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The Sauna World Championships
Heat and Steam to the Extreme - 909
If you’ve recently lost interest in popular North American sporting events like the World Series, Super Bowl, and Stanley Cup playoffs, you might want to investigate some of the more unconventional competitions found in Finland. Each year in this Nordic country, fans of the bizarre and remarkable are treated to pseudo-sport spectacles such as the Wife Carrying World Championships, the Mobile Phone Throwing World Championships, the Mosquito Killing World Championships, the Air Guitar Playing World Championships, and, of course, the Sauna World Championships. Each of the five events certainly offers its own share of challenges, but few people would dispute that the international sauna endurance test is by far the most grueling and extreme.
Held every August in Heinola, Finland, about 80 miles northeast of Helsinki, the Sauna World Championships challenge male and female competitors to test their tolerance for heat and humidity inside two 110-degree Celsius (230-degree Fahrenheit), wide-windowed hexagonal Nordic spruce saunas set upon a capacious stage before a grandstand of gawkers, several of whom sit with their mouths agape. To be eligible to compete, contestants must provide doctors’ certificates declaring them fit enough to participate, they must pay an entry fee, and they must agree to wear a bathing suit. As many Finnish sauna enthusiasts prefer to sauna bathe in the nude, the rules and requirements aren’t always initially met with complete acceptance.
During the competition, contestants must remain seated, with their elbows on their knees, their arms upright, and all other body parts relatively still, while a half-litre of water is tossed onto the sauna stove every 30 seconds to produce a scorching blast of steam. They are not allowed to disturb other contestants, and the only movements they are permitted to make are to wipe perspiration off their faces and give a thumbs-up every so often to let the judges know they’re okay. The use of drugs or alcohol is strictly forbidden, although certain beverages, including electrolyte-charged sports drinks, are allowed outside the saunas. The last person to leave the sweltering sauna on his or her own volition (typically after as many as 16 minutes) without breaking any of the rules wins the championship.
The first Sauna World Championships were organized in 1999 after unofficial contests in the public sauna in a Heinola swimming hall were forced to come to an end when surprised patrons began to protest. The 1999 challenge attracted participants from Finland, Sweden, Holland and Germany and became quite the media event as well. The following year, the world’s first wedding to take place in a sauna occurred on the first day of the two-day competition. The 2001 contest attracted 82 competitors from 14 different countries, but, for the third year in a row, the two winners hailed from Finland.
The 2002 championships drew the attention of more than 10,000 spectators. It also saw both winners from the previous year repeat their impressive achievements. In 2003, Finland’s winning streak was finally broken when a female competitor from Belarus captured the women’s title; Finnish males, however, took the top six places in their division. Nearly 100 contestants took part in the sixth world championships in 2004, the year the reigning female champion made it two in a row and a male competitor from Finland, the so-called “living sauna legend” Leo Pusa, took home his fourth title. That same year, the Sauna World Championships were televised in Japan to the delight of millions of viewers.
Previous winners claimed the titles once again in 2005, as Finland’s Timo Kaukonen bested his male competitors for a second time and Natallia Tryfanava of Belarus achieved her third straight victory. Results of the 2006 Sauna World Championships were unavailable at the time of the writing of this article.
While some people may view such an endurance test to be excessively risky, event organizers contend they run a carefully monitored competition. “We have a very professional jury,” 2003 Sauna World Championships organizer Riku Jaro told BBC News Online. “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… When it’s too hot, people cannot sit straight, they start moving their hands.” As well, medics are standing by, just in case.
In 2003, the judges pulled Pusa, the reigning men’s champ, out of the sauna because, according to Outside Magazine, “he was slipping into unconsciousness, (although) Pusa maintains he was simply lost in thought.” And while no one chose to remove him during the 2004 competition, Pusa, it seems, was deep in thought then, too. When asked by a journalist what he was thinking as he sat and sweated his way to victory, Pusa replied, “I was thinking about whether I’d get back home in time for a sauna.”