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Russian man dies during world sauna championship

The sauna and the final two competitors - Finland's Timo Kaukonen and Russia's Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy - are shielded by a tarpaulin at the final at the World Sauna Championships in Heinola, Finland, on Saturday, Aug. 7, 2010.

Sari Gustafsson/Sari Gustafsson/The Associated Press

For six minutes, the two finalists in the World Sauna Championships tested each other's will. The temperature inside the sauna rose to more than 110 C.

Russian Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy, an amateur wrestler who was in his 60s, was pronounced dead late Saturday after he collapsed alongside reigning champion Timo Kaukonen of Finland. Medical workers pulled both men out of the sauna in front of nearly 1,000 spectators in the southern Finnish town of Heinola. They intervened after judges saw the contestants lose consciousness, according to local media.

The men were suffering from burns so severe witnesses said they were bleeding all over their bodies. Mr. Kaukonen, aged about 40, was hospitalized in stable condition Sunday, contest spokesman Ossi Arvela said.

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The annual contest, which had over 130 participants from 15 countries, has been held since 1999. It will never be held again, Mr. Arvela said.

The tradition of the sauna is central to Finnish culture. In a country of 5 million people, there are believed to be about 1.5 million saunas. Sitting in the warmth of a wooden cabin in temperatures from 80 C to 110 C is almost a daily routine for many Finns, many of whom would not balk at a temperatures above 100 C, according to the contest spokesman.

"I know this is very hard to understand to people outside Finland who are not familiar with the sauna habit," Mr. Arvela said. "It is not so unusual to have 110 degrees in a sauna. A lot of competitors before have sat in higher temperatures than that."

In the competition, the temperature was increased by pouring a half-litre of water over a searing-hot stove once every 30 seconds. Competitors drop out when they can no longer take the heat.

Mr. Arvela said Mr. Kaukonen - the defending world champion - had refused to leave the sauna despite getting sick. There was no prize money on offer, just some "small things," Mr. Arvela said.

Mr. Arvela said the temperatures and times in Saturday's contest were similar to those in previous years, and all rules were followed. Police are investigating the death.

In 2007, ESPN columnist Rick Reilly entered the World Sauna Championships. He lasted just over three minutes in the sauna. This is how he described it:

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"The tips of your ears start to ignite. The backs of your arms scream. Your throat burns as if somebody had stuck a tiki torch down it. Your lips feel bitten by large, unseen raccoons. And you haven't hit 30 seconds.

Now do it for 10 minutes or more, and that's what it's like to compete in quite possibly the world's dumbest sport: the Sauna World Championships."

Mr. Reilly interviewed Mr. Kaukonnen for that article. Mr. Kaukonnen said he trained by taking 20 sessions in the sauna per day, at a temperature of 140 C. He typically had to drink 10 litres of water a day to compensate for the water lost through sweating. Many of the competitors suffered burns and blisters, Mr. Reilly wrote, describing bubbling backs and ears split open by the heat.

Mr. Kaukonnen won that year in a time of more than 12:26, twice as long as this year's disastrous final.

Doris Tamminen-Wong, who works at a Finnish sauna in Thunder Bay, said temperatures there are kept at 80 C, but many of the Finnish-Canadians in the area enjoy temperatures of 110 C or higher, she said. Most families when they arrived in Canada built saunas before they built their homes, and lived in the saunas while the construction was done, she said. The sauna was their principal method of bathing, as they would go from the heat to the cool of the lake or freshly fallen snow, she said.

"To us the sauna wasn't a luxury, it was a necessity," she said.

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With a report from Associated Press

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Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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