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Vytautas Kirkliauskas of Lithuania and his wife Neringa Kirkliauskiene react after winning the Wife Carrying World Championships 2018 in Sonkajarvi, Finland, July 7, 2018. Lehtikuva/Timo Hartikainen via REUTERS

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SONKAJARVI, (Finland) (Reuters) - Fifty-three men slung their wives or partners over their shoulders and hurtled off on an hour-long race in the small Finnish town of Sonkajarvi on Saturday, as thousands of fans cheered from the stands.

The World Wife-Carrying Championship, now in its 23rd year, draws thousands of visitors to the town of 4,200 and has gained followers across the world.

There are official qualifying competitions in countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden and Estonia. On Saturday, 53 couples from 13 countries joined the competition, organizers said.

The idea of wife-carrying as a sport was inspired by the 19th century legend of Ronkainen the Robber, who tested aspiring members of his gang by forcing them to carry sacks of grain or live pigs over a similar course.

The championship is also said to stem from an even earlier practice of wife-stealing - leading many present-day contestants to compete with someone else's wife.

On Saturday, Lithuanian parents of two Vytautas Kirkliauskas and Neringa Kirkliauskiene won the race which involved running, wading through a slippery pool and getting through an obstacle course. The two defeated six times world champion Taisto Miettinen, a Finn.

"It's my wife," Kirkliauskas shouted happily after the race, "She's the best."

The couple first competed in Sonkajarvi in 2005.

Finland, which straddles the Arctic Circle and goes through long, dark winters, is no stranger to strange sports. It has also given the world the world boot throwing, air guitar and mobile phone throwing competitions, to name just a few.

"I think because we have only three months of light we need to come up with nice stuff to do during the summertime, and we want to show everyone we have a great sense of humour," said Sanna-Mari Nuutinen, a volunteer at Saturday's event.

(Reporting by Attila Cser and Luiza Ilie; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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Reuters