Official: Finnish sports programme to energise the nation

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Finland is developing its first national sports programme, Raija Mattila, director of the sports division of Finland’s education ministry, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Raija Mattila is the director of the sports division of the Finnish Ministry of Education.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Why has Finland decided to develop a national sports programme?

The national programme has not been adopted yet. There was a committee set up by the minister to prepare a national programme for physical activity and sport. Behind that, there was that there was a lot of worry about the activity of Finnish people. We know that compared to other European countries, Finns are quite active, but we think that there is still much to be done in relation to their health and well-being and also concerning the role the voluntary sector could play here. 

Is this a unique programme at European level or do you know of any similar programmes in other countries?

There are certainly different kinds of strategies adopted by governments in other countries, so I don’t think that it is unique in that sense. But at the same time, there are always national features which may be different, and that also makes the difference between those strategies.

Has the Finnish government been looking at these other strategies?

No, there was no analysis of programmes of other countries or EU member states when drafting this programme.

You are well acquainted with the EU’s plans to develop its own sports strategy. How does the Finnish plan correlate with the wider EU strategy?  

It is difficult to talk about an EU strategy in sports because the bloc doesn’t have direct competence. The White Paper on Sports naturally has an impact on developments in member states too, but at the same time, the development of sport and physical activity is based on subsidiarity, which means that it is up to the member state to decide what is important in their country.

At the same time, Finland has been very active, for example, in developing the role of the EU concerning sport, physical activity and health. Finland has been involved in the Commission working group drafting the guidelines for physically active lifestyles, and that is something that is very common to the EU approach and the Finnish approach.

Will the Finnish programme reflect these guidelines in any way?

The government has actually already taken a decision of principle concerning physical activity and diet in relation to health, so that most of the ideas which are included in this EU draft proposal for guidelines are already implemented in Finland. Therefore there is nothing especially new for us. But we are very happy that this kind of guidelines has been drafted for the whole of Europe. 

Are these Finnish principles something that Finland has been pushing for in the EU drafting committee as well?

I think we have been quite active because the drafting actually started during the Finnish Presidency. When the ministers met during the Finnish Presidency, they asked for these guidelines to be drafted, and they will now be discussed for the first time at ministerial level in Biarritz (France) when the ministers meet for an informal ministerial meeting at the end of this month.

What stage has the national programme reached at the moment?

The committee drafting the proposals came out with 43 practical proposals, which we sent to different organisations and partners for comments. We have received 111 comments, which we have now analysed, and our aim is to bring a new programme: not a national programme, but also a decision of principle to the government concerning this programme by the end of this year.

Could you outline the main points of the programme?

I could describe some of the ideas which might be included in this decision of principles. We have grouped them into twelve different aims, and under all these aims, there are practical proposals on how to implement them. 

Concerning those aims, we have first this approach where we look at the role of sport during the lifespan. The first aim is that children and young people learn the physical activity skills and that they also learn to have sport and physical activity as a lifestyle during the whole lifespan. So we start from children and young people. Here we look at kindergartens, schools, sports organisations, etc., and specifically also at the everyday environment where children live. So this is the first package.

The second package is that we want young people and young adults to continue this physical activity when they get more independent and when they study. Here, we are looking particularly at what universities and other types of schools can do, and what the employers can do when young people come into working life.

The third package is linked to those who are already actively involved in working life. We think that here the role of the government is not that big and we are going to propose that their own responsibility grows in sport. Here we look at how workplaces could encourage their employees to be more active, and how family and working life could be better integrated.

In the fourth package, we are looking at how the elderly could stay independent, and how their physical and mental activity and their social relations could be improved through sports, through physical activity. 

This is the lifespan approach.

Then we look at how the different governmental sectors could better cooperate in this field. The Finnish Ministry of Education is responsible for sport and also physical activity, so we support sports organisations and that kind of organisation. But although we know that young people are more active today, for example when participation in club activities is concerned, at the same time, we know they are physically not as active as they used to be. And that is due to other reasons. 

They’re sitting too much, they work on the computer, etc. so we’re looking what other sectors of the government could do for example in the planning of cycling tracks and different kinds of park facilities for kids and also in terms of school sport, which is not the responsibility of the sports sector. What could be done to have more physical education hours at school and to develop the school sector in general. So this fifth package is cooperation between different government sectors.

In the sixth package, we are looking at municipalities, because municipalities are close to citizens and they are providing support for sports and physical activity and are responsible for many things which have an impact on physical activity. What we are proposing is that sport should be included in the welfare policies of municipalities. Here we have several types of concrete proposal.

The seventh one concerns civic activities, that is, sports organisations. We want the role of sports organisations in organising sport to grow and for their professional knowledge to also be stronger. Sports organisations in Finland, especially at club level, are based mainly on volunteer work, which is very positive and we want that to continue, but we need more quality in the work and more possibilities for those who are not participating to come with their own wishes to participate. There are certain proposals for that. And here we also take on board the ethical guidelines.

In the eighth package, we are looking at education and knowledge of different groups of professionals. We have lots of proposals here because we think that if we want to develop the quality of activities, we certainly need better educated professionals on different levels in different professions, including doctors and others involved in this work.

Then the ninth one sets the aim that the proportion of the physically active population will grow and that there will be fewer of those who are out of the sports life or have difficulties to participate than today. So we want to have more people, especially when health is concerned, involved in sports.

The tenth proposal concerns competitive and top level sports. Here we propose that its role will be clear in society and particularly that governmental duties concerning top level sports will be clearer in the future. We propose a new working group to look at that. And here we also look at the ethical side of top level sport.

The eleventh one is then that we set as aim that there will be more activities for those population groups that need special activities, for example for the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed people, the immigrants. So we have proposals on how to do that. 

Finally, the twelfth package concerns improving the efficiency of the government actions. There is going to be a proposal on how to evaluate the impact of those efforts that the government is taking concerning physical activity and sports. Evaluation will be stronger in the future. 

These are the twelve packages. And we hope that the government will discuss this and also the appendix to this, where the concrete measures are described by the end of this year. 

What about financial implications of the programme? Will it be used as a basis for determining the budget for sports?

It’s a decision of principle, and many of these concrete proposals are such that the government has no way to say that this must be done. 

For example, municipalities are of course autonomous and decide on their budget. But it is kind of a reference which they can take into account when they take decisions. For example, the concrete proposals concerning sport, which is actually the competence of the Minister of Culture and Sport, we have calculated what that would mean in euros and are taken into account. So some of these concrete proposals are already underway, although the programme is not adopted yet. 

But of course, we have to negotiate with other ministries about their possibilities, but they have participated in the working group which prepared these proposals and agreed on them. So there is a positive attitude to go further. 

Will it include any binding provisions to potentially increase the budget for sports?

No, because this is a decision of principle, it’s not binding. It’s a kind of a recommendation in its nature. 

Does it recommend more budget financing for sports?

Not for sports directly, but this is a very complicated question because the Finnish sports budget is almost totally based on revenues from lottery funds and that sum of euros which we get for the budget is more automatic. It’s a growing amount every year, but there won’t be other resources in the future directly for sport. But of course there are other sectors like school physical education where we then can try to get more impact. 

Concerning sports in schools, doest the programme have any provisions to increase the amount of physical education?

There is actually quite a large part in the committee report about school sport, not only physical education lessons but the whole school environment; how you could encourage the school to be more positive about creating opportunities for physical activity, not only during physical education lessons but including also school club activities, and creating opportunities for being physically active during the breaks, etc. There are lots of different kinds of possibilities, but the committee itself proposed that there would be one more lesson in basic education for physical education, so let’s see what happens in the final text.

Do you have any prediction whether this is something that can actually be done or is there going to be resistance?

The minister responsible for education, who is not the same as the Minister of Culture and Sport, has publicly said that she is prepared to work for that when the next curriculum is looked at. Then she will look at the possibility of having one more lesson per week for physical education. So there’s a positive starting point anyway. 

Are there any specific initiatives as to how employers can increase the activity of their employees, such as having free sports vouchers or exercise breaks at work?

There are not very many practical proposals because that is something that is actually their own decision. It’s more a decision of principle here. Anyhow, we have an organisation here which is going to look at this and then start to develop possible measures, so this is done that way. We don’t have a direct impact on employers.

Would you say the programme emphasises the instrumental value of sport in improving health and well-being in general?

It’s partly true but it’s not the whole truth because it’s not only instrumental. Sport is valuable as such, and that is why we are looking at sports organisations, for example. The starting point is not instrumental. But of course you can promote sport through an instrumental approach. 

Will there be a change in the balance of different actors in sports policies if the municipalities and sports organisations will take on more responsibility?

It’s already today so that the municipalities have the main responsibility when we look at the role of the government on different levels. But we are encouraging them to have a wider approach and continue to support them on sport because this is sometimes not so easy and might not be in the near future, taking into account the financial challenges we have globally. So we are trying to encourage them and to help them understand the role and meaning of sport in society, not only as instrumental, meaning better health and welfare, but also just as a way of having fun and having a good life in general.

Does the inclusion of a competitive and top level sports package mean that there will be a change in how much money is given to top sports and how much is given to civic sports activities?

Actually, today a very small amount of our budget goes to top level sport. Maybe 12% of the whole government budget goes to competitive and top level sport. Compared to other European countries, that’s quite a small percentage. There will be a working group set to look at this sector, but before that, I don’t think there will be any difference concerning the division of finances for different sectors of sport.

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