By Fran Weaver, June 2013
Finland’s top orienteer Minna Kauppi attends the 2013 World Championships in Vuokatti in hopes of adding to her career haul of nine gold medals.
Hundreds of puffing and panting elite athletes from some 50 countries can be seen scurrying through the scenic forests of Vuokatti in eastern Finland in July 2013, checking their maps and compasses while navigating their way to red and white control markers scattered through the woods.
The 2013 World Orienteering Championships are the fourth to be held in Finland. “We want these championships to be the best ever; and our target for the Finnish team is to top the medals table,” says Mika Ilomäki, managing director of the Finnish Orienteering Federation.
“Vuokatti is a great venue. The forests are varied and challenging, with some flat, fast pinewoods and some hillier spruce forests. The Vuokatti resort offers excellent accommodation and facilities for the thousands of spectators and athletes we’ll be welcoming.”
The first-ever world championships took place in Finland in 1966, so the sport is really returning to its Nordic forest roots this year. “Finland is really among the world’s leading orienteering countries,” says Ilomäki.
“Our sport benefits from a healthy, family-friendly image, and orienteering ranks among Finland’s top participatory sports, with about 350 local clubs and more than 50,000 recreational and competitive orienteers.”
Interest and participation are currently on the rise across the country. Though orienteering does not intuitively seem like a spectator-friendly sport, Finland’s national broadcasters YLE are increasingly televising major events and finding ways to make live coverage exciting by using satellite technology and onscreen maps to track competitors’ movements.
“This year’s races at Vuokatti will be broadcast in a record number of countries,” says Ilomäki.
One big reason for the current popularity of orienteering in Finland is Minna Kauppi’s persistent success at the highest level. She has won nine gold medals in world championship solo and relay events since 2006. As the media-friendly face of Finnish orienteering, Kauppi has become quite a celebrity for an athlete from a relatively unglamorous sport.
“I first started orienteering when I was about 8,” says Kauppi. “I was a wild kid who always loved going to the forest, so it was a great sport for me.
“I really like the challenge, because it’s not just a physical sport. You have to use your brain and choose the best route by reading and visualising the map and observing the forest around you while running fast over uneven ground at the same time!”
Kauppi is one of just a handful of professional Finnish orienteers. She may spend two or three hours a day training in the forest, with or without a map. “If I can get into tiptop condition, it would be great to win three gold medals this year in our home championships,” she says.
Kauppi is among the hot favourites for the long and middle distance women’s events, and she also has high hopes for Finland’s women’s relay team.
Though competitors are strictly not allowed to practice in the forests to be used in major events beforehand, home countries are thought to have a small advantage in international events. “It helps because you know the types of terrain, and are familiar with the mapmakers’ style,” Kauppi explains.
“It will be great if this year’s event encourages more people, especially children, to take an interest in our nice, healthy sport, and to get off their sofas and out into the forest to do some orienteering!” she says, smiling.
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