The names Taisto Miettinen and Kristiina Haapalainen aren’t household names, but perhaps they should be. The duo are world champions many times over, topping all comers from 2009 to 2013, inclusive, in their sport of choice. You won’t see them at the Olympics, though, because the sport Miettinen and Haapalainen dominated isn’t one which awards gold medals or anything like that. The winning couple receives the woman’s weight in beer. It’s that kind of sport.
Welcome to the Wife Carrying World Championships. Here’s a picture of our not-so-famous couple during the 2013 games.
To understand what’s going on here, we have to travel back to central Finland in the late 19th century. Legend has it that a gang leader named Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen devised a test for potential gang members — to prove their worth, they had to carry a sack of grains (per some accounts) or a live pig (per others) over sandy pits, through ponds, and around various other obstacles. Second, as Mental Floss explains, Rosvo-Ronkainen’s men were known to steal young women from nearby villages, likely as a way of finding wives.
For some reason, in 1992, the small Finnish municipality of Sonkajärvi decided to combine these less-than-friendly “traditions” into an annual athletic event. Men would participate in an obstacle course similar to what Rosvo-Ronkainen’s recruits had to go through, but instead of carrying sacks of grain, the people of Sonkajärvi incorporated the other aspect of their history into the games. The men were to carry their wives through the course.
Every year since, typically in August, couples from around the world (but mostly from Northern Europe) gather in Sonkajärvi to try and tackle the 253.5 meter track. Men are permitted to wear a lifting belt and women are allowed to wear a helmet, but no other safety or performance-enhancing equipment is allowed. Any type of carry is allowed, but the most common ones are the traditional “fireman’s carry,” seen here, or the “Estonian-style” carry, seen above, where the woman wraps her legs around the man’s shoulders and hangs upside down, holding onto his waist. The woman has to weigh at least 49 kg (108 lb) and if she’s underweight, she has to carry a rucksack heavy enough to get her to that threshold. And while the races are run in two pair heats, you’re really racing against the clock — the couple which takes the least amount of time to get over the Finnish line (get it?) wins the beer.
If you’re an unmarried man (or if your wife doesn’t like the idea of being carried upside down through water hazards and sand traps) but want to compete this year? Don’t worry — you still can. The word “wife” in “Wife Carrying World Championship” is flexible; as Wikipedia notes, the official rule states that “the wife to be carried may be your own, or the neighbor’s, or you may have found her further afield; she must, however, be over 17 years of age.”
From the Archives: Children of the Box: Another idea out of Finland (which, unlike wife-carrying, isn’t a silly one).
Related: Strange But True Sports, a kids book with bog snorkeling on the cover.