Ants bite, phones fly in Finnish summer bonanza
HELSINKI (Reuters) - They carry their wives, sit on ants, throw milking stools, boots and mobile phones -- here in the home of weird world championships, participants will do just about anything to win their offbeat crowns.
Normally reserved Finns say there is no better way to celebrate the short summer months than with contests that add a jolt of adrenaline and silliness to bright summer nights.
"Maybe we are a little bit crazy ... maybe we are just bored," said Toni Hautamaki, a sauna-championship spectator from Oulu.
With foreign visitors growing by about six percent in 2007 and many oddball competitions taking place in distant rural areas, Finland's funny business is also a spur for tourism.
Most of the 50 or so competitions that take place over the three summer months -- many billed grandly as world championships -- started at summer fairs or as village affairs.
But today the top competitions can each attract about 10,000 people to the Nordic country annually to watch or join in, staggering across hurdles with their spouses clinging to their backs or diving headlong into ponds of mud after a soccer ball.
Some events are so popular -- swamp soccer, wife-carrying and air guitar -- they have prompted other nations to hold their own contests to select who will compete in Finland.
Portuguese Olympic cross-country skier Danny Silva said these events bring out the best in the usually somber Finns, letting them goof off, dress up, and poke fun at themselves.
Silva, who was taking his first stab at swamp soccer in July, said it would have taken a great marketing effort to make such a competition succeed in his home town.
"Portuguese players like all the glamour, perfume, look all nice -- and here people just get down and get dirty," he said. "This is bizarre, but when you think about it, it makes training so much more fun."
Many of the events allow top athletes to add extra oomph -- and fun -- to their workouts. They also let them show off their "sisu" -- the Finnish version of perseverance and guts.
Finnish cross-country skiers use swamp soccer to train in the snowless summer months. Both work the same muscles, but slogging through a mud-soaked field adds an element of fun.
Self-mockery is core to the mix.
Writer Risto Etelamaki said mobile-phone throwing -- which originated from Finland's national strength in the sport of javelin throwing -- combines recycling philosophy with play.
"The sport is also a symbolical mental liberation from the restraining yoke of being constantly within reach," he wrote in his book "Funny Finnish Pursuits."
Finland, home of mobile phone giant Nokia, boasts one of the most mature mobile phone markets in the world, where people pay for pizzas, parking and tram tickets using cellphones.
With tongue in cheek, some events purport to have roots further back in history.
Organizers say the wife-carrying contest is rooted in the legend of Ronkainen the Robber, who in the 19th century tested aspiring gang members by forcing them to lug sacks of grain or live swine over a similar course.
Another notion is that it stems from an even earlier tribal practice of wife-stealing, in honor of which many contestants now take up the challenge with someone else's wife.
Those hundreds of Finns who vie each year to keep their behinds longest in nests occupied by some 40,000 ants are, it is claimed, actually following an ancient health ritual -- one which keeps all their senses alive.
Boasting few disciplines in which its athletes excel on the global stage -- Finland ranked 44th in Olympic medals with four -- Finns find victory in finger-wrestling, mosquito-killing or ice golf equally rewarding.
"The tradition started as a big joke," said Arto Murto, manager of the swamp soccer championships. "It's our nature to create fun happenings, probably because our summers are so short."
Large parts of Finland are blanketed in near darkness for much of the winter and the weather in spring and fall is often cold and rainy, prompting locals to joke that the country has only two seasons -- winter and summer.
Finland's tourism board paid little attention when the first contests began 10 years back, but says the events are becoming a major draw.
"At first it was difficult to promote them as they were small local events where people did not speak any foreign language," said Liisa Renfors, a product specialist at the Finnish Tourist Board.
"(But now) they are raising the interest of foreign press and visitors -- probably because they are so different from anything else going in their own countries."
Finland's success has prompted rivalry and imitation from other countries in the region. Neighboring Estonia will host the world air guitar championships while Denmark has launched a championship in kicking a liter of vanilla ice cream.
But Finland's championships are still growing.
The annual beer float, which began with a few friends sitting in an inflatable boat sipping beer, attracted 1,400 participants this year in rubber boats, inflatable sofas and water scooters -- so many it forced local police to close down the Web site advertising the event, citing security concerns.