The Finnish Judo Association is enjoying a period of evolution or perhaps even revolution, illustrated clearly when the judo world was left open-mouthed as Martti Puumaleinen (+100 kg) won the 2023 World Judo Masters.
Martti Puumaleinen and coach Rok Draksik on their way to gold at the 2023 World Judo Masters

Despite such a feat, many were unwilling to accept the ejection of the incumbents but at the European Championships this November everyone really sat up to take notice. It wasn’t a fluke, it wasn’t just luck, Puumaleinen was now European champion too, consolidating his place among the best heavyweights of this cycle.

Gold at the European Championships too! photo courtesy of the EJU.

Martti trains full time at the Olympic training centre in Helsinki, housed in the premises of the Metropolitan Area Sports Academy Urhea Foundation. Simo Tarvonen is the CEO of the foundation. Simo has been a key figure in the creation of the Urhea multi-sport facility and its long-term funding solutions, being a driver for its concept some 20 years ago and eventually its launch. Simo, the Urhea family of experts and the more recent addition of a new coaching team, spearheaded by Slovenia’s Rok Draksik, means Martti’s overnight success may not have happened overnight at all.

Simo Tarvonen spoke passionately about his role and about the process of building such an enormous project. “The word ‘Urheiluakatamia’ means sport academy in Finnish. Urhea is a shortened form, a nickname which I picked up from a student many many years ago. I liked it so that became the name of the foundation and the whole group and network. It’s a happy coincidence or perhaps it’s completely appropriate that Urhea also translates to ‘brave.’

The sport academy and Olympic training centre is one side, including coaching, schools, education, for example, while the Urhea business side is the other half, including but not limited to the sports venues and housing.”

Urhea is not just home to Finnish Judo’s national team but also the sports of basketball, gymnastics, wrestling, football, swimming, sailing and athletics. Each sport brings expertise, personnel and a desire to collaborate and so each sport benefits from shared services and knowledge.

Judoka learning from an elite Finnish boxing coach. Sharing knowledge is a key philosophy at Urhea.

“In the late 90s we started to plan the sports academy system in Finland. Prior to that there had been, historically, 11 sports institutes but not in the big cities and so geography could be a limiting factor.

I was a squash player and became a national coach for Finnish squash. I started to think about why we didn’t have a real academy here in Helsinki, where everyone is living, especially with schools and work available for all close by.

In 2003 it became a legitimate and realistic plan and it grew. We have an official body which is also the funding body behind Urhea. Building began in 2019 and we opened in 2021. The National Olympic Training Centre became a reality! Over 6000 athletes, 26 sport federations, 7 universities, 56 secondary schools and more are involved and there are official agreements in place with each institution.

The foundation is in Helsinki and this is its heart but it is a huge network, also stretching to do a lot of work in Espoo and Vantaa. Within the network around 250 athletes are on site as part of the Olympic training centre itself, where we provide all services needed to reach the highest level. We encourage dual career options with some athletes working flexibly alongside sport. Some are studying but some can also concentrate solely on their sport. If they do that or even with a dual career option, they can be supported to transfer into their next career. For all of them we leave a pathway open to them and our psychologists are available to assist with the transition out of elite competition for up to a year after retiring. We also have some professional athletes in football and basketball and when their seasons end they can come home to where they know there are courts, high level services and other athletes. They can stay fit and be ready for their new season. There are facilities for recovery and weight training, for example, and all can bring their own home coaches here.

At the very beginning we invited sport federations to invest but judo was not a wealthy sport at that time. However we knew that having contact sports here was essential. We need their attitude and spirit. It’s one sort of diversity, to have so many different sport cultures together in one place. Coaches, mental coaches, physios etc all come here to work from one office and so they can learn from each other. I hope other sports are learning from judo and wrestling. I don’t want the sports to live in their own bubble. The direction of change in Finnish sport culture with coach behaviours is good, better and better in fact.

Sport federations have the responsibility to improve each of their sports in the right way. That is not our responsibility but when they are ready to work with us, we can offer them a lot of things. Excellence is part of the culture here.”

At the end of November the Chinese ambassador in Finland requested a visit to Urhea, coinciding, by chance, with a training camp set up by head judo coach Rok Draksik and his team, welcoming a British delegation to the facility.

The Chinese Ambassador, Simo Tarvonen, Finnish judoka and a visiting British delegation at Urhea, November 2023. Photo courtesy of Urhea.

“The ambassador and the Chinese sport community heard there was a vey new and modern high performance centre here in Helsinki and they chose to visit, to find out what happens here. Prior to Covid we had some good collaboration with Chinese athletes and in the lead up to the Beijing Games we held many training camps in Northern Finland. We don’t know yet what the future relationship looks like but it is a work in progress and one we are happy to continue exploring. We had a Chinese sports school visiting us here 3 weeks ago and that was also a successful visit.

Even though we have only been open for two years we have a lot of visits from countries all over the world. We have international visits almost every month, when considering all the sports here. I like to have these visits. I remember when we started planning the building of this campus; I had a dream that one day the Finnish judo team wouldn’t always have to travel to other places for the best training, maybe the world could come to us."

Martti with visitors from Great Britain, Ukraine and France.

"The Israeli men’s gymnastics team visit often, Latvia basketball came to shadow our system too. Wrestlers have visited from Germany and other central European countries, especially for a heavyweight wrestling camp including some Olympians looking forward to Paris. Our vision is to be an international high performance centre. For that we must have the international connections. We are a small nation and so this communication and relationship-building is essential.”

High quality services, positive relationships and excellence-culture are certainly attractive and Urhea’s collaboration with judo seems to be fitting perfectly.

“I want them to do so well that they can sustain this current wave of competitive success. Jaana Jokinen (nee Sundberg) did an amazing job starting to bring our national clubs together and with a small amount of success others can see that things are moving in a positive way. Judo shows such incredible values and we want to support them and serve them to continue their great work.

Rok Draksik really changed the attitude and the performance level for the whole of Finnish judo. He asks a lot from both athletes and coaches and in the beginning there was friction; the process for creating the foundation for a new culture and a more sustainable system is never easy but he was so committed to it and we trusted Rok. He has worked hard to learn about Finnish society enough to concentrate on the coaching in the right way.”

Rok Draksik coaching at Urhea.

There is no arguing with the clear upward surge that is visible at the international level. Martti’s recent medals are one indicator but there are others. Olin (-73 kg) qualified alongside Martti for the 2023 World Judo Masters and it’s the first time Finland has ever had two athletes invited. There was a 7th place for a young -63 kg judoka at the Odivelas junior worlds and a bronze medal at the -23 Europeans for one of the boys.

“This facility, with everything in one place, is part of what was needed. We also have Rok, who has changed so much and brought a new level to Finnish Judo. We have the tatami, a high school attached, physios, doctors, experts in a range of fields that we can use. The aim is to have all the best judoka doing the majority of their training together and here we have that but with all those services keeping our athletes as healthy and supported as possible.”

Weekend training including local clubs and international visitors.

Rok added, “A main point of judo is to share knowledge. When we share with others we also receive. We don’t hide how we are training and with international guests we can keep our mentality strong within the Finnish team. In the past there haven’t been so many visitors as the level wasn’t always consistent but now we have some better results and this facility becomes really worth the visit.”

Rok, Simo, Martti, Jaana and all the team have done an incredible job so far and there are no signs of it slowing down. They won’t rush but they will work together to ensure there is every opportunity for the Finnish judoka to excel. Paris maybe only a few months away but perhaps we should keep our binoculars fixed on Los Angeles 2028; Finland may well feature in a whole new way.

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