World Sauna Championships

Darwin Awards

The World Sauna Championships were an annual endurance contest held in Heinola, Finland, from 1999 to 2010. They originated from unofficial sauna-sitting competitions that resulted in a ban from a swimming hall in Heinola. The Championships were first held in 1999 and grew to feature contestants from over 20 countries.

Sauna bathing at extreme conditions is a severe health risk: all competitors competed at their own risk, and had to sign a form agreeing not to take legal action against the organizers. Notably, the Finnish Sauna Society strongly opposed the event. After the death of one finalist and near-death of another during the 2010 championship, the organizers announced that they would not hold another event. This followed an announcement by prosecutors that the organizing committee would not be charged for negligence, as their investigation revealed that the contestant who died may have used painkillers and ointments that were forbidden by the organizers.

The championships began with preliminary rounds and ended in the finals, where the best six men and women would see who could sit in the sauna the longest. The starting temperature in the men’s competition was 110 °C (230 °F). Half a liter of water was poured on the stove every 30 seconds. The winner was the last person to stay in the sauna and walk out without outside help. The host country usually dominated the event, as only one foreign competitor ever made it into the finals in the men’s competition. The first non-Finnish winner in the women’s competition was Natallia Tryfanava from Belarus in 2003.

In 2010, Russian finalist and former third-place finisher Vladimir Ladyzhensky and Finnish five-time champion Timo Kaukonen passed out after six minutes in the sauna, both suffering from terrible burns and trauma. According to a spectator who asked not to be identified, Kaukonen was able to leave the sauna with assistance, but Ladyzhensky had to be dragged out, and almost immediately went into cramps and convulsions. Ladyzhensky died despite resuscitation and Kaukonen was rushed to the hospital. He was reported to suffer from extreme burn injuries, and his condition was described as critical, but stable. Just a few minutes before the finals, Kaukonen told the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang that the saunas used for the 2010 championship were a lot more extreme than the saunas used for previous competitions. As Kaukonen and Ladyzhensky were disqualified for not leaving the sauna unaided, Ilkka Pöyhiä became the winner.

Kaukonen woke up from a medically induced coma six weeks after the event. His respiratory system was scorched, 70% of his skin was burnt and eventually his kidneys failed as well. Months later he was reported to be recovering quickly. He did not blame the organizers for his injuries. Ladyzhensky’s autopsy concluded that he had died of third-degree burns. His death was aided by his use of strong painkillers and local anesthetic grease on his skin. Kaukonen was competing according to the rules.

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