About This Festival
What started as a light-hearted attraction in the small town of Sonkajärvi has become a world recognized (although bizarre) sporting competition. The World Wife-Carrying Championship is yet another tongue-in-cheek event from those crazy folks in Finland. Other events include the Air Guitar Championships and the Rubber Boot Throwing Competition.
Despite the comedic nature of the competition, the Wife-Carrying Championship is deeply rooted in Sonkajärvi's history. There are many rumors on how the Wife-Carrying Championship originated, but it appears to have been inspired partly by the practice of wife-stealing, once commonplace in the villages of eastern Finland and partly due to a notorious local robber named Rosvo-Ronkainen from the late 1800s. Legend has it that he made potential gang members complete an arduous obstacle course while carrying big, heavy sacks on their backs as a way to test their speed, strength, and endurance.
Apparently young men would go to nearby villages, steal another man’s wife (often carried away on his back) and then force her to marry him. This was referred to as “the practice of wife-stealing.” These days, the ladies are willing participants in the competition and gladly volunteer to be carried.
The race, which has been held since 1992, draws over 40 couples and almost 10,000 spectators. While the sport has been considered by some as nothing more than a joke, competitors take it very seriously, just like any other sport.
Since the first competition there has been a strong rivalry between the neighboring countries of Finland and Estonia. The Estonian team of Margo Uusorg and Birgit Ulricht were unbeatable from 1998-2008 and nabbed the world record time of 55.5 seconds in the process. In more recent years there has been a resurgence from the Finns, who have now held the title since 2009. Contestants come from all over the world to compete, though it seems to be primarily a duel between the Finns and the Estonians.
Rules and Regulations
The event is part sport and part entertainment, with plenty of fun to be had by everyone. Some take the competition very seriously, training hard in an effort to post a winning time, while other couples are in it just for the laughs. The course is open to anyone wishing to participate, though there are a few regulations to follow. Both participants must be over the age of 17 with the team comprising one man and one woman. Though the competition implies the couple are married this is actually not a requirement—in fact, they don't even need to be related to one another.
The official length of the course is 253.5 meters made up of sand, grass, and a number of obstacles. The track has two dry obstacles (usually log hurdles) and one water obstacle which is approximately one meter deep. The minimum weight of the wife must be 49 kilograms. If it is less, the wife must wear a rucksack to reach the desired minimum weight.
The contestants run the race two at a time, so each heat is a battle in itself. The ultimate winner is the couple that completes the course in the fastest time. If the man drops the wife, a time penalty is added and he has to lift her onto his back or in his arms and continue carrying. Safety is closely monitored to ensure there are no major injuries and the women wear protective helmets just in case.
There are four different techniques that are employed to carry the wife: the traditional piggyback (arms around his neck, legs around his waist), the “sack-of-potatoes” (wife over just one of his shoulders), the “fireman's carry” (wife across both of his shoulders) and the most popular technique in recent times—the “Estonian” style (wife dangling upside down on the man’s back). Competitors are free to use a new technique if they like, though many have tried and failed in previous years.
Like any good man-wife activity, it is very important to keep a good rhythm. If the wife is rocking at a different pace to the man it will slow his pace. Partners that manage to keep a good rhythm are far more efficient and use a lot less energy. As with everything, practice makes perfect.
Besides the Wife-Carrying Championship there are other events that take place. There’s a Wife-Carrying Triathlon, a team competition, a sprint, and even a Wife-Carrying Senior series for people over 40.
In the team competition, three men take turns to carry the “wife.” At each exchange, the carrier has to drink the official “wife carrying drink” before continuing the race. Here, special prizes are also awarded to the team with the best costumes.
Wife-carrying has grown in popularity so much that competitions are now held in Australia, Hong Kong, Estonia and the United States. There is even a category for wife-carrying in the Guinness Book of Records.
So you might be wondering what the prize is for all this action. The first place couple receives the equivalent of the wife's weight in beer . . . BEER!