It sounds like it could be some primitive Scandinavian skill, dating to when skin-wearing Nordic tribes had to haul their women from burning huts before an onslaught of marauding Vikings or maybe Huns from the eastern steppes.
As it happens, though, the Wife Carrying World Championships, held every summer in the small Finnish town of Sonkajärvi, isn't even close to that old. The event, which sets husbands from around the world racing down an obstacle course for the grand prize of the woman's weight in beer, hasn't even been around for two decades.
It started as a lark by Sonkajärvi locals in 1992. Four years later it became an "international contest," and this year 50 couples will compete from 14 countries around the world, including Germany, Sweden, the United States, Australia, China, Kenya and Israel.
So where did the idea actually come from? "It's based on a legend," a spokeswoman for the contest, Anni Keränen, assured SPIEGEL ONLINE. "There was this man called Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen," who lived near Sonkajärvi in the 19th century, "and there was a legend that he stole women from nearby villages and carried them over the rocky ground."
'It Can Be a Stolen Wife'
The main competition this weekend in Sonkajärvi will feature a quarter-kilometer (.15-mile) course across sand, asphalt and grass, over two "dry obstacles," like logs, and through about three feet of water. "The wife to be carried," according to official rules, "may be your own, the neighbor's or you may have found her (elsewhere) ... She must, however, be over 17 years of age."
"It can be a stolen wife," Keränen explained. "It can be your daughter." But it can't be another contestant's wife, stolen from on the track? "No. That's illegal," she said.
The rules say a wife can be carried in any fashion -- piggyback, fireman-style (draped over both shoulders), cheerleader-style (sitting on the shoulders), or in a posture of the couple's invention. But the "Estonian" style of wife-carrying has the woman lying face-down across the man's shoulders, feet forward, and grabbing her own pantlegs from under his armpits.
Thomas Spiegl and Anke Kindl, a Munich couple who this year will realize a nine-year ambition to compete in the contest, find it a fair division of labor. "The woman has to be able to hold on for one minute, upside-down," Kindl told the ddp news agency, "and absorb jolts that way."
Spiegl added: "The advantage is that the man doesn't have to use up his energy by holding on to the woman."
Margo Uusorg and Birgit Ulricht, from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, have used this method to achieve the Wife Carrying world record on the Sonkajärvi course -- 55.5 seconds. Margo and his brother Madis, paired with Inga Klauso, have dominated the event so far in the 21st century, having won seven of the eight contests since 2000. Margo has carried three different women to victory.
His career, though, may be at an end. He hinted in 2006 that he was done, only to race in 2007 and finish a disappointing 29th. His brother Madis was ecstatic at finally having beat Margo. "I'm feeling really great because we won," Madis told Reuters after the 2007 race. "It was my fifth time here, second time to win this competition. And it was the first time to beat my brother!"
The winners this year may also snag personal electronics, along with their thousands of liquid ounces of beer. "It might be a computer, a TV, or a camera," Keränen told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We're not sure. It changes from year to year. Normally we also gave backyard saunas. But the people had to carry them home."