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.
From there, I took on a journey, first on the national level, and later in 1998 on the international as well when I was elected chair of the European Women and Sports network (EWS). This was a game changing position.
When I took over the Presidency of the European Women and Sport in 1998, in Athens, Greece, from Ms. Maria Iliopoulos, and that same year I also participated in my first IWG conference in Windhoek Namibia, I quoted Martin Luther King, one of my role models.
“Like Martin Luther King, I also have a dream.
I dream that sometime in the future, all girls and boys, men and women, shall have equal opportunities to participate in sport. Moreover, we must be given equal rights to make decisions concerning sport. This is not only my dream. It is our dream: to provide a better, healthier and more equal society in all aspects.”
As ENGSO president, what were your defining moments? What are the achievements, or moments, that you are most proud of?
First, I had to be nominated at home, in the Finnish Sport Federation (SLU). It was the most challenging part. I had a lot of support on the international level and was elected ENGSO Vice-President in 2001. My role as an EWS chair helped me. I was well known due to the fact that I had participated in the meetings of the Council of Europe.
The co-operation with President Bengt Sevelius and ENGSO Board members was great. I had to learn a lot, and they helped me. I would like to mention Mrs. Marlis Rytzy –Goetz, the ENGSO Secretary General at that time because her support was of great importance to me.
My dear friend Mr. Predrag Manjolovits from Serbian NOC was elected after Marlis as ENGSO Secretary General. He and his organisation did great work and supported ENGSO and ENGSO Youth in various ways. The Secretariat was based in Belgrade and led by Mr. Predrag Manjolovits and Mrs. Snezana Misic, in a very professional way. Together we started an active period of work at all levels.
ENGSO became more active on the international level, for example, with the Council of Europe (EPAS), the Sport Unit of the European Commission, European Women and Sport (EWS) and IWG and many other partners. For six years, we worked hard on gaining recognition among the European sport stakeholders.
In 2007, I was elected ENGSO President. In Finland, I was supported by my female colleagues. The most important supporter was president Tarja Halonen, who was President of the Republic. Her support for our work helped us a lot to achieve our goals, and ENGSO Presidency was one of them.
My most important challenge at the beginning of my presidency was to “convert” the long time discussions into concrete actions and fulfil the challenging strategy. I guess there were many sceptical people around, and many believed that I would not succeed.
The first goal of my work was to find support for ENGSO. We started negotiations and cooperation with the European Lotteries. I would like to thank their former presidents Dr. Winfried Wortmann and Deputy Director General Friedrich Stickler for their trust and excellent co-operation. Our common values and understanding of the role of grassroots sport and voluntary work in society led to exceptional results. I am happy that the partnership with European Lotteries continues today.
The other initiatives were the mentoring programmes that helped female leaders to advance to higher positions. ENGSO’s programmes “ENTER!” and “WILD”, funded by the EU, were extremely successful. The two first mentoring programmes were led by ENGSO members from the UK (Sport and Recreation Alliance), with the support of the ENGSO Policy Officer.
My third achievement, as ENGSO president, was the establishment and the visibility of ENGSO in Brussels with a goal of strengthening its active role within the European sport. This also led to finding a position in the EOC EU- office. The fruitful cooperation with EOC played a crucial role. The first representatives of ENGSO in the EOC office were our member organisations from Austria by Mr. Michael Trinker and Finland by Ms. Annuli Hämäläinen. Valuable support was also given from France and Germany. In 2010 Ms. Heidi Pekkola joined as the ENGSO Policy Officer. Our co-operation was excellent and continues still.
With active members and a common strategy, values and goals, ENGSO became the leader in grassroots sport. The role of ENGSO Youth was and still is crucial and important. Its active role, their European projects and the inspiring work they do for youth within the sport movement, helped ENGSO to find new active, responsible leaders.
In ENGSO we used to say: “Giving youth a real say”. Sport politics, the action and discussions, are equally important to young people than to us, the older generation. ENGSO always had ENGSO Youth representatives present in the annual General Assembly.
My personal “gold medal” came in 2017 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded me with the World Trophy on Women and Sport. The prize money was invested into the creation of the New Leaders programme, together with IOC, EOC and the Finnish Olympic Committee. This was a programme for 30 young women and men with an aim of helping them develop an international career in sports governance. It was a success story for me and ENGSO.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned in life, and throughout your sport / leadership career?
My journey to the top leadership positions has been challenging and it took me 50 years to achieve this. In addition to sport, it also included family, motherhood, 40 years of professional career, difficult times and a lot of hardship. But I understood that if I want to influence and change the world of sport, I can’t give up.
What would be your advice to the next generations of women in sport?
I hope my answers offer some inspiration. Dream and work, never give up and find your own way to receive and to give support. Build trust and develop cooperation. Alone, nobody can achieve anything important.
To be heard and to be seen! President positions gave me more possibilities to influence, and much more opportunities to act, speak and react. And I embraced those possibilities.
When I think about the long road we have travelled when promoting gender equality within the world of sport – I see we have come a long way. Together we have faced challenges, and we have also been frustrated how slowly the change is happening. Together we have worked for years and years so that gender equality would be achieved.
Sport is important for people (as individuals); from the perspective of personal development and achievements, and self-realisation. Based on those individual goals, the result is a more harmonious and healthier individual. This is, without question, good for society as well.
Sport is part of a democratic society. And in this society, decisions should be made in a democratic way. Therefore, cooperation with political decision makers is of great importance.
Today, the culture of sport offers more opportunities for girls and women than ever before. However, promoting equality is still crucial as we have not arrived at our destination yet. In fact, the journey has only begun.
If you would be a superhero that would be able to fix one global challenge/issue; what challenge/issue would that be, and how would you use sport to fix it?
Children and youth are the future. I still have a dream of peace, freedom, an opportunity to learn and to have equal opportunities for everyone to participate and have access to sport to participate.
Good luck to everyone at ENGSO!