It may be the greatest single triumph in the history of sport you never heard of. Twelve laps into the 1972 Olympic ten thousand meters event, runners became briefly entangled and two of them fell to the track. The one that calmly got up and carried on, the Finnish runner Lasse Viren, went on to win the race – in the then world record time of twenty seven minutes and thirty eight seconds. That was the first of what was to be four gold medals for the then virtually unknown Viren, whose running form was so smooth and effortless it was hard, even for his opponents, to work out just how fast he was going until it was too late.
Viren was a product of the unique Finnish cultural tradition known as sisu, a word for which there is no adequate English equivalent. Sisu is action without effort or ostentation, failure without excuse, heroism without bluster or boastfulness. It is, if you will, bashful valor.
In short, sisu is a quality embodying characteristics that are the exact opposite of those possessed by Donald Trump. Where a man of sisu might be stoic, Trump whines. While a man of sisu is courageous, Trump hides. Where a man of sisu* is self-effacing, Trump boasts. When a man of sisu takes ownership of his failures, Trump blames.
There can be no doubt that Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, a man of unquestionable accomplishments, was inculturated from childhood with the attitude of sisu. So when, at a press conference, he said to Donald Trump, “Mr. President, you have here a great democracy. Keep it going on,” it was practically a scathing rebuke by Finnish standards. President Niinisto was telling Trump to stop screwing up before it’s too late.
The point was too subtle for Trump and naturally Trump missed it, and went on instead to conduct one of his most shameful press conferences to date. America’s standing has become so poor worldwide that a member of the Finnish press asked Trump about his impeachment scandal and even asked President Niinisto what kind of favors Trump has asked of him.
Trump began with a staggering lie. “This administration has done more than any administration in the history of this country in the first two and a half years.” Certainly Trump has played more golf and told more lies. If that’s what he means he may be right. Then he went on to whine about how unfairly he’s been treated. “People have said to me, ‘How does he handle it?’ Rush Limbaugh said to me, ‘I don’t know of any man in America who could handle it. Sean Hannity said the same thing.”
Trump then went on a tirade of grievances, falsehoods, self-congratulations, martyrdoms and false equivalencies. When Jeff Mason of Reuters asked Trump what he expected the Ukrainians to do for him, Trump told him to direct a question to president Niinisto instead. “Did you hear me? Did you hear me?” Trump said, raising his voice at Mr Mason and telling him not to be “rude.” “I have answered everything. It’s a whole hoax and you know who’s playing into the hoax? People like you and the fake news media that we have in this country.”
One can’t help but wonder how the whole thing played in Helsinki when it aired on their news programs Wednesday night. Like many European countries, a large population of the people of Finland speak English. Whatever they made of Trump and his press conference with their president, you can bet it had nothing to do with sisu.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.