smell my belly button

Recently I read Joshua Davis’ charming book “The Underdog” which details his dream of being best in the world at something. He competes in arm wrestling, bullfighting, sumo, backwards running and the Sauna World Championship

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“Would-be contestants had to submit a doctor’s letter months in advance.  The doctor’s letter was required because the competition sauna was hot enough to kill you. No American doctor in his right mind would have authorised us to essentially cook ourselves so we needed to find another way of getting the letter.

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John obtained letters for all of us from a Dr Ed Point (R.P.) of the Point Medical Clinic. The R.P. after Ed Point’s name signified that he was a board certified “Renaissance Physician”.The clinic’s other staff included a urologist named Peter Stickler, a dermatologist named Mark Wartly and a gynecologist named Seymour Lips.

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I picked up a copy of “Saunas: A Collection of Works” which contained an essay about “löyly“, the essential principle or essence of the sauna. The author, Giles Ekola, informed his readers that löyly could not be translated into any language and absolutely must not be translated as steam. He called it vaporized moisture that is in a process of drying which sounded a lot like steam to me. 

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However, he did help his readers to pronounce the word. He coached me to say “ler” and then “lew”. This exercise “makes it possible for the non-Finnish-speaking persons to lose their fear of the word, to accept it as a gentle friend and to pronounce and possess it as their own easily and readily.” It sounded like he wanted to have sex with the word.

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At dinner that night we went over the Finnish words we knew. John only remembered three phrases, one of which he warned us never to use.  “Smell my belly button” was, according to John, the single worst thing you could say to a Finnish person.

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From an interview Joshua did with Failure Magazine:

Of the five different competitions you recount in the book, which one was most frightening?

There’s the frightening you know and the frightening you don’t. Bullfighting was the frightening that you know. You can imagine a bull. You know it has horns and you have a sense that it’s very dangerous. That was scary because I had all sorts of assumptions and pre-established fears of what it was going to be like. But once I was in the ring I felt relatively comfortable. The process of dancing with a bull came to me intuitively.

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In terms of the fear I didn’t know it was definitely the sauna contest in Finland. I knew it was going to be hot but when I got in there I felt like I was going to die. If I stayed in that sauna another 30 seconds I would have passed out, and if they didn’t drag me out I would have expired. I had steam burns all over my body. When I was sitting in the sauna I was thinking, “This is really, really stupid.” The burns took two weeks to heal.

Are these unusual contests more commonplace in America or foreign countries?

In “The Underdog” I make the argument that these contests are idiosyncratic to America, but I’ve changed my mind. Since the book was released I’ve been getting email from people all over the world telling me about unusual competitions. At underdognation.com I have 50 or so contests listed and I am adding more every week. The Finns are particularly crazy. They have the Sauna World Championship, the cell phone chucking contest, bog soccer and ice swimming.

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Published in: on June 13, 2011 at 4:07 am  Comments (42)  
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