Most cultures recognize and celebrate the importance of marriage in a number of largely similar practices. The long-standing customs of celebrating anniversaries and holidays designated for doting on spouses are traditions shared by many nations. However, an extremely unique way for married couples to celebrate their unions was created by the Finns as recently as 1992. It combines wedlock with a healthy dose of competition and plenty of beer.
Wife carrying (eukonkanto in Finnish) is strictly a couples’ sport. Partners traverse a series of three obstacles over a 253.5 meter course; the distance seems to have been arbitrarily chosen. Two of the obstacles are dry (often log barriers, bales of hay, or fences) while the third is wet (and consists of meter-deep water). The track itself, originally composed of rock and now (for the purpose of safety) made of sand, further increases the difficulty of traversing the course.
The annual competition and many of its rules are certainly bizarre, perhaps a reflection of their largely undefined origins. There are several theories about what inspired the first wife carrying competition; the most popular involves an infamous thief of the nineteenth century. Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen and his fellow bandits lived in the forests of Finland, emerging from the trees and raiding villages for supplies and, according to legend, wives. This may be why competition rules do not require that male competitors carry their own wives; it is permissible to compete with a neighbor’s wife or one “[found] further afield” if desired.
While the sport appears most demanding of the men carrying their wives, it is equally difficult for female competitors. A wife can be carried in any fashion, which has led to some unique approaches. The most notable is the Estonian carry, named for the nationality of the competitors who first successfully employed it. It requires the wife to hang upside down from her partner’s shoulders, a position that takes as much strength and endurance as the carriers’ task. Furthermore, being carried over obstacles does not always go smoothly; competition rules require that wives wear helmets because of the frequency of drops and falls.
Two teams run the course at a time, making each heat of the competition more competitive in nature. Couples are truly racing against the clock however, with the winning team determined simply by the time taken to complete the course. Dropping one’s wife incurs a fifteen second penalty, a rule created to ensure that technique remains an important element of competing. The Finland competition typically draws thirty to forty entrant couples each year, with many spectators drawn by the prospect of entertainment and abundance of beer.
The brewed beverage is a staple of the Wife Carrying competition, perhaps a toast to the drink of choice of the thieves who inspired its creation. First prize, awarded to the fastest couple, is the wife’s weight in beer. This makes competing an even more challenging balancing act for the wives (forgive the pun); they must be light to gain speed but as heavy as possible if they want to maximize the benefit of a victory. Regardless of the outcome, however, all in attendance find good times and beer readily available.