One of Estonia’s most bizarre – yet increasingly popular – sporting events will take place again in the country’s “winter capital”, Otepää; the eleventh European Sauna Marathon will take place on 15 February 2020, the organisers from Otepää Municipality and the Otepää Cultural Centre announced.
The European Sauna Marathon started as a local joke more than ten years ago and has since grown into a genuinely international competition that attracts both locals and sauna enthusiasts from around the world.
The events involve up to 1,000 competitors in teams of four who must race between a wide variety of saunas around the town, spending at least three minutes inside each leiliruum (sauna hot room) and jumping in both ice holes and hot tubs to have time deducted.
Competitors will get to experience some very weird and wonderful Estonian saunas – from old smoke saunas to saunas built with contemporary Estonian design. This year’s event, for example, featured a Soviet army truck converted into a sauna, several tent saunas including one operated by Estonia’s Disaster Relief Team, and even a local pub where competitors had to squeeze past diners to reach the sauna.
The saunas are also competing with each other because participants have to vote for their favourites, which then get given plaques they can hang up outside the sauna. Bribery is perfectly acceptable within the rules of competition so the sauna owners will offer entertainment, food and drink along the way in order to win votes.
The real winner, though, is always Otepää itself, which uses the event to boost interest in local tourism. At this year’s event, both the BBC and Reuters sent film crews to broadcast the race.
Tickets sold out at record speed last year, but organisers say they don’t want to increase the number of places available to competitors because they want to preserve what makes the event special and ensure there isn’t overcrowding inside the saunas. Tickets will go on sale in January, although a Facebook event set up on 6 December has already attracted interest from over 1,000 people.
Cover: Participants at the European Sauna Marathon 2019.