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Finland's passion for crazy contests

Wife carrying world championship

The mobile phone throwing world championship in Finland on Saturday is just one of many crazy contests on the country's summer diary. Helsingin Sanomat columnist Perttu Hakkinen asks why Finns have such a fondness for these wacky pursuits.

Finland is well-known for several reasons: mass-produced mobile phones, lakes - 190,000 of them - and boiling hot saunas.

Also, for Santa Claus and the Eurovision monsterman, Lordi.

Finnish summer sports and pastimes owe something to all of these things. The telecoms industry, the natural environment - and the country's gimmicky eccentric side.

The list includes boot throwing, wife carrying, mosquito slapping, mobile-phone throwing, swamp football, sauna endurance contests... and many more.

I guess all Finnish summer sports were invented by drunk people
Harri Kinnunen, boot-throwing world championships organiser

And it's probably no coincidence that of all the many countries where people exult in playing air guitar, it's Finland that hosts the world championships.

But no-one should assume that Finns treat these contests as a joke - nothing could be further from the truth. The players and fans involved really do mean business.

Vodka and envy

Here's my theory about how they originated.

A lake in Finland
The countryside is soothing, but some people want more

Almost every Finnish family has its very own summer cottage, or moekki, where it hides every summer to escape annoying neighbours and noisy urban racket.

(Since Finland is a big country consisting mostly of trees and water, it's quite easy to find some soul-soothing peace.)

But after few days of relaxing country life, some Finns get bored. Activities like fishing, boozing or swimming lose their magic. Then it's time to call-up the annoying neighbours (or relatives) again, ask them to come over and get them to engage in some kind of contest. Toilet-paper throwing, for example.

The winner usually gets a bottle of cheap vodka and envious looks from their rivals. (Finnish people are quite competitive.)

But boredom is not the only motivating force behind weird summer sports.

"We can lure in 8,000 to 9,000 tourists during a weekend," says Eero Pitkaenen, announcer for the annual Wife-Carrying World Championships in Sonkajaervi.

This little village located in north-east Finland normally has a population of 4,825, so wife-carrying enthusiasts triple it every summer. And that means money.

Rubber boots

While the first Wife-Carrying World Championships were held only in 1992, the sport allegedly has its roots in a local 18th Century folktale. It is said that a cold-blooded bandit called Rosvo Ronkainen (Rosvo means "villain") used to snatch women from nearby villages, to have his way with them.

Boot being thrown in booth throwing competition

It is said that he didn't accept men in his posse who couldn't jump over a creek with a 100kg sack of grain on their shoulders.

The official 253.5m-long wife-carrying track seems to be influenced by this fable since it features different types of obstacle, including water.

Like wife carrying, boot throwing also goes back a long way, at least to the start of the 20th Century.

Quite how or why it began is unknown, but Harri Kinnunen, two-time organiser of the Boot Throwing World Championships, has a hunch.

"I think it's pretty obvious that some drunken people were sitting on a terrace after a sauna and saw a rubber boot," he chuckles as if no further explanation were required (the urge to pick the boot up and throw it being, quite obviously, irresistible).

"I guess all Finnish summer sports were invented by drunk people."

Urine samples

The UK and New Zealand have their own versions of this sport (wellie wanging and gumboot throwing) but the first world championships were held in Finland in 1992, and over the years a real sport has evolved.

Now it even has its own organisation IBTA (International Boot Throwing Association) its own official throwing boot, designed by Italian manufacturers, and strict anti-doping regulations.

"First time I was working as an organiser I received a phone call from a doctor who wanted to come around to collect urine samples," Kinnunen explains.

"I asked him a few times if it was a prank call."

It wasn't. A few years later one contestant was actually caught for using prohibited substances!

"Believe it or not, it's a dead serious sport," Kinnunen says.

Swamp soccer

The most popular summer sport in Finland, however, is not wife carrying or boot throwing, but swamp soccer (SS).

The SS World Championships can attract over 30,000 enthusiasts and 300 teams to the tiny northern village of Hyrynsalmi (population 2,895), travelling all the way from the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Russia and Iceland.

The game is basically just like normal soccer, but it's played on a wet, marshy swamp.

It generates the same emotional behaviour. Every once in a while violence raises its ugly head. Players have been taken to hospital with nasty bruises or missing teeth.

There's one more factor that helps to explain the popularity of goofy sports in Finland - something I call "the blessed madness".

Blessed madness is basically an improvised rite where a member of community exalts himself by doing something stupid or dangerous.

Like, say, sitting naked on an ant's nest.

In a culture as stiff as Finland's, this ritual bears a great value and it also makes the culture more interesting in the eyes of strangers.

"Yeah, I know what the foreigners think," Kinnunen laughs. "Those crazy Finns!"



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