Russian finalist dies at Sauna World Championships
Tragic end to a controversial "silly season" competition
The 12th holding of the annual "Sauna World Championships" in Heinola seems certain to be the last, after a Russian finalist died and his Finnish rival was hospitalised with serious burns on Saturday evening.
Both men had to be dragged forcibly from the 110°C sauna, and paramedics attempted to revive them.
In the case of the previous year's 3rd-placed entrant, Russian Vladimir Ladyzhensky, it proved too late and he was pronounced dead on his way to hospital.
His rival for this year's title, the five-time previous winner Timo Kaukonen, was taken to hospital in Helsinki, where he is said to be in a stable condition, and is being kept in a coma by doctors to ease his recovery.
Police are investigating the incident, though the organisers have claimed that all precautions were taken to avoid injury to the competitors.
A post mortem on the dead Russian man is to be performed today, Monday, in order to determine the precise cause of death.
The competition, open to men and women in separate categories, had come down to the men's final round, with six contestants in a sauna set at 110°C, where water was dripped on the stones at the prodigious rate of half a litre every 30 seconds to raise the humidity to intolerable levels.
It was anticipated that the fierceness of the experience - the volume of water is considerably more than would be used in a typical home or cottage sauna, where the temperature is more likely to be around 80°C - would reduce the times contestants could stay in the sauna, and four of the finalists came out voluntarily before five minutes were up.
Judges and medical personnel were on hand to ensure that the two remaining finalists were still OK. They knocked on the glass windows and the contestants were supposed to give a thumbs-up sign in response.
After nearly seven minutes, Kaukonen appeared to lurch forwards, twitching on the sauna bench, either falling forwards or attempting to leave the room. Ladyzhensky remained in the same crouched position he had adopted.
Seeing that something was clearly very wrong, paramedics rushed in and dragged both finalists out forcibly, immediately starting procedures to revive the men outside.
In the case of the Russian, nothing could be done to save his life.
The World Sauna Championships were first held in 1999, and sprang up out of unofficial sauna-sitting endurance competitions that resulted in a ban from a swimming hall in Heinola for those taking part.
The event was another of those strange Finnish sports - along with mobile phone throwing, wife-carrying, and swamp football - that periodically nudged the country across the international news threshold during the "silly season" when journalists have nothing better to write about.
However, the very combination of a hot sauna, stubbornness, blurred thinking of what is dangerous and potentially life-threatening while under extreme pressure, and the competitive urge set this event apart from the rest in terms of risk and plain stupidity.
In the view of many, including physicians and the Finnish Sauna Society, which never endorsed the competition, it was an accident waiting to happen and the fact that it took twelve years for something of this nature to occur was a source of amazement.
Some years ago a local doctor in Heinola questioned the wisdom of the contest and filed a complaint with the provincial government, saying that participants had required resuscitation, but the Championships were allowed to go on after the provision of additional first aid instructions and more information for would-be competitors.
Just as the previous competitions have received international publicity, so the tragic end to the 2010 Sauna World Championships was soon headlines around the world, carried by the wire services and featured on the BBC and CNN.
The general reaction was one of stunned shock that such a bizarre contest would even exist.
The police are still investigating what took place, but thus far have found nothing to suggest any criminal negligence on the part of the organisers.
Relatives of the dead man, who was in his sixties and had earlier won the Russian Championships in 2008, have called for a full inquiry into what happened on Saturday evening, according to the Russian online news service lifenews.ru.
They do not believe the heat of the sauna could have killed Ladyzhensky if the rules of the competition had been adhered to.
In any event, the history of the Sauna World Championships appears to be over - the shocked Competition Director Ossi Arvela commented on Saturday night that it is most unlikely the event will be repeated.
To a good many in Finland, whilst there will be sympathy for the victims and their relatives (albeit that the words "Darwin Awards" have also surfaced quickly on Finnish discussion forum threads), the Sauna World Championships as such will not be much missed.
For a country that manufactures and exports saunas and claims to be the cradle of the pastime, the publicity generated - even without fatal incidents - was questionable at best: going to sauna is supposed to be a pleasurable and relaxing activity, rather than an exercise in human endurance.
Clearly, what started as a bit of comic relief became all too serious for some, with calamitous but predictable consequences.
Those who have never tried sauna and who carry prejudices about the very idea of sitting in a hot room "because your blood will boil" would be most unlikely to change their views on the strength of contests such as this.
The suggestion on Monday by Finnish businessman Vesa Keskinen that he would take up the mantle of the Heinola competition and arrange it next year at his department store in Tuuri "after modifying the rules in collaboration with medical experts" was generally regarded as tasteless by Helsingin Sanomat readers commenting in an online forum, and a reflection of Keskinen's talents as a huckster.
Whether any Finnish sauna manufacturer would wish to be associated with such an event after what happened on Saturday is unclear. The suppliers of the saunas used in Heinola have announced they will no longer be taking part in such competitions.
This article was first published in our dailies on Monday, August 9th and is edited and expanded from several stories carried in the print paper over the weekend and on Monday. We have exceptionally moved it to the weeklies owing to the widespread international interest that has been shown in the topic.
World Sauna Championships (Wikipedia)
Finnish Sauna Society