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Thursday, 11 May, 2000, 00:27 GMT 01:27 UK
Anyone for Yukigassen?
Baywatch team
The Baywatch team came from Finland
By Robert Stern in Norway

While most of the Western world is enjoying plum blossom, birdsong and the first chance of the year to slap on some sunscreen, in Norway, one small town is still buried under three metre snowdrifts.

Winter in Vardo, at the northernmost tip of Norway, is harsh. The sun disappears altogether for two months, minus 10C constitutes a nice day, and the town's only tree is muffled beneath swathes of protective wadding.

The end of winter is a long time coming, but when the days start to lengthen, and the temperature finally starts to creep above zero, Vardo celebrates with an international snowball fight competition. It's a tradition that only dates back to 1997, but no one in town doubts it's here to stay.

From karaoke to Kemijervi

It all started in 1996, after a sake-fueled night of karaoke in the northern Japanese town of Sobetsu.

The mayor told his fellow-mayors of Vardo and the Finnish town of Kemijervi, sister towns connected by their extreme northern latitude, about a sport his town had invented, and they all agreed it could become the next great Japanese export.

Opponents are eliminated by hitting them with a snowball
Yukigassen is basically a formal team version of a snowball fight, played on a volleyball court-sized pitch dotted with protective ice-walls. You win either by eliminating your opponents by hitting them with snowballs, or by capturing a flag in the middle of your opponents' court.

Imagine an Arctic hybrid of paintball and kabbadi and you won't be far wrong. Goofy maybe, but people take it seriously, and Sobetsu is po-faced about its long-term ambition to make yukigassen an Olympic sport.

Since the Japanese first introduced yukigassen to Vardo in 1997, the locals have become completely besotted, and their enthusiasm is beginning to spread to the rest of Norway.

More than a dozen teams were turned away this year, with 30 teams qualifying for the 4th Norwegian National Championships.

yodelling pirate
Yodelling pirates make up just one of the elaborately costumed teams
These included four from Finland, and one from as far south as Haugesund, west of Oslo (if you don't think that's far, take another look at the map - Vardo is the same distance from Oslo as Oslo is from Milan).

All of Vardo's population of 2,700 turns out for the two-day championships, from the opening parade and ceremony - this year including a minute's silence for their fellow yukigassen players in Sobetsu, evacuated because a neighbouring volcano has turned active - to the keenly-contested final.

They cheer the extravagantly-costumed teams, including yodelling pirates, an improbably-breasted Baywatch team from Finland, even a team of fatigues-clad Americans from the local Nato radar spy station - whose exuberance rapidly turns to evasion when asked what they're doing there.

But amid the party atmosphere, outside the hospitality tent sponsored by the local brewery, there is also some serious sporting competition to be found, combining athleticism with cunning teamwork and tactics.

For the record, the High School Dropouts won.

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