As part of our occasional series of guides to odd things to do when visiting various parts of the globe............
Crazy contests fill short Finnish summers
Thu 8 July, 2004 03:12
By Ott Ummelas
SONKAJARVI, Finland (Reuters) - British academic Ian Walker is about to learn a bizarre Finnish tradition the hard way as he prepares to hoist his girlfriend Sarah Hardingham onto his shoulders.
The couple are competing at the ninth world wife-carrying contest. where men carry their women over a 250-metre (820-foot) obstacle course.
"It seemed like a great idea six months ago, when we heard about it on the web," said Walker, 30, a psychology lecturer at the University of Bath, looking relaxed ahead of his run.
"The only training we've done is run around the hotel room this morning, but at least we'll be the best in Britain."
The competition is based on a Finnish legend, but in recent years it has been dominated by Estonian couples.
The story goes that more than a century ago, robber Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen put potential members of his wife-stealing gang through a test that included carrying a 100-litre rye sack over a chest-high fence and a ditch behind it.
The contest, which takes place each year in the village of Sonkajarvi, 500 km (310 miles) north of Helsinki, requires the man to carry a woman over the course, which features a pond filled with water at chest-height.
The competition, which includes prizes such as the weight of the "wife" in beer, has become a major international draw with 7,000 spectators this year.
It has also inspired others to organise events such as sauna sitting, swamp football, cell phone throwing or karaoke singing. All are part of a summer bonanza of bizarre events that rake in visitors and cash for as long as the midnight sun shines.
SHORT SUMMER, LONG DISTANCES
The most common explanation for this is that Finns try to get the most out of their short summers. According to a popular saying there are only two seasons in Finland -- winter and summer -- and the bad weather lasts for nine months of the year.
Tuomo Tirkkonen, the head of Finland Festivals, an umbrella organisation for cultural events, says a sparse population is another reason. Finland has only 5.2 million people, but they are spread over an area as large as Germany.
"The country is big and the population is not, so we must have festivals and happenings in all parts of Finland. All communities are eager to arrange these things. We have more festivals per capita than for example Britain," Tirkkonen says.
The boom in the events may also be helped by the steady migration of people from Finland's north to the wealthier capital area on the southern coast, said folklore researcher Kirsti Salmi-Niklander at Helsinki University.
She said the contests got their first boost in 1960s and 70s when the population shift started.
"These communities are losing people and feel even more threatened than they were during the seventies, so they are looking for some new publicity and some of them have got it through the media."
Tourist board spokeswoman Vappu Virkkunen played down the importance of the bizarre events as tourist attractions, saying they do not compete with traditional cultural heavyweights such as the Savonlinna Opera Festival.
"Some of these competitions are known abroad, mostly as jokes that have apparently passed the news threshold with little else happening in the summer. But I would not say they matter much when it really comes to attracting tourists," she said.
SAUNA SITTING, MOSQUITO-KILLING
Foreign competitors have found it difficult to compete with the Finns in the sauna-sitting event -- arguably the nation's favourite pastime with more than two million saunas for a population of five million.
Finnish men have taken the world title at all five sauna-sitting competitions, although Natalya Tryfanava from Belarus last year upset a long-time Finnish winner in the women's contest.
She also outlasted many men, sitting 13 minutes in heat of 110 degrees Celsius (230 degrees Fahrenheit) with water poured onto the stove every 30 seconds to produce more steam.
Some of these bizarre events have even made it to the Guinness World Records website. Finn Henri Pellonpaa is featured there for killing 21 mosquitoes in five minutes with his bare hands during the 1995 world championships for mosquito killing.
But no contest has proved more popular than wife-carrying, an event dominated for years by couples from Finland's southern neighbour Estonia.
The Baltic nation's couple of Madis Uusorg and Inga Klauso secured their seventh straight win this year. Britain's Walker and Hardingham ended up with 14th place out of 18 couples.
"It was so much harder than I thought it would be," Walker said, gasping for breath and soaking wet after he had stumbled and dropped his girlfriend in the pond.
Once was enough for them, but Julia Galvin from Ireland said she will keep returning despite finishing last as her 110 kilos (242.5 lbs) slowed down her partner, former Irish arm wrestling champion Stephen Gracey.
"I'll come every year until I win. I've lost 20 kilos since last year and one day, I'll bring the beer home to Ireland," Galvin said, getting loud cheers from the crowd.