Today Jesse and I met up with a few others from my larger lab family to watch the Norwegian reindeer racing championships in Tromsø. We purchased our tickets for the event (150 NOK per person) a day earlier at the Arktisk vintermarked (Arctic winter market) in the center of Tromsø.
The event was organized by the MSM and SVL-N (Sámi Athletics Union Norway) and was the thrilling conclusion of Sámi vahkku (Sami week). Reindeer racing involves jockeys on nordic skis being pulled at 50-60 kph (31-37 mph) across a flat 201 m track by specially trained reindeer. Record times were just over 14 seconds, while today the fastest times were around 16 seconds. It is truly a unique sport and quite exciting to watch!
The event started by introduction of the reindeer that have qualified for this years championship and their trainer or handler. Introductions and announcements were all given in 3 languages (Sami, Norwegian and English). The reindeer were walked past the spectators from the finish line to the start. Some seemed quite calm, while others were trying to run in circles or into the crowd. Most of the handlers were dressed in traditional Sami clothing all of which were rich in color and texture, but varied considerably in the design and style. And one particular handler was quite young, beautiful girl in a pink shawl who carried the reindeer harness and assisted her father, I believe, as he prepared for his role as one of the racers.
Once the reindeer were at the start we had our first heat, which was a youth competition. The reindeer are placed in starting blocks and the doors are opened simultaneously for the two head to head racers. A young boy and girl in alpine ski gear flew across the track. It was incredible how close the riders were behind the reindeer and it almost seemed that they could easily be kicked as the reindeer gallop… but thankfully that did not happen today.
We then watched several preliminary heats in the adult contest to qualify for the finals. Each heat was over in such a short time, you really just turned your head as they flew past. Jesse was kind enough to put me up on his shoulders so we could get some more photos from another perspective. Everyone had their cameras out and were fighting to get the best angles, from some of the most expensive Nikon lenses I’ve seen to smart phones.
After the first set of preliminary heats, we crossed the race track and watch from the other side. There were 2 heats of guest racers (a banker vs a pro-footballer, and 2 hotel managers). In each of the guest heats one of the racers lost hold of the reindeer. I imagine the start would be a very sharp jerk as the reindeer come out of the gates sprinting. But if you can manage to hold on through the start you’ll almost certainly finish. We did not see anyone lose grip or fall during the main part of the race.
We then watched the finals for the juniors and the 3rd place and championship heats for the adults. The racers grasped tight to hold on to the fastest reindeer in Norway and claim their titles. The new champions were awarded their trophies. Both the racers and the trainers were honoured together as Sámi soga lávlla (song/anthem of the Sami people) played. It was very beautiful conclusion to Sami week in the center of Tromsø, honouring culture and tradition.