, our phones lines were pretty much swamped from all the inquiries we were getting. Luckily though, Suomen Latu was and is a large organization with many member associations throughout Finland, through which we were able to quickly begin marketing across the country.
I gathered material for instructor training and I held the first official course in Jyväskylä in the spring of 1998. For this we received our only financial grant from the state: 8.500 marks (~1.900 € as of 2018), which I used to buy 200 pairs of walking poles. I donated them to the new instructors in exchange for them to organise Nordic Walking events locally. Even though “sauvakävely” had been taught to skiers and athletes for years, even decades, now we had finally implemented the first instructor training courses across Finland."
Nordic Walking was “officially” launched in 1997 and quickly gained popularity. Do you have any statistics to measure the amount of success?
"According to a study by Suomen Gallup (Finland’s leading market research group) in 1998, about a year after our newspaper ad was published, 160.000 people in Finland practiced Nordic Walking regularly at least three times a week and over 500.000 people had tried Nordic Walking at least once. This is probably a Finnish record in its kind, as I’m not aware of any other disciplines that, within a year, reached such success from basically nothing.
For instance, our spot in Paloheinä, Helsinki, the world’s first “sauvakävelykeskus” (Nordic Walking centre), had over 20.000 visitors in the year of 1998."
Looking back on it now, what do you think were the reasons why Nordic Walking became so popular in a relatively short amount of time?
"In my opinion there are three reasons:
1. The poles. People generally had positive views of the discipline from the beginning, but seemed too embarrassed to use ski poles while walking in public. The colourful new poles designed especially for Nordic Walking eliminated this problem. The pole fit the hand well, was the right length, and was attractive..
2. The attention and marketing support of the media. Within a couple of weeks there were multiple columns in magazines, and air time on radio stations and TV. The element of Finnish pride may have also been a factor in its popularity, as it was emphasized as “a true Finnish invention and form of exercise” even by journalists.
3. The open-mindedness and confidence of Finnish middle-aged women. During the first weeks of our public events, 80% of the participants were middle-aged women, and they simply decided that Nordic Walking was the perfect form of exercise for them. I have heard a sociologist say that open-minded middle-aged Finnish women are the reason behind the quick growth in popularity and success. In addition to this, many women decided to become instructors."
Nordic Walking quickly established itself in Finland as a discipline for the entire nation, but just how quickly did this happen?
"In regards to the gender distribution, it only took a year. In the 1998 study by Suomen Gallup, they found that 60% of Nordic Walkers were women and 40% men. This ratio has remained about the same ever since. But the age distribution of the discipline has broadened significantly: Nordic Walking is now practiced among young adults as well as seniors. After all, Nordic Walking can be easily adapted to the needs of any age group or fitness level.
The popularity grew across Finland, even more so in rural areas than in the Helsinki area. In just a few years the number of people practicing regularly had already exceeded 700.000."
During its launch in 1997, did you imagine that it would amount to this much success in Finland and around the world? In fact, what were your expectations in terms of success?
"As someone who has promoted many outdoor sports and activities, I have come to the realise, that it is always a surprise as to what sport is going to take off, which events gather a crowd: it’s always hard to tell beforehand. This also applied to Nordic Walking.
My principle when it comes to new ideas and proposals has always been to say, “Let’s try, let’s see, let’s do it together.” I’m glad that’s how it was with Nordic Walking at the time."
You have personally received numerous official national prizes for your work promoting Nordic Walking and are reportedly the only person in Finland to have received this kind of recognition. Recently you received the “Vuoden Liikuntavaikuttaja” prize (Sports Influencer of the Year), and one of the first reasons mentioned was your role as a pioneer of Nordic Walking. Many are also of the opinion that it’s due to your efforts that Nordic Walking is popular amongst all age groups in Finland. You have even been suggested as the Father of Nordic Walking in Finland. What do you think about all this?
"I, in no way, want the title of the Father of Nordic Walking, but I am comfortable with the titles of pioneer, promoter, and developer. I was probably one of the first who believed in the potential of its success, and coincidentally I just so happened to be the Executive Director of Suomen Latu, which made it possible for me to begin the launch of Nordic Walking and put a lot of effort into developing it into a form exercise for the entire nation.
Of course, I am honoured to have received those awards for my work in the field. As I have now retired, the awards that are the most meaningful to me now are the 1998 “Vuoden terveysteko” (Health Act of the Year) awarded to me by Finnish doctors, the 2000 “Suomen Kuntouttajamitali” (Finland’s Rehabilitation Medal) awarded by Finland’s Rehabilitation Foundation, and the “Vuoden Liikuntavaikuttaja” (Sports Influencer of the Year) award."
What kinds of feelings do you get when you look at the current status of Nordic Walking and its success both in Finland and around the world? What goes through your mind when you see someone Nordic Walking?
"It always feels great to see the results of your hard work in Finland and when travelling abroad. Sometimes I even congratulate people I meet Nordic Walking on their choice of exercise and outdoor activity, although only rarely do I give them advice on their technique.
In the beginning I naturally paid close attention to what type of poles they were using and how their technique looked, but now I’m just glad to see people being active and taking care of their health, whatever their style.
I go to the “sauvakävelykeskus” (Nordic Walking centre) in Paloheinä once or twice a week, and I believe that Nordic Walking is at its best a social way to exercise with friends, in nature."
Thank you, Tuomo, for these answers. I think we have all learned some very interesting and historical things. However, above all else, I would like to thank you for all of your hard work towards “suomalainen sauvakävely” (Finnish pole walking), Nordic Walking!
Tuomo Jantunen presenting one of the first prototypes of Nordic Walking poles featuring glove-type straps.
January 5, 1988: the first ever public Nordic Walking group march.
(Photo: Erkki Raskinen / IS / Lehtikuva)
The first poles for Nordic Walking: Walker and Nordic Walker, produced by Exel in 1997.
Tuomo Jantunen presented Nordic Walking to the president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari and his wife Eeva in 1998.
(Photo courtesy of Suomen Latu)