Despite the usual Finnish warning that a sauna is not the place to compete in some macho way about how long you can stand the heat - the Sauna World Championships does exactly that. From around the world flock masochistic steam-dogs all prepared to sweat it out in a sauna set at 110ºC.
The championships take place in the small town of in Heinola, Finland every August ant attracts just under 100 competitors from as many as 18 countries including Australia, South Korea and Kazakhstan.
Now you might imagine how this can become a spectator event but they have done so. Last year 3500 spectators were on hand in Heinola and several TV channels from Sweden to China televised the event. The Sauna World Championships were open for betting on-line with sports bookmakers Centrebet.
Every competitor takes part in the competition at their own risk. The Sauna temperature to fight against is 110ºC, with half a litre of water thrown on the stove every 30 seconds to increase the steaming heat effect. Competitors have to sit in the Sauna with buttocks and thighs on the seat. Posture must be erect; elbows must stay on the knees and arms have to be in an upright position. Touching skin with hands or disturbing the other competitors is strictly forbidden. The competitor will have to leave the Sauna without outside help, otherwise they will be disqualified. The last person to get out of the Sauna will be the World Sauna Champion.
Competitors are given a "warm reception"
Young men in Finland often compete to see who can resist longer in the heat of the Sauna. Mr. Riku Jaro, organizer of the Sauna Championships agrees that "t has got something to do with that famous Finnish "Sisu" (guts), "Who is the toughest guy among us".
Therefore, it is not strange that the idea of organizing a Sauna competition was born when a group of men, who liked to sit in an extremely hot sauna, held unofficial competitions in the public Sauna at the Heinola swimming hall. Participants for these unofficial competitions began to arrive from all around Finland and soon after qualifying rounds started to be organized in Sweden and in Germany.
The Championships have been traditionally dominated by Finns, which is rather normal for a country where the average person goes to Sauna between two and four times a week. In 2003 the competition got its first non-Finnish champion when Ms. Natallia Tryfanava from Belarus won the women's title with a Sauna resistance of 13 minutes. The men's title remained in Finland with the 16 minutes and 15 seconds world record of Mr. Timo Kaukonen. The 2004 edition was won again by Ms. Natallia Tryfanava from Belarus on the women's cup and by Mr. Leo Pusa from Finland on the men's cup.
The national Japanese tv-company Nippon Network television made a documentary of the 2004 Sauna World Championships. With the tv-group there were also two competitors from Japan who anyhow were not able to get through from their preliminary heats. The program was broadcasted to an audience of about 40 million spectators in Japan.
Sauna party in Heinola
The World Sauna Championships count often with guests from the sports' world and the national political scene. Famous Finnish cross-country skier Juha Mieto challenged two other skier legends, Thomas Wassberg from Sweden and Vladimir Smirnov from Kazakstan, to try the World Championships Sauna in Heinola just before the finals on Sunday the 7th of August 2004.
Politicians did also feel the heat as Heinola's mayor Mr Hannu Komonen invited mayors of other Finnish cities and German "Sauna-town" Colbitz to a «Mayors Sauna». To be a polite host, Heinola's mayor promised to leave the Sauna first.
Varied additional events are organized in Heinola alongside the Sauna Championships, such as the traditional match between Finland and Sweden in Sauna Bathing or the world's first wedding in a Sauna which was held on August 2000. The Sauna Market Place is a traditional rendez-vous for traditional Sauna-related products buyers and sellers.
"How I survived the World Sauna Championship" - Memories of an American in Heinola
"When the first round of contestants came onstage in their bathing suits at one in the afternoon, the audience broke into loud cheers. The first heat contained four Finns and a jittery Japanese guy who looked like he'd lost on the way to the community sauna. Once in the sauna, the Japanese guy calmed down until the water hit the rocks. Then he began blinking a lot and gasping for air."
"There was no clock for us to keep track of time but we could count the water blasts. When the sixth one hit we knew they'd been in there for three minutes, and that was too much for the Japanese guy, who ran out of the room. A black-clad sauna wrangler cracked open the door, grabbed him forcefully under the arm, and speed-walked him offstage before he could collapse. The Finns fell in rapid succession two minutes later, dashing wildly out of the sauna just before the twelfth löyly blast. Nobody made it past six minutes."
"I suffered first-degree burns over most of my torso. My skin looked like a waffle iron had been repeatedly pressed against it. Pink and red patterns covered my arms and back and I was having trouble moving. Others had it worse. Now, after the fact, I was sure I could have lasted another four seconds, though I knew I couldn't have made it to the next round. Anders and the Belarusian made the cut by lasting a little over five minutes."
"Are you okay?" asked a young Finnish competitor. He had a giant, jutting blond goatee and Japanese lettering tattooed on his chest. "You look not okay".
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