The legendary Swedish athlete Sven Tumba, was celebrated December 12 by SACC Florida as its Man of the Year 2008, for his contributions to Swedish causes in the state, and for his humanitarian work. The event took place with a gala dinner on his home turf, the Boca Raton Golf and Country Club.
The speeches were many and the admiration was great for a man who, after one of the greatest athletic careers in Sweden, now devotes most of his time to his African educational foundation, Sport for Education.
Who aside from Sven Tumba can better illustrate how sports improve social skills, encourage discipline, build character and responsibility. The first five schools are now operating in South Africa. Kenya and Ethiopia are next.
I, privileged to talk about Tumba’s career, remember a winter day about sixty years ago, when a bunch of us young journalists were rink side at the Stockholm Stadion. We had come to look at Djurgården’s latest hockey find, Sven Johansson. Our nestor, R:et Eklöf, Dagens Nyheter’s sports editor said: “They print the money in Tumba, don’t they. Maybe the mint spit this guy out.”
And a legend was born.
Sven Tumba is, in my opinion, the greatest athlete Sweden has ever had. Yes, I know, you might think it’s Gunder Hägg, Ingemar Johansson, Varg Olle, Ingemar Stenmark or Björn Borg. All great. But they were one season athletes. Sven Tumba was a “year-‘round-man.” When the ice melted he changed his skates for soccer cleats and kept playing. Twelve months a year, 52 weeks. Every Sunday and many days in between he punished his body in some of the hardest and most draining physical sports in the world.
In ice hockey he played for Sweden over 250 times, won three Olympic medals and four world championships. Summers he played soccer for Djurgården in the first division. He was better in hockey than soccer but still good enough to play center forward for the national team several times.
Tumba had what we in Sweden call “bollsinne,” which is a rare ability to handle any ball with a stick, a club or a racket. So when time came for Tumba to retire from the fields and rinks he took up golf, which at the time was a negligible sport on Sweden. Sven Tumba decided to change that. He put up a tent behind Stockholm Stadion and invited people to come and hit golf balls. It became an ‘in’ thing for Stockholm executives to take a golf lunch in Tumba’s tent. And Tumba himself strode out on the courses and collected a Scandinavian championship for himself. He may very well call himself the Father of Swedish Golf.
Sven Tumba, the idol, soon became a target for the gossip columnists. Many of them were on the way to marry him off to one of the princesses, a sister of the present King. I think it was Birgitta. However, I knew better. A friend of mine, Nils Nessim, Sweden’s foremost fine carpet expert, had a daughter, Mona. There, at the Nessim home on Villagatan in Stockholm, is where I found Sven Tumba in front of the open fire with Mona. After almost fifty years they are still together. It speaks of Sven Tumba’s character and of Mona, who throughout years of screaming fans and admirers has helped Sven to keep his feet on the ground.