Run Run Rudolph: The World of Reindeer Racing

Swedish reindeer race (photograph by James Losey

Winter means reindeer games in some of the chillier parts of the world, where the horned hoofstock are an integral part of everyday life. Reindeer racing is a popular and highly competitive sport in parts of Norway, Finland, and Russia, where reindeers pullings sleds or skiers sprint over the snow. And then there's Anchorage, Alaska, where the reindeer racing is more of an actual man vs. animal survival competition. 

For us, there's no other animal that looks quite so joyous in its racing, with its lolling tongue and gangly limbs. So in the spirit of the holidays when the fictional Rudolph is resurrected for annual Christmas storytelling, we celebrate the real racing reindeer of the world. 

 Tromsø, Norway

photograph by Ronel Reyes

The most thrilling of the reindeer races is likely the one in Tromsø, Norway, where intrepid skiers cling to harnesses behind what are reportedly the "fastest reindeers in Norway." The races take place right in the center of the city as part of Sami National Day in February, which is a celebration of the Sami people who are indigenous to Norway and for whom the reindeer is a source of fur, transportation, meat, and cultural pride. The next Sami Festival reindeer race is February 9, 2014, but if you can't make it that far north or just can't wait, here's a bit of a preview of the Nordic excitement:

photograph by Bjarte Aarmo Lund

photograph by Jim H/Flickr user

photograph by Arctic Council

photograph by Arctic Council

photograph by anjc/Wikimedia

photograph by Arctic Council

photograph by Jim H/Flickr user

Levi, Finland

photograph by Jann Kuusisaari

Lapland in Finland is also a center for Sami culture, and reindeer racing is just as popular as in Norway, if a little less urban. Skiers in the reindeer races in Levi also each are pulled along by a reindeer, the competition being a way to determine the fastest, strongest reindeers for breeding in the herding cooperatives that compete. In fact, reindeer are so beloved in Lapland that in the 2013 World Cup held at the nearby Levi ski resort, reindeers were actually awarded to the top skiers (but before you think that's strange, note that in Val d'Isere in France, racers win cows).

photograph by Jann Kuusisaari

Rovaniemi, Finland

photograph by j/Flickr user

Over in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, the reindeer races are held in March as a celebration of the coming spring. Dramatically staged at sunset, the reindeer races are staged in sprint form with elimination rounds until the two fastest reindeers remain in a final after-dark showdown.  

Oulu, Finland

photograph by jarzan/Flickr user

The world record as of 2013 for a 12 meter reindeer sprint race was reportedly 14.96 seconds, so on the short track for the Oulu, Finland, races in February, the reindeers just appear as furry flashes. The Reindeer Carnival also includes less swift, but equally rambunctious, reindeer sled racing, and you can even get your own reindeer driving license at the event. 

Naryan-Mar, Russia

photograph by ezioman/Flickr user

Reindeer sled racing is also the game in Naryan-Mar, Russia, where teams from reindeer herding communities travel from all over for the competition. In fact, the reindeer is so central to life and transportation that the the 2014 Olympic flame even passed through the area on a reindeer sled

photograph by ezioman/Flickr user

photograph by ezioman/Flickr user

photograph by ezioman/Flickr user

Anchorage, Alaska, United States

photograph by Diana Norgaard

Anchorage, Alaska, has a bit of a different take on this whole reindeer racing thing, where instead of people racing with the reindeer, they race against them in a sort of Pamplona-style Running of the Reindeers. At the annual Fur Rondy held at the end of February leading up to the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, people gather in groups and then sprint down the center of the city, all the while a voice on the loud speaker is counting steadily down to when the reindeer are released into the crowd. The runners then sprint as fast as they can while dodging the horns and hoofs bearing down on the snowy racetrack. 


photograph by Arctic Warrior

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