Estonia’s most bizarre annual sporting event, the European Sauna Marathon, resulted in a true underdog victory for the residents of Kirepi village who spent six days building a temporary sauna so they could take part; our sauna reporter, Adam Rang, who was there with his own sauna, says there’s hope it may now become a permanent attraction for the village.
Kirepi village has a population of 129 and is a 20-minute drive from Otepää. However, that didn’t stop residents from wanting to take part in the winter capital’s European Sauna Marathon in the weekend of 15-16 February.
The European Sauna Marathon is an annual orienteering race between saunas in and around Otepää, the winter capital of Estonia, organised by Otepää Kultuurikeskused (Otepää Cultural Centres, a subsidiary of the municipality). Participants must spend three minutes inside each steam room and also jump in ice holes and hot tubs along the way. The first event in 2010 attracted 30 people and it has now grown into a large-scale competition that attracts visitors and media coverage from around the world. The race is not meant to be taken too seriously, although competitors must also vote for their favourite sauna at the end.
The only problem for the residents of Kirepi is that they didn’t have a big enough sauna to handle the 700 competitors that took part in this year’s competition.
Instead, the residents came together and built a new temporary sauna, starting just six days before the competition. To their surprise, it was crowned the best sauna at the event.
Marju Jõks from Kirepi said the building process was tough, but it brought the community together.
“When they said our sauna is the best, we could not believe it. Our emotions were up to the sky. We laughed, cried and shouted ‘woo hoo’ all at the same time. It was unbelievable and still is,” she said.
The future of this sauna is uncertain because it’s supposed to be temporary, although this surprise victory might change that.
Due to the lack of snow, all other international winter events in the region have been cancelled, including the Tartu Marathon. Although less serious as a sporting event, the European Sauna Marathon makes a positive impact, both by bringing visitors to the event, but also promoting longer-term sauna tourism to south Estonia.
Kirepi’s winning sauna was built on land belonging to the local municipality so was given temporary permission on the understanding it would be moved or destroyed after the competition. Jõks said they would now enter discussions with the municipality about whether it is worth preserving the winning sauna for both the community and future visitors to the village.
The sauna in Kirepi competed against 18 other weird and wonderful saunas across the region, including a sauna inside a ZiL-131 Soviet Army truck that belongs to this writer.
Nagy Salem from Egypt says his favourite sauna at the sauna marathon involved watching the Estonian movie “Kevade” at someone’s home.
“The owner gave us a short train ride and then we had to watch an old Estonian movie with him at his home before going to his sauna. He was dressed as one of the characters. It was empty at the time, so we were alone, but we really enjoyed it. We then jumped in his pool before going out through a tunnel to a different house. That was awesome.”
Cover: Estonia’s most bizarre annual sporting event, the European Sauna Marathon, resulted in a true underdog victory for the residents of Kirepi village who spent six days building a temporary sauna so they could take part. Images courtesy of Adam Rang.