Mikaela Shiffrin (right) celebrates her win in the women's slalom event at the 2022 FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup on Nov. 23, 2019 in Levi, Finland.
Sports fans know the drill. At the end of competitions, the winners shuffle towards a vast array of cameras and microphones and await their prize. For most events, it’s a trophy paired with an oversized check on a poster board. However, the prize for the women’s and men’s slalom winner at Levi Ski Resort has a bit more fur than usual.
Since 2013, competitors in the International Ski Federation’s (FIS) northernmost world cup stop all battle for a piece of Finnish history, a living reindeer.
For a country roughly the size of Montana, reindeer have been a part of Finnish culture for hundreds of years. Reindeer herding is the country’s oldest livelihood. It still remains an integral part of life for those who reside above the Arctic Circle.
In the “home of Santa Claus,” they are utilized for transportation, meat markets, and clothing. Additionally, they are a symbol in many historical Scandinavian spiritualities. The country has held organized reindeer races since 1932. It’s a sport similar to dog sledding or horse racing. A person, known as a “jockey,” wears skis and holds on to two ropes connected to their respective reindeer, hoping to cross the finish line first. Competitors can reach up to 37 mph while being towed behind these majestic animals.
However, fear not, animal lovers. The people of Finland recognize the importance of reindeer care. The prize is symbolic. Given that a professional skier’s work schedule is loaded with training and travel, the reindeer stay in their home country and live at Ounaskievari Reindeer Farm. While there, the reindeer are trained to live among humans and sustain a regular life. Some become sled pullers for tourists and locals alike.
The winners earn the right to name their reindeer and are encouraged to follow its movements on social media. Of course, they can also visit their new pets whenever they return to the Lapland Region. Most often, it is when the world cup stops in Levi the following year.
Over the past handful of races, the battle for the reindeer has come down to two skiers – Petra Vlhová from Slovakia and elite U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin. After winning two reindeer in 2021 (Levi held two world cup events), Vlhová holds a one-reindeer edge over Shiffrin, 5-4. No skier other than Vlhová or Shiffrin has claimed the top spot since 2014 when Tina Maze of Slovenia emerged victorious.