Even the biggest curling fans may be stumped if they were asked which city has hosted the most World Curling Federation events this decade.
Some would jump straight to Canada, who traditionally host the Women’s and Men’s World Curling Championships in alternative years, as well as a number of wheelchair and mixed events. Yet, to guess any of the major powerhouses in curling would all be incorrect.
The correct answer is an hour outside Helsinki in the modestly-sized city of Lohja.
Finland has quietly built a reputation for hosting competitions despite being a small curling nation, even within Europe. While a few of their events have been held in different cities, the main activity has been in Lohja, a city of under 40,000 people.
Since 2015 alone, Lohja has hosted the World Wheelchair Curling Championships in 2015 and the B-Division of those championships four out of the last five years, including the 2019 edition, which begins on Wednesday (27 November) – follow live here.
Lohja has also hosted the World Junior-B Curling Championships in 2016, 2018 and twice in 2019. Finland will round this current stint off when they host the all-important World Qualification Event 2020 from 13 to 18 January.
A quick answer as to why they’ve hosted so many events is, they have a perfect set up with purpose-built ice. But, that wouldn’t do the tale justice. The Finnish Curling Association manages this flurry of events through a partnership with a local university, the Kisakallio Sports Institute.
Olli Rissanen, President of the Finnish Curling Association, recalls how this partnership came to fruition. He said, “The Sports Institute contacted us as they were looking for new sports and they said they were interested in curling. Kisakallio Sports Institute is now the most important and main partner of the Finnish Curling Association.”
A special place
With the World Wheelchair-B now underway and the World Junior-B championships approaching in December – 11 to 18. Rissanen explained why the facilities are made for smaller events.
He continued, “It’s a special place because Kisakallio is made for wheelchair athletes and junior athletes.
“You don’t need any transportation during the championships because everything is there that you need. You can just concentrate on the curling.
“That includes food, gym and anything you can imagine those players would be doing during the competition.”
This has also proven beneficial out with these major events. The Finnish Curling Association has tactically hosted their national championships in between these events to cut down on running costs – a major factor for a small organisation.
“It means we can use the same championship level ice for our national championships,” said Rissannen, “We don’t have to make the ice specific like we would if we hosted it elsewhere.
“It’s ready made. We also get the ice much cheaper than we would, so it’s really important economically for the Association.”
Everything in one place
But, business is business. It’s not just an economic success for the Finnish Curling Association, there’s clearly financial gain for Kisakallio too. Lauri Ikaavalko has worked at the institute for 14 years. He now works as the Sales Director, as well as the head organiser for the Lohja events. He sees the partnership between the two parties as mutually beneficial.
“We’ve hosted so many competitions here because this area is quite unique,” he said. “The facilities are all here and everything is so close.
“That’s very convenient for the players, but also for the World Curling Federation because everything happens in the same field.
“This sports university is quite unique. In Finland, we have ten of these kind of institutes. In other countries they don’t have these kind of places, where the facilities and accommodation is so close to each other – 600 people can stay on campus.
“It’s not easy to find host cities for this level of competition. It benefits the institution as its all from our own hand. We don’t need to rent ice and find hotels. All the business is our own and belongs to us.
“The Minister of Education supports the institute because they know it’s difficult for a small country like Finland to host international events and they see the benefits to our students getting experience at international events.”
Students at the Kisakallio Sports Institute don’t just have their heads in the books. Finnish education is well-known for their practical approach to learning and Ikaavalko has found a great balance between learning and keeping organising costs down.
“We have about 200 students so these competitions contribute to their studies. It’s a win-win situation for the students. They can get the real experience to organise this kind of event and the World Curling Federation and organisers benefit from their volunteering.
“Their curriculum here is to be sports instructors. One part of that is the event organisation. In Finland we trust that you can learn by doing. You can read ten books, but you might not have experience. Our practical way is to do the competition. We’re giving them real experience.”
These competitions, give the students volunteering a legitimate amount of experience at a high level, but for Rissanen, there’s a legacy for volunteering of a different kind.
“Especially in wheelchair curling, we have got more players because of hosting the championships,” he said. “The other benefit is having the volunteers there involved in ice making and umpiring.
“Those people have been educated for those jobs and they’ll then help take a role in our national championships.”
Ikaavalko has experience himself in curling, being the head coach of the Finnish wheelchair team for six years. He states his pride for bringing the World Wheelchair Curling Championships to Lohja in 2015, but admits his greatest achievement is the organisation of the junior events.
He said, “The most important event for us has been all the junior events. It’s been a great experience for our students who have volunteered at those tournaments because they are the same age. I know some friendships were formed and have continued after many years.
Biggest event to date
“These players come for the competition, but they also visit Lohja. We organise sightseeing trips for the juniors so they go to the local places and the local markets and they give money to workers and shops.”
The World Qualification Event 2020 will be the biggest event to date hosted in the city. Despite this, Ikaavalko isn’t fazed.
“We have so many years’ experience already so I don’t see a big challenge.
“The World Qualification Event in January is the first adult, non-wheelchair, competition that we’ve had. The playing level is higher than the juniors and their expectations will be higher as they are used to high-level facilities.
“That’s one part where we don’t have much experience. But, I have full confidence in our organisation and our volunteers so I think it’ll be a successful event.”
Growing the sport
But, this partnership is not only about hosting international events. It’s about promoting and growing curling in Finland too.
“For a small association, as we are, having a partner like Kisakallio Sports Institute is really important for our development,” said Rissanen, “We’re looking to make the partnership stronger which could mean that Kisakallio would invest money in building a curling rink for Finnish curlers.
“We’re looking forward to making that happen. The reason we have so few curlers is because we have such poor curling conditions in our country. We absolute need better foundations and just get one or two dedicated curling rinks in the right places would help that very much.”
The journey that Ikaavalko has been on with Kisakallio from its roots in curling to now shows how far this partnership has come. With Lohja becoming a staple of hosting in recent years he sees cooperation being the future for smaller curling nations.
“Curling is still a small sport in the world and a very small sport in Finland, but if we have enough partnerships like the Finnish Curling Association and Kisakallio and all the partners trust each other, together we can find benefits for each other.”