Field Notes: How Swede It Is

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1998

Field Notes: How Swede It Is

Few races reveal as much about those who run in them as the all-but-flawless O-ringen
By Bucky McMahon

Before anything else happens, the moose need to be moved. And so, in a meadow beside a dark Norrland lake so blue it's black, the volunteer sports-bureaucrats of the O-ringen, funktion„rer in red T-shirts and beige slacks, meet with a hundred or so local hunters outside a little green tent. It's dawn, if such a time exists here in northern Sweden in July, so near the Arctic Circle that the sun merely feints toward the saw-toothed horizon of darkling spruce before soaring again into open blue at 4 a.m. Now the cordon fans out, men spaced 20 meters apart. Up they sweep into the forested hills to tackle the day's first task: the temporary relocation of the ruminants.

Because orienteering is meant to be a cross-country race with map and compass through unknown terrain, a kind of treasure hunt for strategically placed markers called control points, it wouldn't do for more than 10,000 orienteers to race five heats over the same ground. The meadows of wildflowers and spruce-forest floors of sphagnum moss would soon be scoured with what orienteers call "elephant tracks." That's why convoys of buses will carry the scurrying competitors to racecourses spread out through the district. Nor would it do to run smack into a moose, a half-million of which inhabit Sweden. So every dawn for the five days of the O-ringen, hunters will sweep the courses clear of moose — and foxes and grouse and the occasional brown bear — and each night, volunteers laboring around the clock will shift the whole scene to a new site, the sort of labor-intensive effort orienteers thrive on. It is an orgy of organization.

Hours later the first buses will arrive: big, beautiful, burgundy-and-silver brutes bearing hundreds of orienteers to this outpost. The competitors will come from 41 nations, though they'll be predominantly Swedes who have driven Saabs and Volvos dragging camper-trailers to the host city of Umea, a riverside town near the Gulf of Bothnia, 400 miles north of Stockholm, for this 33d annual O-ringen. There they'll camp for the week in the O-ringenbyn — the O-ringen Village, like a miniature Olympic Village on the city's outskirts — come to race, to rejuvenate, to strengthen social bonds in a kind of vigorous secular retreat.

If "big" and "super" were meaningful qualifiers in the Swedish psyche, you could say the O-ringen is as big an event here as the Super Bowl. Certainly, O-news will monopolize Swedish sports sections all week; reams of race results will keep the nation abreast of the progress of children, grandparents, and national heroes alike. The democratic O-ringen is really hundreds of races on dozens of courses, from a few hundred yards long for the handicapped to nearly a 10k for elites. Separate starting lines and staggered start times keep everything from happening at once and remove the temptation simply to follow the racer ahead from control to control. One by one, with every tick of the clock, thousands of competitors disappear into the woods.

In all of this the Swedish military happily assists. The armed forces invented the sport in the late nineteenth century, and today they remain closely involved. This morning in the daily Svenska Dagbladat, the army's chief officer, Mertil Melin, himself a competitor in the 50-plus category, weighed in with his philosophy of orienteering. "It is crucial to find your way in all situations," Melin declared. "It is crucial to take control of yourself and make sure something gets done."

And indeed, by a quarter till eight, when another committee of red-shirted funktion„rer climbs up onto the scaffolding bridge that spans the finish line, a great deal has been done. Up here above the hubbub and the patterpatterpatter of 11,000-times-two running shoes, they have a clear view of the bustling tent city and, over the tops of the tents, the sunny hillsides festooned with hundreds of orienteering club banners like a scene out of Ivanhoe. Straight ahead, seven racing lanes of ribbon and string streak across the meadow and flare into a funnel near the edge of the forest, where the races will be decided by equal parts endurance and cunning.

Perhaps one would have to be Scandinavian, to have endured nine months of brutal winter, to properly value this brief opportunity to be out in sunny weather, lightly clad, among like-minded enthusiasts. And one might have to be Swedish to expect that not a calorie of solar heat will be squandered all week because of faulty organization, human error, sloth, or greed. Orienteers in general are persnickety folk (no surprise, what with their 1:15,000-scale topo maps, their obsession with the shortest distance between two points). Something in the national character — the fixation on health and hygiene? a willingness to cooperate paired with a love for self-reliance? — has made orienteering one of the nation's most popular sports, with perhaps a quarter-million devotees who expect events like this one not to be botched. "Swedish orienteers are very correct about arrangements," understates Annichen Kiringstad, the great Swedish orienteer, now retired from elite competition, who was recently voted into the Women's Sports Hall of Fame. "Everything has to be just so. When we travel abroad we accept a certain amount of problems. But here, if it's not perfect, we'll complain."

Among those on the gangway is the O-ringen's chairman, Jim Widmark. Is Widmark worried about an insurrection of muttering Swedes? He doesn't look it. Just before the races begin, everything about his appearance — wise, bright eyes under hooded lids; pink-cheeked, unlined face; well-coifed, snowy hair — exudes professional calm. Serenity, even. He gives a nod to the O-ringen announcer, a celebrated radio personality dressed all in artiste black, who grasps his microphone and launches into a string of excited declaratives in Swedish and Finnish and occasional English. In response, orienteers begin to march in columns of thousands toward their starting places, as if in the opening enfilades of a great battle. And Widmark, too, trots down the stairs and disappears among the tents, gone to prepare for his own race. Like nearly everyone here, he too is a passionate orienteer.

A complaint: orienteering is among the world's worst spectator sports. Sure, there's talk of a glorious future, when GPS technology will meld with Jumbotron projections of the racecourse topo map. Then you'll be able to watch the runners on the big screen, embodied in little electronic blips, as they work their way through the whirlpools of contour lines and often royally screw up. Look! There goes Johansson, headed for a cliff! For the time being, the O-ringen employs radio-equipped scouts throughout the course relaying messages to the announcer to keep Swedish-speaking spectators on edge, more or less. I've joined about a dozen fans leaning on a wooden rail alongside the empty finish lanes, waiting for the first sign of a live orienteer as strains of accordion music mix with the ceaseless recitative from the PA. After a good long while, a lone orienteer appears, a panting boy of ten, looking like the lone survivor of an airplane disaster. "Hej! Hej! Hej! Johann!" an elderly woman cheers. Probably his grandmother.

Then the floodgates open, and competitors come boiling out of the distant tree line in little puffs of dust, a torrent that will last all day long. Blond, flushed, sweat-streaked, some bloodied by falls, orienteers by the hundreds pound across the plain, converging on the finish lanes. Most are monotonously good-looking: vibrant youths throwing down final kicks; porcelain-perfect children, out of gas but bravely soldiering on; bifocaled elders, lean as wolves, who look as if they could lope forever. All wear loose and comfy outfits of shiny nylon in bold colors with broad stripes, lending the O-ringen an oddly futuristic look, like a cross between a sci-fi prison break and a pajama party. Observed hour upon hour, the O-ringen stampede is an unforgettable sight, stirring a wan and wistful hope that mankind might be saved by such harmless harnessings of human energy. Any one of these folks could be out somewhere taking hostages or boosting car stereos; instead, here they are, amiably trotting.

To moderate cheers, measured out in threes — "Hej hej hej!" — exhausted orienteers cross the finish line and are funneled along to refreshment tables. Even as they gulp down cups of water, their times are crunched, collated, compared; vast printout sheets are flung over the results boards like drying laundry, snatched back, updated, replaced. From refreshments the stream of competitors diverges — herrar one way, damer the other — for the showers, where plywood barricades a city block long shelter hundreds of shower heads providing hot water piped in from trucks at pummeling pressure. With characteristic patience and nonchalance about nudity, the Swedes queue up in the buff to await a vacant nozzle — the whole fit Family of Man, from wee pink homunculi to grizzled grandfathers basking in the steam on stalking-bird legs.

Clean and comfortable in a change of clothes, the recycled orienteers stroll over to check the standings. Here there is no fist-pumping, no end-zone dancing, no gloaters or crybabies. Everyone seems, instead, universally contented and amused. Satisfied with their standings — first, last, whatever — they make way for new arrivals. Some pop into the Inter-sport tent, which sells knocked-down shoes and clothing. Bargain hunters here tend to ignore the half-aisle devoted to orienteering equipment. They already own these items, naturally, but more to the point, there's a touching poverty of orienteering needs. On display are a half-dozen models of orienteering compasses mounted on plastic protractors. The Johnny Appleseed of orienteering, a Swede named Bj÷rn Kjellstrom, brought the sport to North America in the 1940s and founded Silva, the company that still has a near-monopoly on orienteering products. Here, besides Silva compasses, are a few Silva headlamps for the mad notion of night-orienteering; Silva elasticized gaiters to protect the shins; and Silva orange-and-white control markers resembling three-sided box kites — and that's it. Orienteering is about as gear-intensive as cane-pole fishing.

Unless you count the Umea O-ringenbyn — the model village grafted onto an old military base — and the five stage sites as one humongous bit of orienteering gear, which you might, since the majority of Swedes consider the social side of orienteering at least as important as the competitive. And to socialize properly, one ought to be comfortable after the ordeal, and so it is crucial to have a few things.

Tepee-shaped kiosks selling hot dogs (varmkorv) and ice-cream bars are good things to have out in nature, as is entertainment, provided by a bluegrass band singing an incongruously accented rendition of "Dem Old Cotton Fields Back Home." For the pre-orienteer there's the barnpassning, a child-care center that offers storytelling and painting classes, swing sets, and a mini football field. Aching orienteers may require attention from the MASH tent (the same state-of-the-art inflatable facility the Swedish army sent to Kuwait), where four doctors and five nurses staff two air-conditioned surgeries. The MASH unit treats mainly blisters and twisted ankles, but defibrilators are at the ready. Since the long-range goal of orienteering is to start young and take part until you can no longer run, every three years or so someone pops off on the course, usually from cardiac arrest. "We are prepared," a young doctor tells me, "and we ought to be."

Prepared? Ja, I believe that if an orphaned wild-child suckled by moose should come trotting into camp, it would receive all the medical care and psychological and religious counseling (at the church tent) needed to compete in the twenty-first century. I believe that, if they felt they ought to, the O-ringen funktion„rer could launch a rescue mission to space station Mir.

At high noon, with the stampede of finishers continuing like a stoic, migratory tide of two-legged, well-scrubbed wildebeests, I pile into a jeep with a photo-op group heading into dense spruce forest to shoot the elites. Suspended dust gives the air a golden glow, and there is a tumult of unseen footsteps, flashes of color between dark columns of trees. Orienteers appear suddenly, bound downhill, and just as suddenly disappear, or they hurry by in pounding platoons, looking through you with the hundred-yard stare of deep fatigue. It's like reporting from the front in a war between mimes. Guided by the course mapmaker himself, we soon find the control point, an orange and white tricornered flag dangling concealed behind a massive boulder, and hunker down to wait for J÷rgen M…rtensson, perhaps the greatest contemporary orienteer.

Nebbishy though they may appear, thumbing compasses against plastic-coated topo maps, elite orienteers are in fact stone-cold racers. (M…rtensson was the top Swedish finisher and fifth overall in the 1993 Stockholm Marathon.) For each stage of the O-ringen they run about a 10k, flat-out over ankle-twisting boulder fields and marshes. They make split-second decisions on the fly about the best route, all the while weighing hunches against wary interpretations of the mapmaker's diabolical mind. Because they never run the same course twice, orienteers never know if they will run brilliantly or stupidly. It takes ten years of tactical training to avoid running stupidly most of the time, I'm told, and Swedes get to work on the problem in grammar school classes, and then in one of Sweden's 750 local OKs, "orienteering klubbs," to which they'll likely belong the rest of their lives, getting smarter and craftier as they grow older and slower. A good orienteer needs strong legs, a subtle brain, and the ability to exert both at the same time, which is rare, and the desire to do it a lot, which is rarer still.

And yet, for all its rigors, or because of them, orienteering exploded in popularity in Sweden in the 1960s. A demonstration event in 1963 near Stockholm drew 182,000 participants — a Woodstock for middle-class families, which meant just about everybody. With unemployment approaching zero and vacation time on the rise, Swedes were more than ever bent upon exercising their allemansr„tten, the traditional right of every citizen to travel anywhere in Sweden and camp for the night there if they wished. When the O-ringen began in 1965, it combined camper-trailer-style wanderlust and friendly democratic sociability, and added structure. Tons of it.

This was the plan for the movable feast to be held each year in a different Swedish district: From the O-ringen Village, orienteers could launch themselves by bus out to satellite stages, where they would find the infrastructure and comforts of the village replicated in miniature. With stages shifting clockwise around the village hub day by day, the O-ringen itself would slowly and massively twirl, a marvelously efficient apparatus for moving people in circles through nature.

This is important to do; less important is to do it best, though somebody must. In the 1990s, this has been J÷rgen M…rtensson's responsibility — a word that crops up in his conversation like a mantra. Thirty-eight now, he started racing at age ten in club competitions in his hometown of Str„ngn„s, near Stockholm. For Swedes, the majority of whom are unabashedly atheistic, the OKs function almost like churches, centers for the vigorous and secular good life. "Lots of things are happening in clubs, not just sport," M…rtensson says. "We use it for social life, to meet and talk about life and training. Clubs teach cooperation and responsibility."

At 18, he stepped up to the big time at his first world championships, in Norway in 1978. And did poorly. In Czechoslovakia in 1991, at age 31, M…rtensson finally brought home the gold. He won the now-biannual world championships again in '95 and took a couple of O-ringen titles along the way, the first in '81, the second not until '96. He considers the long apprenticeship like "a school I've gone through," and these middle-age days are his true prime. "I can use my physical strength better now," he says. "When I'm really tired I can go outside my body and talk to myself and tell me to work harder. I'm much better at recovery after races, and much better now at keeping from diseases." M…rtensson says that he learned how to avoid catching colds, and then later, deciding that one cold a year was better for health than none, learned to control the one he catches.

So it is as an exemplar of orienteering virtues — discipline, steadily increasing skill, the slow arc of individual evolution — that M…rtensson has become one of Sweden's best-known athletes. Enough so to draw these four or five mosquito-slapping paparazzi, a gushing love-letter to celebrity by standoffish Swedish standards. A bilingual journalist nudges me: "Here he comes!" And M…rtensson bounds over the boulder and lands like a cat. Strobes flash as he swiftly punches his race card with a staplerlike device attached to the control marker — proof that he has been here. A brief glance at his compass and he is gone — a thin, handsome man in a white headband, his face drawn with strain. Still fast, steeped in craft, and pursued by the quiet furies of Swedish existential equanimity.

In 1967, at the height of the swedish orienteering boom, the writer Ingvar Rittsel penned a polemic in the style of Jules Verne called "Tiomila 1995?" (after the popular Tiomila competition on the summer circuit). In it he predicted that orienteering would transform the world. He envisioned great global competitions of aeronautic orienteering in which the swords of wartime technology would be beaten into plowshares of pure pastime. National boundaries would become fine, topographically mapped orienteering courses, and with all mankind cooperating in the name of sport, the stars would beckon. Interplanetary orienteering would be born, with one control point on the dark side of the moon, the next on Mars ...

Or maybe not. But those civil dreams come to mind when I find Jim Widmark again, back up on the scaffolding bridge and looking like the Captain Kirk of Earthship O-ringen. He has a moment to talk while he waits for M…rtensson to come in. By profession, Widmark is — no surprise — a surveyor, the retired director general of land survey for Sweden, in fact, a post that took him abroad to the Baltic nations, where he worked to clarify the chaos created by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. "Power brings with it responsibility," he tells me. "But in responsibility there is also power."

Off the cuff, this may be the heaviest thing anyone has ever said to me.

Widmark is the typical orienteer in many regards. "As a young man I was a middle-distance runner, a very poor one, I'm afraid," he says. "In track everyone goes into himself, into his race. But orienteering gave me much more harmony, a way to come together with family. Here there are no drugs, no criminality, very few smokers. People are healthy, good workers, leaders of society." Many orienteers have told me they come back each year to the O-ringen at their children's urging, though in this safely structured environment, where children can roam together freely and teens can dance and flirt the evening away at the O-ringen disco, adults are left with their peace of mind, a little wine, and conversation. It's a brilliant arrangement, even if it doesn't fly to outer space.

"MOOR-TENSSON!" the announcer says. There's a patter of rhythmic applause as the national hero enters the gauntlet, running lightly, map fluttering in one hand.

I ask Widmark what it has meant to him, his 40 years in the sport. His response is a reminder that in Sweden the wolf of despair runs hard on the heels of the moose of rumination. He says, "It has been a way to survive."

M…rtensson's time turns out to be the day's second best. He will go on to win the five-day event in dramatic fashion, going into the final day's race with a one-minute lead and holding off a strong challenge from a three-pack of fellow Swedes. Katarina Borg will take the damer elit crown, a pretty wreath of wildflowers, over two other young Swedish stars. There will be an awards ceremony marked by hip-hip-hurrahs and good behavior, at which it will seem nearly everybody wins something — some by merit, some by lottery, some by sheer survival. "I am alone in my category!" a woman in her eighties will tell me.

Now, though, while thousands of runners remain on the course and the O-ringen rolls on in the holiday atmosphere of a jolly fitness spa, orienteers begin to queue up on the outskirts of Stage One to catch accordion-conjoined superbuses that will carry them back to Umea and the O-ringen Village. A convoy of three leaves every 15 minutes; you can set your watch by it. At five o'clock the funktion„rer begin to dismantle Stage One, and by sunset, around midnight, it will have vanished entirely. Soon the moose will mosey back and find no trace of the orienteers — nary a cigarette butt nor a bottle cap — nothing except an intricate network of freshly beaten trails, as mysterious and transient as crop circles. A silent meadow, a lake reflecting back the stars: It could be anywhere, or nowhere — which, you will recall, is one definition of Utopia.

Bucky McMahon is a frequent contributor.

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