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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 August, 2003, 17:49 GMT 18:49 UK
Sauna rivals feel the heat
Sweaty men sit on sauna benches during the Sauna World Championship held in Heinola, Finland
The competition organiser says saunas are "holy" for Finns
The small Finnish town of Heinola takes pride in offering foreigners a very warm welcome - especially if they are competing in the world sauna-sitting championships.

The town has already established a reputation for hosting unusual international competitions, including karaoke singing and doughnut-eating.

On Saturday, competitors from 15 countries braved 110C heat, hoping to win the coveted sauna endurance title and beat the Finns, who had successfully sweated their way to glory for the previous four years.

Eighty or 100 years ago it was even normal for people to be born in saunas in the countryside, because they were such healthy places
Riku Jaro, competition organiser
Finland and its sauna-loving northern neighbours Sweden and Russia faced challenges from nations such as Kazakhstan, Morocco and Switzerland.

But the Finns shattered their rivals' hopes - at least in the men's competition, where they took the top six places.

Timo Kaukonen took the world title, beating his closest rival, three-time champion Leo Pusa.

Kaukonen endured the heat for 16 minutes and 15 seconds, before getting out of the sauna.

Belarus had success in the women's competition however, with Natallia Tryfanava lasting for exactly 13 minutes - seeing off long-time Finnish winner Annikki Peltonen.

Strict etiquette

The competition organiser, Riku Jaro, told BBC News Online that Finnish dominance in the competition was not surprising.

A fainting female competitor is helped from the sauna 02 August 2003 during the Sauna World Championships in the small town of Heinola, Finland
The heat proved too much for some
"We go to the sauna two to three times a week - it's a Finnish thing. It's a holy place for Finns. Eighty or 100 years ago it was even normal for people to be born in saunas in the countryside, because they were such healthy places," he said.

He said entrants were closely monitored to make sure there were no medical emergencies.

"We have a very professional jury - they can tell from a person's nose when he or she is reaching the limit. Then they can warn them with a yellow card or order them out with a red card," he said.

"When it's too hot people cannot sit straight, they start moving their hands," he added.

Medics were on standby just in case, and the competitors - mostly aged between 30 and 50 - had to produce a doctor's statement declaring that they were fit.

Two saunas with big windows were set up on a stage at Heinola's summer theatre for the 65 men and 15 women willing to brave the heat. A special cleaning fluid prevented the windows from steaming up.

In contrast with traditional Finnish sauna etiquette, the contestants had to wear swimming costumes - rather than go naked - and the heat rose well above the normal 75C.

Every 30 seconds water was thrown on the stove to create more steam and boost the temperature.

The rules state that competitors must sit erect, keeping their elbows on their knees and buttocks and thighs firmly planted on the seat.

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08 Aug 99  |  Europe

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