FOR WEIRD SPORTS ...

... TAKE A TRIP TO FIN­LAND

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - AN­DREW KEH HYRYNSALMI, FIN­LAND — The New York Times

There’s some­thing strange go­ing on in Fin­land. Over the past few decades, as it has all but dis­ap­peared from the global sports stage, this hum­ble Nordic na­tion has sort of lost its sports mind. More than 2,000 peo­ple ven­tured to the re­mote back­wa­ters of cen­tral Fin­land re­cently for the 20th an­nual Swamp Soc­cer World Cham­pi­onships. If you and your spouse want to com­pete in the Wife Car­ry­ing World Cham­pi­onships, you must come to Fin­land. The Mo­bile Phone Throw­ing World Cham­pi­onships? Fin­land. The World Berry Pick­ing Cham­pi­onship and the Air Gui­tar World Cham­pi­onships? Fin­land and Fin­land. “We have some weird hob­bies,” said Paivi Kemp­painen, 26, a staff mem­ber at the swamp soc­cer com­pe­ti­tion and master of the un­der­state­ment. Just look at swamp soc­cer in Hyrynsalmi, a place where Jetta can achieve a small level of celebrity over the years. Jetta is a stuffed badger en­sconced in a bird cage. She acts as a mas­cot of sorts for a team of 12 friends who make the seven-hour drive each year from Vi­hti, near Helsinki, for the com­pe­ti­tion. They bought the doll seven years ago from a junk store at a high­way rest stop, and her fame around the swamp has grown ever since. A cou­ple of years ago, she was in­ter­viewed by a lo­cal news­pa­per. On Satur­day morn­ing, the men stood around shiv­er­ing in thread­bare thrift-store suits, which they said were their team’s of­fi­cial warm-up duds. A bot­tle of vodka was be­ing passed around (their pre­ferred way, ap­par­ently, of warm­ing up). It was about 10 o’clock. Soon it would be time for their first game of the day. They set Jetta aside and stripped off their out­er­wear, re­veal­ing skimpy, blue wrestling sin­glets. Be­fore they treaded into the mud, they were asked a ques­tion: Why? “You can say you’re world cham­pi­ons of swamp soc­cer,” said Matti Paulavaara, 34, one of the team mem­bers, af­ter a con­tem­pla­tive pause. “How many can say that?” The ge­n­e­sis of swamp soc­cer was in 1998, when cre­ative town of­fi­cials in Hyrynsalmi cooked up a fes­ti­val­like event that would make use of the area’s vast swamp­lands. Thir­teen teams showed up for the first tour­na­ment. Since then, the com­pet­i­tive field has grown to about 200 teams. The re­cent matches — six-on-six, with 10-minute halves — were played on 20 fields of vary­ing squishi­ness, spread out over 20 hectares of swamp. Fin­nish rock echoed through the woods. Peo­ple strid­ing on seem­ingly firm ground would dis­ap­pear sud­denly into the soft earth, as if de­scend­ing a stair­way. Some tot­tered on their hands and knees, like ba­bies. Oth­ers stood still, un­til they were waist-deep in muck. The scores were gen­er­ally low. Many of the play­ers were drunk. It’s hard to imag­ine an uglier ver­sion of the Beau­ti­ful Game. “You play, you lose, you win — no one cares,” said Sami Korho­nen, 25, of Ka­jaani, who was play­ing in the tour­na­ment for the ninth time. “The whole game is so tough, you’re to­tally wiped out when you’re done.” This streak of stren­u­ous ir­rev­er­ence be­gan sweep­ing through the quiet Fin­nish coun­try­side in the mid-1990s, and has only grown since. In 1995, a Finn named Henri Pel­lon­paa killed a world-record 21 bugs in five min­utes at the Mos­quito Killing World Cham­pi­onships in Pelkosen­niemi. The World Sauna Cham­pi­onships were heav­ily con­tested in Heinola from 1999 to 2010, un­til a com­peti­tor died from third­de­gree burns. More re­cently, thou­sands of Finns, most of them teenage girls, have taken up com­pet­i­tive hob­by­hors­ing, wherein com­peti­tors trot and hur­dle ob­sta­cles while rid­ing the wooden toys. How did this hap­pen? How did Fin­land be­come such fer­tile ground for wacky sports? There’s no sim­ple an­swer, but Finns of­fer var­i­ous deep-seated fac­tors, in­clud­ing an en­thu­si­as­ti­cally out­doorsy pop­u­lace (that goes slightly stir crazy dur­ing the re­gion’s op­pres­sively dark win­ter months), wide­spread pub­lic ac­cess to recre­ational spa­ces, and a con­tin­u­ing re­lax­ation of the tra­di­tion­ally re­served na­tional char­ac­ter. (Also, al­co­hol.) Fin­land is the most thinly pop­u­lated coun­try in the Euro­pean Union. It boasts end­less forests and al­most 200,000 lakes, and its res­i­dents en­joy “Every­man rights,” which guar­an­tee pub­lic ac­cess to most out­door lands and bod­ies of wa­ter for recre­ational pur­poses. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion con­sis­tently ranks Finns as among the most phys­i­cally ac­tive peo­ple on the con­ti­nent. “We’re like a for­est peo­ple,” said Lassi Hurskainen, 30, a for­mer pro­fes­sional goal­keeper from Joen­suu, who vis­ited the swamp soc­cer tour­na­ment while host­ing a seg­ment for a Fin­nish sports tele­vi­sion show. “So we come up with games that re­late to na­ture.” Strad­dling the Arc­tic Cir­cle, Fin­land en­dures long, pun­ish­ingly dark win­ters. Sum­mer, there­fore, marks a pe­riod of na­tional cathar­sis. It helps that the coun­try has an es­ti­mated 500,000 sum­mer cot­tages, and be­cause many Finns re­ceive up to six weeks of va­ca­tion time per year, the act of un­hur­riedly pass­ing time out­doors feels al­most like a na­tional birthright. The mos­quito-killing con­test, for in­stance, was in­vented by a Fin­nish busi­ness­man named Kai Kullervo Salmi­jarvi as a sum­mer­time di­ver­sion for his chil­dren. “I think we go a lit­tle crazy in the sum­mer,” said Hanna Vehmas, a sports so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Jy­vaskyla. “Mix that with al­co­hol, and maybe we want to com­pete a lit­tle bit.” In Hyrynsalmi, the swamp soc­cer games were just one com­po­nent of the week­end fun. Finns from all over the coun­try — there were also a few teams from Rus­sia — ef­fec­tively dou­bled the pop­u­la­tion of the small town, where signs warn­ing of cross­ing moose dot the quiet road­ways. On Fri­day and Satur­day nights, af­ter ev­ery­one had cleaned the swamp wa­ter off their faces, there were loud rock con­certs in the park­ing lot of a lo­cal re­sort un­til 2 a.m., when the soft glow of the sun was still vis­i­ble over the hills. “This is what I wait for ev­ery win­ter,” said Ta­pio Ve­le­nius, 38, who has been play­ing swamp soc­cer since 2005. “It’s tra­di­tion in Fin­land: hav­ing beer, no sleep, hav­ing fun.” Ve­le­nius, an elec­tri­cian from Jamsa who is built like a rugby player, was par­tic­u­larly adept at one of the sport’s most im­por­tant moves: rest­ing on your hands and knees and lift­ing up one leg, like a dog at a fire hy­drant, to kick the ball. But even the sim­plest move­ments in the swamp had Ve­le­nius and the other com­peti­tors gasp­ing for air. “You’re at max­i­mum pulse ev­ery time you go three me­tres,” said Roosa Man­nonen, 22, a stu­dent from Lahti, who en­tered the women’s com­pe­ti­tion with a group of friends. If the hal­cyon days of elite sports in Fin­land seem like a dis­tant mem­ory, the con­tours of a new, far weirder era of na­tional sports pros­per­ity have taken shape, one that re­flects the wave of in­di­vid­u­al­ism still grow­ing in this young coun­try. Hence the wife-car­ry­ing races (where the win­ners re­ceive the wife’s weight in beer) and the air gui­tar con­tests (hash­tag: #makeairnot­war) and the soc­cer games in cold, cof­fee-brown swamp wa­ter. Hence the celebrity of Jetta, the badger doll. “We learned to laugh at our­selves,” Koski said. “What’s so se­ri­ous?”

JANNE KORKKO, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Teams bat­tle the mud as much as each other play­ing in the 20th an­nual Swamp Soc­cer World Cham­pi­onships in Hyrynsalmi, Fin­land.

JANNE KORKKO, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Pic­tured is a player’s duct tape shoe mod­i­fi­ca­tion at the swamp soc­cer com­pe­ti­tion in Hyrynsalmi in July.

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