Ari-Pekka Liukkonen, an Olympic swimmer and the first openly gay elite male athlete in Finland, was named yesterday as Finland's sports role model of the year for 2014. Liukkonen, 25, came out last year to protest the anti-gay laws in Russia on the eve of the Sochi Olympics.
Finnish journalist Ossi Halme sent us this report on how the award came about and its significance:
Yesterday there was the Finnish sports gala to award the best achievements of the sports year 2014. The winner in the category "role model of the year" was the swimmer Ari-Pekka Liukkonen who came out in early 2014.
Liukkonen's choice was made by a jury of 25 members representing all walks of sports life. In some categories, there was an open televote and in others, like the sportsman of the year, members of the Association of Finnish Sports Journalists voted the winner.
Ari-Pekka Liukkonen is the first Finnish top-level male athlete to come out during his career.
I think this came as a nice surprise. I was a bit unsure whether or not Liukkonen would win. He has strong merits from the pool. Then again, I wasn't sure if the jury would really understand how much of a role model it makes him that he came out during the busiest time of his career. I'm glad and somewhat relieved to see that he won.
Sports are in decline in Finland and we definitely can't afford to lose a single talent because of any pointless excuse. Next and perhaps the final big step to take is to see someone coming out at the top level of men's team sports. My educated guess is that it will happen in soccer. Finnish ice hockey managed to completely mess up the good progress that was beginning.
Bravo to Liukkonen for coming out at a time when it had maximum value and risk -- at the height of his career and on the eve of the Winter Olympics taking place next door in Russia. His coming out has not affected his swimming negatively. Last summer, the 6-foot-10 Liukkonen won the bronze medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the world swimming championships in Dubai.
(Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)