The man who mistook his wife for a rucksack, and other unlikely tales from the backwaters of the world's minor sports, recounted by William Hartston
You need speed, strong legs, and as small a wife as possible, says Jouni Jussila. And he should know. For Mr Jussila, with the help of his 100-lb wife Tiina, has just won the World Championships in Wife- Carrying, for the fifth consecutive time (though the first three were only Finnish titles, before the event went international).

The rules are simple: each contestant must carry a wife -his own, his neighbour's or one from farther afield, as long as she is more than 17 years of age - over the official 2531/2-metre track, part sand, part grass, part asphalt, including two hurdles and one chest-deep water obstacle. Dropping the wife entails a penalty of 15 seconds. The official rules also state that "each contestant takes care of his (and her) insurance, if one is deemed necessary".

The competition allegedly has its roots in 19th-century history, when Ronkainen, the local brigand, accepted into his troop only those men who proved their worth on a challenge obstacle track. Add to that the common practice of the time of stealing women from neighbouring villages, and you have the entire spirit of the age captured in the wife-carrying championships. In the modern event, there is also a team competition in which the wife is used as a baton in a three-man relay race. An additional rule also specifies the consumption of the official "wife-carrying drink" at each change-over point.

The winner is an oil worker and finished at the head of a field of 27 couples, including a Norwegian weightlifter as well as entrants from Germany and Estonia. The champion's wife confirmed that the woman's role in the event is more than that of a mere burden. "If the woman starts laughing, it's all over," she said. The event always takes place in the town of Sonkajarvi, and the first prize is a loaf of rye bread, a wife- carrying statuette and the woman's weight in beer.

And while you are in Sonkajarvi, do not miss the opportunity of visiting the International Bottle Museum "a fascinating insight into Finland's and other countries' cultural history". The collection comprises around 6,000 bottles from all over the world, including an old Finnish mahapullo and parrunpatka, a Chinese acupuncture perfumed mosquito-repellent bottle, and the world's finest collection of milk bottles.

Entries for the Wife-Carrying Championships were slightly down on last year, perhaps because of an unfortunate clash of dates with the World Hot Dog Eating Championships in Coney Island, New York. Until last year, the Americans had dominated the world of competitive hot dog consumption, led by their champion, Ed "The Animal" Krachie. His record of 22 hot dogs in 12 minutes had been considered almost unbeatable, but last year the 330lb, 6ft 7in Krachie was surprisingly defeated by a Japanese contestant, Hirofumi "The Rabbit" Nakajima, who looked quite unfit for the contest at only 135lb and 5ft 8in.

In this year's contest, the same two started as favourites in a field of 17, with Krachie hoping to regain a title that all true Americans believed to be part of their heritage. When it came to the crunch, however, Krachie fell below his best. He took the lead half-way through the event, but experienced observers knew that he had gone off too fast. After complaining that he "felt like throwing up", he slowed down and was overtaken by two Japanese contestants. At the end of the specified 12 minutes, Hirofumi Nakajima had retained his title, setting a new world record of 241/2 hot dogs, half a hot dog ahead of the runner-up, Kazutoyo Arai.

After taking third place, a disappointed Krachie was philosophical about his defeat: "It's not important to me," he said, "but it would have been great to bring it home for America." The Americans will now go away to ponder the secret of the Japanese success. Perhaps it lay in their preferred technique of removing the sausage from the roll and eating it before consuming the bread. This certainly seemed to lead to better results than the method preferred by many of the Americans of dunking their dogs in water to soften them before consumption. Only one contestant asked for tomato ketchup. He was jeered by his rivals and finished well down the field.

Proudly wearing the winner's rhinestone-studded, mustard-coloured belt, Nakajima, a furniture delivery man from Kofu, revealed what he had done to train for the event. "Nothing," he said. But he had previously won the Japanese national eating championships by noshing 15 bowls of noodle soup, 100 pieces of sushi, five plates of wheat noodles, five plates of beef with rice and five plates of curry and rice. His prize this time included a 20-pack take-out order for Nathan's hot dogs.

The importance of technique in such contests was confirmed earlier this month in the first banana-eating competition ever held in Estonia. The winner, Mait Lepik, won the title by consuming 10 bananas in three minutes. His crucial time-saving secret was to eat the skins as well. The rules had specifically forbidden contestants to engage the services of friends to peel the bananas for them, but Lepik realised that there was nothing saying that the bananas had to be peeled at all. Once he had realised that, he romped to victory and the top prize of a trip to the Canary Islands.

More minor sports in brief:

Imogene Barnhart, a retired police dispatch rider, won the 10th Annual World Hog Calling Contest in Oklahoma. "I'm a champion hog-caller and husband-caller," she said.

Contestants are limbering up for next month's World Melon Seed Spitting Championships at Le Frechou in south-west France. "You have to use the frisbee technique, spitting out the seed so that it glides," advises the world record holder, Bernard Ricard. And a campaign is planned to have melon seed spitting in the 2004 Olympics.

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