Place and date of birth: Bonn, very near the river, 500 metres from Beethoven’s birthplace.
Family: Wife and two children.
Education: Professional gardener.
Multiculturalism is… fun.
Racism in sport is… a drag, and a crime!
The future of sport in Finland is… open.
The future of multiculturalism in Finland is… inevitable.

Sports for all is the name of the game for Christian Thibault.

As the executive director of Liikkukaa!, the organisation working for championing multiculturalism in sports here in Finland, German Christian Thibault is actively bringing about change on the sporting field. Acting as an umbrella organisation for some 60 smaller organisations around the country concerned with sports, migration and a multicultural society Liikkukaa! oversees a number of projects aimed at monitoring and enhancing multicultural involvement in sports and campaigning for better attitudes.

Arriving to Liikkukaa’s office in Olympic Stadium on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, SixDegrees sat down with Thibault to hear his views on multicultural participation in sports, what life was like during Finland’s Kekkoslovakia and the reason why he didn’t end being a priest after all.

How did you end up in Finland?

Hmm. Well, I was kidnapped [laughs]. No, I was studying gardening in Germany and one of my foremen there was my wife-to-be. We were living in Germany together for quite some time before her father got ill. He was running a gardening company here in Finland and he needed a foreman for his projects. I finished my studies and then I came here to do that, actually before my wife-to-be returned to Finland.

This was 1984. Kekkonen was still alive and his spirit was too. You could really tell the difference, empty streets, no cafés and things like that. Nothing happened out in the street. It was a very simple life. I started to learn the language in the university at evening courses where there were a few other foreigners. There weren’t too many foreigners here, so we basically all knew each other. If we would see a new face, we would run across the street to see who this guy was and get acquainted. These are networks and relationships that have lasted to today.

My wife came back from Germany and we got married. Her father had a few years until reaching the pension age and asked me to stay with him until and keep his business running until then, and I did.

What did you find yourself doing once he retired?

My wife had already started her own company and so we had our own company together – exporting and importing garden items. It used to be one of the three biggest gardening enterprises in Finland. It was good times in the ‘80s before that lama [recession] came. We used to be the biggest importer of garden goods to all of the north.

How has Finland changed since then?

After that, Helsinki especially, has developed and become more international. The whole life – sports life, cultural life – you meet people from different countries. It is appreciated and it’s part of the culture now. It’s really different.

Why should Finland be multicultural?

Finland has always been multicultural, actually. If you think of the Sami people in the north, the Roma people. There have been a lot of Russian people. Then there is the Swedish-speaking community as well. There have been lots of others who have migrated here: Swiss families, Polish families with Fazer and Paulig. The Mongol and Tartar were here.

100 years ago Finland was very multicultural, but after the second World War they had kind of thought they were a monoculture. It’s now very healthy for the country to have the multiculturalism back. They need that as a small country. If you want to be involved internationally and you need international trade you need those capabilities and this cultural flexibility.

What are the problems of increased multiculturalism?

I don’t see that there are problems; people are making problems out of it. You hear the propaganda and the political discussion that foreigners are taking something away from the country, or being a threat, but you can’t really see it in everyday life. Of course this attitude creates problems.

Are the problems being encountered here any different than of any other country experiencing multiculturalism?

The situation is very different than if you compare to England or France where you have many centuries-old experience of migration. When you compare to Germany you have experience since the 1960s. In Finland we are now talking 20 years. It is a big difference. In a way it is a big advantage. You can have things in an organised manner. You can learn from others, if you dare to, or care to. On the other hand many rules and regulations and mechanism have not been in place. But Finnish society has always been quick to learn.

How do you see the multicultural changes occurring in future?

We all know that we have a political challenge against a multicultural society. It will very much depend on that how this thing will be dealt with. On the other hand I would hope that we will have a discussion with the whole society about the experience we have had so far and where we want to go and to get things on the right track; learn from what we have done over the last 20 years. I hope the country will understand there is not only the one foreigner, the one solution for everything and the one real right way. It’s a variety of things and can be different things that are working at the same time – not one excluding the other. We have been jumping from one thing to the next.

Do you find the issue frustrating?

I don’t know if frustrating is the right word for it. Now it is part of my work. It has been part of my life always. Even in Germany I have lived in an area with diplomats and my workplaces have been working with people from different backgrounds and cultures. My family had partly moved to Germany from France and the Netherlands just two generations back, my grandfather had to go underground when the Nazis came up in Germany. It has always been part of my life and now it has become part of my job here with Liikkukaa!

Of course, when things like this are part of your life and part of your job you have more experience; you have already seen things and thought things through. Society, which is not only concerned with these issues, is moving more slowly. So as an expert there is always this gap where you are 10 years, 15 years ahead of everybody else. I don’t know if frustration is the word, but you need patience.

Tell me about the work you do here at Liikukkaa!.

Liikkukaa! is now working on one segment of this issue. What we try to do is support and encourage our member organisations in their efforts and to represent them in the general discussion.

Apart from that we take on various projects, like the Respect campaign for better attitudes in sports that had people such as Keith Armstrong and Claes Andersson. This is very natural when working with sports and working with sports heroes who can function as role models. At the same time we are following the development, statistics, discussion on the ‘net, and trying to alert if things are going in the wrong way.

We used to have more than 20 multicultural football teams in Helsinki. The Somalis had five, and there was an African team. That was 10 years ago. Today we have naught; today we have twice as many foreigners here but we have only half the amount of football teams here. The latest research shows that there is a big concern about Somali youth not staying in good shape. We can see a problem in future with health issues, diabetes 2, mental issues and depression.

Apart from migrants losing out on sports opportunities there is another big concern about the disappearing of migrant self initiated activities. Each of their groups, teams or clubs involves and encourages four-to-five or more volunteers as coaches, secretaries, treasurers, caretakers and the like, some would take on refereeing. Those are very valuable people. One day society will notice that it will need those people and come looking for them, but by than most of them might have been already frustrated by the experience they are making over the past 10 years to now.

What are the chief reasons for this reduction in the number of multicultural teams?

Team leaders say the cost is too high, the effort is too much and they also claim that there is racism on the side of the referees and clubs. A warning from the referee comes with a fine. There has been an issue that these clubs have been paying more fines than fees. Of course it needs to be discussed that are these fines because of cultural misunderstandings, or are they because foreigners don’t act nice or because of the referees? Maybe it is everything. We need a discussion about this and need to fix it.

The other issue is that multicultural teams are seen as a problem by some people. They claim it is segregation if they make their own team. We think it is a good thing that someone in a strange country still finds the power and the energy to build something and serve their community and go out and play in the league where they will meet other teams and be part of what happens in society. This is the discussion of today. Because of this attitude these teams are not getting any support. As a club and team in Finland you depend on public support to even exist. All of them do. The criteria to get the support is determined by the level of the league you play in, the amount of children you have in your club or the amount of members you have in the club. The team initiated by foreigners does not have any children, doesn’t play in any top league and doesn’t have 1,000 members, so they are out of the support network anyway.

For those who object to foreigners who start up a team together, what is the other option then?

Their dream is the perfect mix. Given that foreigners make up 10 per cent of the population in Helsinki, then the dream would be out of 10 players in one team you would have one foreigner. Of course, life doesn’t work this way. Think about how the city is planned, where foreigners are living. If you want the team to function close to home, then you don’t have 10 per cent made up of foreigners, you have a different number.

Sometimes sport is taking on too big a role. Maybe it’s not the role of a sporting team in general to produce the perfect mix, which has not already been created by architects and city planners. Maybe it’s good enough that they give opportunities to exercise [laughs].

We have this paradox situation now where people say that sports should function for inclusion. It should be working for the principal of inclusion. Now you must take 10 steps before the first one. If you tell the guy that you can’t participate in sports unless it’s inclusive, unless you have nine Finns that want to play with you, then it’s discriminating. But, if you can’t start your own group with your mates, then what can you do? It’s this wrongly managed concept of inclusion and discrimination.

Do you feel it is designed to be that way?

That is a question we are asking. What you have to understand is that the resources for sports are not good enough; there are not enough facilities or support. So, then a big lobby makes sure that they have facilities as they have the money, and so they say that such and such activity is not kosher. You can imagine that the migrants do not have the best lobby to hold against that. This is what’s going on.

At the same time to relieve the pressure they are giving certain groups some money to organise the tournaments. This is a new development. Now a lot of foreigners are organising tournaments. It is fun, but it is really like you are building a parallel league where foreigners play tournaments and Finns play the official leagues. That is big discrimination.

How about certain ‘imported’ sports being played here such as Aussies rule football or rugby; why do their teams suffer less from these issues of multiculturalism?

And cricket too. These are kind of niche sports that are not so popular with Finns right now. People are just happy for people that come and play. You do not feel any stress.

Actually, when I was in Vienna earlier this year to teach football coaches about inclusion, I was in a room with 20 coaches that were very traditional Austrians. Some of them were quite old. I thought that okay, how do I talk about multiculturalism with them now? What will I face? What ice will I have to break before I talk to them? To my big surprise the first thing they said was, ‘Finally, it’s great you have come!’ They said that they aren’t able to run their clubs anymore if they cannot involve migrant kids because they don’t have enough people coming to their clubs. They see hundreds of migrant kids on the streets and wonder how to make them come to their clubs. Otherwise they will have to close the club down. They were so happy that we had come and were helping them to understand how they can involve migrants better. That’s what will happen in Finland.

Sometimes there’s this thing that you load too much on sports, why not just give everybody the chance to exercise? Why you have to make it: ‘Now we are doing it for inclusion?’

You put a lot of conditions there before someone can simply come and kick a ball. With family having to be involved, Somalis often do not have cars. For them to go to every club and sell hot dogs at a game, it doesn’t come naturally. You claim you are doing a good thing and working on a social issue. But really you are putting up a big wall of preconditions before somebody can step out there. Sometimes sports is taking too big a role.

If you think about foreigners living here; let’s say that a person has migrated here. They are working side-by-side with Finns, maybe married to a Finn. They have Finnish neighbours that they speak Finnish with and maybe go to the sauna with each week. How well integrated are they? What does it matter if they go for one hour each week and meet people from their own country and speak their own language with? Are they segregating then? Sport takes itself too seriously and thinks it is too important. People have another life outside of sports. If all of their life is integrated, then why do sports have to be integrated? Sport is good for mental health, physical health, those basics. Mens sana in corpore sano. Healthy spirit and a healthy body.

You speak Latin?

Yes, I was supposed to become a priest, but at some point the priesthood and I went separate paths. The Pope Benedict taught at our school. We were very, very catholic. Actually it’s going to be on TV tonight, the issue of child abuse in Germany. We have been working with it for the past three years as it had been going on at my old school.

I have worked with the German ministries of justice, youth and science over the past three years in order to build a federation to represent former students from those schools and other institutions. My experience with Liikkukaa! here was very helpful in this.

When those things happened I sensed them, I tried to oppose them. I pointed them out right away, but they were stronger than me and I had to go. I had to cut short school early and went into gardening. Afterwards that priest came where I was working and he said ‘now you are where you belong’. I did not really understand what he meant by that, since gardening is a good and very honourable profession, more honourable than what the priests and teachers at my school where doing. Years later he got caught – we caught him – so then he got to be where he belongs.