The Reindeer Racing World Champion
There are few better reasons to travel than to immerse oneself in other cultures. It doesn’t really matter where you travel, even on the Costas, digging a little bit deeper will reveal some remarkable secrets.
One place where the local culture takes precedence over almost everything else is Lapland, be it Finnish, Swedish or Norwegian Lapland. Here, the ways of Europe’s only remaining indigenous race, the Sámi, remain very much to the fore and for me, one of the most fascinating and exhilarating has got to be reindeer racing.
A recent trip to Luosto in Finnish Lapland just happened to coincide with the races arriving in the self same village so under an ice blue sky, we joined what the locals laughingly call “the crowds” down by the huge oval track. During the summer, this area would be a lake or a swamp but here in late March, it was snow-covered, perfect for reindeer racing because the jockeys don’t ride atop their animals, they ski behind them.
Each race brought its own buzz of excitement as Sámi jockeys, crouched low in aerodynamic poses and clad in multi-coloured, figure hugging ski suits raced each other at speeds approaching 40mph – it’s little wonder that Father Christmas can deliver all those presents in one night – reindeer are fast. Despite the bumpy surface and the pace at which each contest was run, both riders and reindeer remained steadfastly sure footed rendering crash helmets redundant. We thrilled as men and beasts sped past in a blur of colour accompanied by an increasingly ferocious and unintelligible tannoy commentary in one of the three remaining Sámi tongues.
The races went by at a furious pace but after an hour or so, a murmur began to grow in the crowd along with an almost tangible increase in anticipation. Our host explained,
“The world champion is up next.”
Now that is the sort of thing you want to hear at any sporting event and it occurred to me that what we were about to see was the reindeer racing of say Michael Schumacher with Ferrari or Tony McCoy competing in their particular fields.We watched slack-jawed as the tape went up and the competitors accelerated away from us towards the long 180 degree turn some 800 or 1000 metres from our vantage point. It was difficult to see who was leading but as the runners emerged from the bend it was clear that there would only be one winner of this particular race. Indeed, as he sped across the finishing line, the electronic timing board flashed up what was easily the quickest time of the day. Our champion had lived up to his billing and then some.
That seemed to satisfy the crowd for while the racing continued it became evident that many of them had come with the intent of seeing the champion race. Content with his commanding performance, the spectators started drifting towards the various tents and stalls that make up the event caravan. Rather like the Tour de France, this caravan follows the series of races throughout the season although the merchandise on offer differs dramatically, with cold weather garments, shoes and knives very much to the fore along with traditional Sámi handicrafts. You could also buy any manner of reindeer and elk meat; cold smoked, wind dried, warm smoked, salami, you name it and a similar array of tinned fish, vendace being particularly popular in Finnish Lapland although personally, I can’t stand the stuff!
The whole event was so very Sámi, a celebration of a culture that has largely moved on from nomadic reindeer herding but retains its greatest traditions and, equally importantly, teaches its younger generation to preserve those traditions. It was a privilege to witness such an event.