Racing reindeers in Finland
The sky is clear above the snowy Mäntyvaara racetrack. The track has been cleared, and men in heavy winter jackets rush around with excitement. The Arctic sun rises on the the second day of 2016 Reindeer Cup.
The temperature is around -10 celsius in Rovaniemi, Finland, but the amount of people and happy faces banish thoughts of how cold it is.
Reindeer racing is popular sport in Nordic countries, and Finns enjoy turning out in their thousands for this event which is organised by local charity the Lions Club of Rovaniemi, a town of 58,000 inhabitants just south of the Arctic Circle.
“A reindeer’s gallop has a cat-like grace to it, and they cover the race distance in a minute or so”
The first races are just about to start and the reindeer are being fetched from a holding pen built specially for them in the middle of the track. The drivers are already waiting near the start line wearing colourful uniforms and huge protective goggles.
Even among this vibrant spectacle, one man bathes in curious gazes shot in his direction. All geared up in bright fox furs and a pair of furry lapish boots, he is hard to miss.
Erkki Orre has been into reindeer sports for 28 years and now hosts one of the Reindeer Cup races in Rovaniemi.
Like everyone else, Orre is excited and promises to talk to me right after his reindeer has competed. He waves me to come near the start line where the reindeer are directed into starting boxes.
“Among the people, the question arises: whose reindeer is the fastest?”
“See how the animals have a strong urge to run,” he says, pointing at the reindeer being walked to the track. These are not the cute looking caribous one sees in nature documentaries. Every animal seems alert, muscles pulsing they move around restlessly.
The drivers are pulled on skis behind their reindeer, and when the signal to start is shouted, the doors spring open and a snow storm rises from the thundering hooves.
A reindeer’s gallop has a cat-like grace to it, and they cover the race distance in a minute or so. Once they have have finished, they are freed from their harnesses and gather together again.
The Reindeer Cup has been held annually for more than 40 years. Orre explains its importance for the reindeer men: “So-called Lapish people, Sami, have an opportunity to meet here.
“A reindeer is a wild animal, but it must to be used to having people around it”
“This is a social event, taking place during spring after the separations (an event in which reindeer are marked, some of them castrated or slaughtered) have been done and the autumn’s workload is finished.
“People come here to have a good time and to spend time together. Although, this is a social gathering, the reindeer men are competing. Among the people, the question arises: whose reindeer is the fastest?”
Orre explains: “A reindeer is coached just like humans or horses. First, in a gentle way and then a little harder. It is the same with any other being. Muscle maintenance and stretching, the animal doesn’t go to a gym but it can drag some weights behind it.
“A reindeer is a wild animal, but it must to be used to having people around it. It doesn’t seek human attention, but the animal must tolerate to be walked around on a leash. It begins from there. It must be easy to handle. It is a big deal.”
However, not every reindeer will see a racetrack. A racing specimen has to be proportionate of built and possess long, slender legs.
Orre said: “It is in the eye of the beholder which reindeer is good and beautiful. Then it is ‘coached’, made to do a test run, for example 500 metres against a clock. The clock never lies.
“If it shows something close to 39 seconds for half a kilometre, it is a good reindeer. A fast reindeer can go 37 seconds, but if the clock shows 45 the animal won’t be a racer. This is how it goes. You need to watch the clock and believe it.”
Orre is about to explain more about reindeer training methods when we are told to watch out as one of the reindeer is getting agitated by standing alone at the starting line. The other racers storm in to calm it down, but Orre has time to ask for a selfie.
The Cup is divided into five races, and the fastest reindeer go forward to compete at a Championship meeting in Inari at the beginning of April. The Rovaneimi event attracts tourists from around the world and, as one of the officials pointed out, a BBC camera crew were covering it as well.