The sporting world is still aboil about the news dispatches steaming out of Finland reporting the tragic death of Russian quasi-athlete Vladimir Ladyzhensky. Ladyzhensky, along with his Finnish opponent Timo Kaukonen, collapsed during the annual World Sauna Championships in Finland. Both men suffered severe burns and were admitted to the hospital, where Ladyzhensky later died.
Thanks in large part to recent media coverage, a new generation of fans is coming to appreciate this exciting and fast-growing ‘sport.’ The roots of competitive sauna reach far back into Finland’s history; hanging around in a hot, steamy room with other dudes has long been a favored pastime. The ghastly exercise in masochism has been a professional sport in Finland since 1999.
Although most Finns readily welcome the dizzying globalization of their sport, they remain fiercely proud of its Finnish origins. This pride has manifested itself in a variety of ways, including the recent creation of a Finnish Bureau of Tourism. The Bureau’s first act as a body was to devise the popular slogan: Finland–A Little More Than Just Reindeer!
Ladyzhensky’s shocking death can’t help but cast a pall over professional sauna. Inwardly, everyone connected with the sport is no doubt plagued by the same internal question: Could we have done something to prevent this?
Sadly, the answer is No. Self-recrimination is a part of human nature, and while some soul-searching is probably inevitable, it comes to little in the end. Although this terrible event will no doubt be parsed and dissected by historians for generations to come, the exact cause of this tragedy will never truly be known. That athletes die sometimes with no apparent cause is perhaps the cruelest lesson that sports can teach us.
Vladimir Ladyzhensky may have left competitive sauna, but the rare Russian will forever be seared into the collective consciousness of the game he loved. His fellow competitors will no doubt shed a collective tear* in his memory as they take that first barefoot step into the searing death-oven that is the symbol of this much-beloved pseudosport. Ladyzhensky wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.