• Polona Fonda

Sport gave me hope | Interview with Birgitta Kervinen

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

International Women's Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. This year, ENGSO celebrates it with its Honorary President, the 2017 IOC Women and Sport World Trophy Award winner and a role model to sportswomen from all over the World, Birgitta Kervinen.

Dear Birgitta, can you please tell us a bit about your sport journey; how did you get into sport, what is your sport background and what is the importance of sport in your life?

As a small girl, I dreamt about a better life. When, as a four-year-old girl, I joined a sport club, sport gave me hope. I learnt how to win and lose, how to endure hardships, and how to rise again after defeat. In my sport club, I was taught that all humans are equal. At home, I was taught to help those in need. I have always believed that boys and girls should be treated the same.

For me, being active meant being a member of a sport club and participating in its activities, training courses and camps. I tried different sports and learnt many things; athletics, skiing, basketball, volleyball, soccer and gymnastics. Sport taught me a variety of skills.

My sport journey is not just about me, but about my fellow sisters and my own daughter as well.

Today, when I look back, I understand how important my journey in sport has been. I was born after world war two into a working-class family. My parents were poor construction workers. Poverty and unemployment were a day-to-day reality in our home. Many social problems influenced our lives. I was not able to focus, I felt insecure and often abandoned.

I was also gifted but I could not recognise it. I am thankful to my father, who encouraged me to do sport, and my teachers, instructors and my aunt who noticed my talent for it. They supported and encouraged me. My modest success was enough to awaken my ambition to be better in school, and in sports. I understood that the right to play sports belongs to everyone.

I have been active in sports since I was four years old. I have worked at all levels of sport - from the bottom up to the top. I had a national-level career in basketball (also as a member of a Junior National Team), and in athletics. Later, I studied Physical Education at Helsinki University. My dream was to become a Gymnastics and Sport Teacher, and I made it. I learnt many important skills, for example, how to speak in public, and how to ensure that I am heard and seen.

I was also a decision-maker in my own sport club, a coach, a board member and a vice chair of the Workers Sport Federation (TUL). At the national level, I have worked in leading positions for over 40 years.

The path was not “glorious only”. I had some challenging years in my own sport organisation - the Workers Sport Organisation (TUL) because being a female, who was also too young, too active and too critical of the leadership, was not always acceptable. Through decades of experiences, I have learnt how to work with male sport leaders.

What about your ENGSO journey; when did you first hear of an organisation, how did you become involved with ENGSO and later become the president of the organisation?

How did my journey in international sport start?

In 1993 I was elected to the Board of the Finnish Sport Federation (SLU). At a very early stage, I learnt that the rules for men and women were different, and I wanted to make a difference. I decided to use my leadership position to help female leaders grow and advance to higher positions. I also became the chair of the International and Gender Equality Commissions.

I took part in my first ENGSO General Assembly in 1996, in Tallin, Estonia. I was part of the Finnish delegation, together with Mr. Peter Tallberg and Mrs. Terhi Heinilä. That same year I participated in Stockholm, Sweden in my first EWS Conference, led by Mrs. Kristina Thure (who is one of my role models and a great, long-time friend).

I admired Mr. Bengt Sevelius as ENGSO President and Mrs. Marlis Rytzy-Göetz as ENGSO Secretary General. I realized that ENGSO´s values fit my own. ENGSO´s role was established within sport politics, and the organisation acted as a role model and a leading voice at a European level.