A Swedish university has discovered Arabic characters for “Allah” and “Ali” woven into Viking burial clothes. Researchers at Uppsala University describe the finding of the geometric Kufic characters in silver on woven bands of silk as “staggering”.
The researchers at Uppsala, Sweden’s oldest university, were re-examining clothes that had been in storage for some time. They had originally been found at Viking burial sites in Birka and Gamla Uppsala in Sweden. Textile archaeology researcher Annika Larsson told the BBC that at first she could not make sense of the symbols, but then, “I remembered where I had seen similar designs: in Spain, on Moorish textiles.”
This led to the identification of the name “Ali” in the text and, when looked at in a mirror, the word “Allah” in reverse was revealed.
“Perhaps this was an attempt to write prayers so that they could be read from left to right,” said Larsson. Arabic characters are more typically inscribed right to left. The finding contradicts theories that Islamic objects in Viking graves are only the result of plunder or trade because, she explained, “the inscriptions appear in typical Viking age clothing that have their counterparts in preserved images of Valkyries”.
Larsson said the choice of burial clothes reflected the fineries of Viking life rather than the day-to-day reality, in much the same way that in the modern era people are buried in formal clothes. “Presumably, Viking age burial customs were influenced by Islam and the idea of an eternal life in paradise after death.”
Viking contact with the Islamic world is a well-established fact. There have been finds of more than 100,000 Islamic silver coins known as dirhams in Viking-age Scandinavia. DNA analysis of Viking graves has also shown that some of them contain people who originated in Persia.
The Vale of York hoard, discovered near Harrogate in 2007, contained objects relating to three belief systems – Islam, Christianity and the worship of Thor – and at least seven different languages. And in March 2015 a Viking woman’s glass ring was discovered bearing the inscription “for Allah” or “to Allah”.
With the cold wave of Nordic literature crashing on UK shores over recent years and Danish, Swedish, Greenlandic, Finnish, Norwegian and Icelandic authors coming to the Southbank Centre in London this month for talks and readings, I am glad to suggest 10 books for those who want to prepare themselves.
While working on the the anthology, I was more than ever convinced that the literatures of the region have more in common that not. The dry wit, the willingness to dwell in melancholia and look at the world through its blue-tinted glasses, the social criticism that comes with bringing to light the stories of the marginalised, the exploration of style and form as integral part of diving into any given theme, the deep-felt belief in literature’s role in keeping our societies humane.
The books I’ve chosen here have all been recently published in English or are about to be. There should be something here for every boreal-minded reader to cherish in the coming winter.
1. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson (translated by Lytton Smith) Bergsson is the grand old man of Icelandic literature and this is the novel every Icelandic author must love and resist. Written in 1966, when biographies of turn-of-the-century greats were dominating the bestseller lists in Iceland, the novel pretends to be the autobiographical musings of its ageing protagonist. Having nothing to his name but the fact that he is descended from Vikings, and the small flat where he lives in one room, renting the rest out to lodgers, Tómas does his best to prove worthy of a book of his own. Only recently translated into English, it is a fabulous feast of wilting light, with a whiff of Beckett’s Unnamable’s underpants.
2. Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad (translated by Sverre Lyngstad) If there is a motto to the books I have read by Solstad, it is: “We are born to embarrass ourselves before our destruction.” Here we follow the slow but sure decline of one Bjørn Hansen who leaves his wife and infant son for life in a small town where he becomes involved in amateur theatre, with all its petty in-fighting and jealousy. When his son turns up 18 years later, things take a darker turn.
3. The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen (translated by Gaye Kynoch) At once the foremost stylist of contemporary Danish literature and the most provocative one, Nielsen shocked readers with the sudden beauty and tenderness of this novel. The reader is swept away by the flow of the narrative, the warmth and wit of a storyteller who presents modern tales of destiny with a fearless presentation of the bittersweet melancholy of existence.
4. Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo (translated by Herbert Lomas) This is a beautifully constructed fable for our times, where Sinisalo addresses humanity’s changing relationship with nature. So, if you have been waiting to discover a novel about a young and lovesick photographer named Angel who finds and takes in a catlike, feral troll kid, this is your book. But it is far from whimsical, and a subplot about a Filipino mail-order bride kept locked up in one of the flats of Angel’s building poses questions about our human to human relationships as well.
5. New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Robin Fulton) A collective cheer could be heard from the north when this Swedish poet was awarded the Nobel prize in 2011. He was the first Nordic laureate in decades and the one we all hoped for. His poems are never sentimental but always full of emotion, never sweet but always beautiful — always rich in images while appearing minimal, always of their time while speaking to all times and the people at their mercy.
6. Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen (translated by Anna Halager) Korneliussen’s novel tells the story of a group of friends living in modern-day Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city of 18,000 inhabitants. Like young people anywhere, they are grappling with coming of age in world they never made, discovering their sexual identities and futures. Told in emails, messages, journals, short stories, it transports us to a cold homeland where the blood runs hot.
7. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra) Nors’s minimalist, experimental stories read as if they were thorough reports on the complexity behind the everyday situations men and especially women find themselves in. She is a master of the undercurrent, and the simplicity of her sentences makes them magnets for the reader’s own contribution to the reading experience. We can’t help mirroring ourselves in the characters, matching our own attempts at making sense of what has brought us to the moment of truth in similar situations.
8. The Tower at the Edge of the World by William Heinesen (translated by W Glyn Jones) Heinesen is the last of the 20th-century masters of Nordic letters still to be discovered by a global readership. A match with Iceland’s Halldór Laxness, Denmark’s Karen Blixen and Norway’s Knut Hamsun, he was the one who wrote from the smallest of the northern worlds, the tiny community of Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands. I use every opportunity I get to bang the drum for his books. Now his poetic evocation of life on an island that to the vast ocean is “just about the same as a grain of sand to the floor of a dance hall” is being published in a new English translation. I hope some readers of these words will follow him there.
9. The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg (translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner) This novel’s protagonist is the daughter of a suicidal alcoholic living in a deteriorating mental hospital. If one believes, as I do, that investigating the harshest things in life through the literary use of language – where vulnerability and cruelty, confusion and determination, are described with equal precision – is one of our main tools to keep ourselves grounded and humane, then Stridsberg’s story is vital reading.
10. Inside Voices, Outside Light by Sigurður Pálsson (translated by Martin Regal) Inspired by the dark surrealism of the Atom Poets – the group of modernists who broke Icelandic literature out of the confines of tradition in the years after the second world war – Pálsson’s poetic world is at once highly lyrical and playful. Everyday life inspires contemplations of the tragic optimism of the human being; for at the core of man’s many balancing acts – dancing, slapstick routines, staying in love, keeping the head high – there is always the threat of destruction, and the only antidote to our awareness of our fatality is poetry as it was practised by Pálsson.
Sweden will host a women-only music festival in the summer of 2018, after a successful crowdfunding campaign raised more than 500,000 Swedish krona (£47,000) for the venture, from 3,300 people.
Statement festival, which forbids cis men, comes in the wake of a series of sexual assaults at Swedish music festivals such as Bråvalla and Putte I Parken. There were four rapes and 23 sexual assaults at this year’s edition of Bråvalla, leading the event to be cancelled next year.
The organisers of Statement have railed against “year after year” of unsafe events for women. In their plea for crowdfunding, they wrote: “Help us to create a safe space for the people who want to attend a festival without feeling scared for their personal safety.”
Statement will allow cis women, trans women and those who identify as non-binary to attend. An update on the project’s Kickstarter page said the crowdfunding revenue would secure an as yet undisclosed venue for the festival.
The festival is being organised by Swedish comedian Emma Knyckare, who originally wrote on Twitter following the Bråvalla attacks: “What do you think about putting together a really cool festival where only non-men are welcome that we’ll run until ALL men have learned how to behave themselves?”
One of the founding fathers of “nudge” theory, which has helped boost British tax receipts and encouraged smokers to become vapers, has been awarded the 2017 Nobel prize for economics.
Richard Thaler co-wrote a bestselling book on the nudge concept read by politicians around the world and soon had them embracing the notion that people can be influenced by prompts – such as changing the wording of tax demands – to alter their behaviour.
As well as tweaking the sentences in tax reminder letters to increase HMRC takings, Thaler’s branch of economics has influenced Theresa May’s announcement of an “opt out” policy for organ donations where it is presumed that people wish to donate body parts unless they state otherwise. The Department of Health has also adopted nudge principles in its approach to e-cigarettes.
The Nobel committee said the 72-year-old, who made a guest appearance in the 2015 credit crunch film The Big Short with Selena Gomez, has provided a “more realistic analysis of how people think and behave when making economic decisions.” Asked what he planned to do with his 9m krona (£840,000) prize money, Thaler joked that he intended to spend it “as irrationally as possible”, in a nod to his work showing how people’s choices on economic matters are not always rational.
Nudging stems from the field of behavioural economics, examining how gut instincts can often overrule rational choices, in which Thaler is regarded as a pioneer.
The US academic, who is a professor at the University of Chicago, has previously suggested that Brexit could be an example of behavioural economics in action. He argued British voters chose an economically irrational route when considering the options put to them by elites and the mainstream media.
Thaler co-wrote the global bestselling book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness in 2008 with the US professor Cass Sunstein, which brought the theory to wider attention. He was an adviser on the creation of the “nudge unit” at the heart of Whitehall initiated as a pet project by David Cameron in the earliest days of his premiership from 2010 in the coalition government.
The unit was initially focused on public health issues such as obesity, alcohol intake and organ donation, although its scope has ballooned to cover everything from pensions and taxes to mobile phone theft and e-cigarettes. Formally called the Behavioural Insights Team, but widely known after Thaler’s book, the nudge unit is credited with encouraging 100,000 extra organ donations a year and persuading 20% more people to consider changing energy provider.
Thaler is a leading voice on how nudging can tackle problems in society, although retailers often employ behavioural economics to encourage greater sales by making small changes to alter the buying habits of consumers.
The academic has previously said the Ponzi scheme fraudster Bernie Madoff was a master in winning people’s confidence, and could have written a similar book showing how to use nudge theory for personal gain.
Nudge theory has been criticised by some sections of the political right for being overly paternalistic, while it has also been described as a neoliberal idea by the left because it relies on individual choice instead of overt state intervention. Unlike the field of classical economics – whereby decision-making is based on cold-headed logic – behavioural economics allows for irrational actions and attempts to understand why this might be the case. The concept can be applied in miniature to individual situations, or more broadly to encompass the wider actions of a society or trends in financial markets.
Thaler becomes the latest American economist to win a prize increasingly dominated by US citizens, now accounting for roughly half of laureates since the inception of the Nobel prize in economic sciences in 1968.
Women are significantly underrepresented in the economics prize compared with some of the other Nobel awards, such as those given for peace or literature. The US political economist Elinor Ostrom, who died in 2012, remains the only woman to have won the award. She shared the prize in 2009 with fellow US academic Oliver Williamson for her work exploring how people manage collective resources.
The award for economics is not among the Nobel Foundation’s official awards for literature, peace, medicine, physics and chemistry, but was established separately by Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Riksbank, in memory of the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel.
The former governor of the Reserve Bank of India and a string of American academics are among potential candidates for the Nobel prize for economics, due to be announced on Monday in Stockholm.
The 9m Swedish kronor (£848,091) prize is not among the Nobel Foundation’s official awards for literature, peace, medicine, physics and chemistry but was established separately by Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Riksbank, in memory of the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.
The Swedish Academy of Sciences will announce the Sveriges Riksbank prize in economic sciences in a climate in which economists – and other experts more generally – are under pressure from rising populism, while neoliberal economics, advocating free markets, individualism and minimal state intervention, is increasingly discredited.
There have been 78 previous winners of the cash prize and medal which has become a significant honour for economists since it was initiated in 1968. Women are significantly underrepresented compared with some of the other Nobel prizes, such as those given for peace or literature. The American political economist Elinor Ostrom, who died in 2012, remains the only woman to have won the award. She shared the prize in 2009 with fellow American academic Oliver Williamson for her work exploring how people manage collective resources.
The decision-making committees choose candidates in secret, with details of the process for each round kept under wraps for 50 years. However, the research company Clarivate Analytics has come up with a list of potential candidates based on analysis of academic citations.
Colin Camerer and George Loewenstein
The California Institute of Technology’s Camerer and the Carnegie Mellon University’s Loewenstein may win for their research into behavioural and experimental economics.
The academics are pioneers in the field of behavioural economics, with their research focusing on the connections between economic decisions, neuroscience and psychology.
Their analysis includes examinations of why people might make risky investments, the links between emotions and decision-making, and how markets might be susceptible to price bubbles.
The professor of economics at Stanford University in California could win the prize for his analysis of worker productivity, studies of recessions and unemployment.
His work is particularly important in the wake of the financial crisis, as the global economy lurched into reverse before starting to recover – which still poses problems for governments and central banks to this day.
His recent work has shown that during a recession, unemployment does not increase because of a sharp rise in companies cutting jobs. Instead, it rises because jobseekers require longer to find new work.
Michael Jensen, Stewart Myers, Raghuram Rajan
The group of academics are singled out for their contributions to the study of decisions in corporate finance, including the complex factors behind the choices of individuals and organisations.
Jensen is professor of business administration at Harvard University and has focused his research on corporate governance, executive pay and incentives.
Myers is the Robert Merton professor of finance at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His research focuses on the valuation of assets and corporate finance, as well as the government regulation of business.
Rajan is the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, having left the central bank last year to become professor of finance at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.
A former chief economist and director of research at the International Monetary Fund, he is interested in economic development, banking and corporate finance.
Danish police investigating the murder of the Swedish journalist Kim Wall have found body parts, including her severed head.
The freelance journalist was last seen alive on 10 August when she went to interview the inventor Peter Madsen, who has been charged with her murder. Wall’s dismembered torso washed ashore 12 days after she boarded Madsen’s homemade submarine for the interview.
The police investigator Jens Møller Jensen said divers had found Wall’s head and legs, as well as her clothes and a knife, in plastic bags with “heavy metal pieces” to make them sink.
“Yesterday morning we found a bag within which we found Kim Wall’s clothes, underwear, stockings and shoes. In the same bag laid a knife, and there were some car pipes to weigh the bag down,” he said on Saturday.
A postmortem examination confirmed that the head was Wall’s and that it showed “no sign of fracture” or “any sign of other blunt violence to the skull”, he said.
The body parts were found on Friday near where her naked torso was found on 22 August, near the coast of Copenhagen. Wall’s arms are still missing. The cause of death has yet to be established.
Madsen, 46, maintains that Wall died after being accidentally hit on the head by a heavy hatch in the submarine, but a Copenhagen court heard there were 15 stab wounds on her body.
A fund set up in memory of the award-winning journalist has raised more than $90,000 (£69,000) of its $100,000 target since being launched by her friends and family. It would be used to provide grants to female reporters to pursue subculture stories, according to the Remembering Kim Wall website.
Wall, who had written for the Guardian and the New York Times, was reported missing by her boyfriend in the early hours of 11 August when she failed to return from her interview.
When the submarine was found, Madsen was rescued just before the vessel sank, and later arrested.
He initially claimed he had dropped her off safely in Copenhagen but later said there had been a “terrible accident” and he had buried her at sea, insisting her body was intact at the time.
A court has heard that footage of women being strangled and decapitated was found on a hard drive believed to belong to the inventor.
His lawyer, Betina Hald Engmark, told Reuters she had been informed that further body parts and clothes had been found, but declined to comment further.
Britain and other European countries have been accused of breaching international law, as it emerged that the number of asylum seekers forced to return to Afghanistan has tripled at a time when civilian casualties in the country are at a record high.
According to a report by Amnesty International, unaccompanied children and Christian converts at risk of persecution, torture and death – a status that should legally guarantee asylum – have been removed from European countries.
Between 2015 and 2016, the number of people returned by European countries to Afghanistan nearly tripled, from 3,290 to 9,460. This corresponds to a marked fall in recognition of asylum applications, from 68% in September 2015 to 33% in December 2016, official EU statistics show.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has reported that 2016 was the deadliest year on record for civilians in the country, with 11,418 people killed or injured. In the first six months of 2017 alone, UNAMA documented 5,243 civilian casualties in attacks by armed groups, including the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State.
Amnesty’s report, Forced Back to Danger: Asylum-Seekers Returned from Europe to Afghanistan, further accuses European governments, including the UK, of being “determined” to return young Afghans despite being well aware of the unfolding “horrors” in the country.
It claims that in a leaked 2016 document, EU agencies acknowledged Afghanistan’s “worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed”, as well as the likelihood that “record levels of terrorist attacks and civilian casualties” will increase. The report further claims that the agencies then stated in the document that “more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future”.
It quotes Eklil Hakimi, Afghanistan’s finance minister, who told the Afghan parliament that the government needed to accept the returnees in order to guarantee aid. “If Afghanistan does not cooperate with EU countries on the refugee crisis, this will negatively impact the amount of aid allocated to Afghanistan,” he is quoted as saying.
The Amnesty report adds: “Similarly, a confidential Afghan government source called [the policy] a ‘poisoned cup’ that Afghanistan was forced to drink in order to receive development aid. The country is highly aid-dependent, with nearly 70% of Afghanistan’s annual income dependent upon international donors.”
In 2016, the five European countries that returned the most Afghans were: Germany (3,440), Greece (1,480), Sweden (1,025), the UK (785) and Norway (760).
Between 2007 and 2015, the report notes, 2,018 young people who had sought refuge in the UK as unaccompanied child asylum seekers were deported to Afghanistan. Despite Kabul being the most dangerous province for citizens, the UK Home Office’s policy guidance states that “return or relocation to Kabul is, in general, considered reasonable”.
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said: “By rejecting the vast majority of claims for asylum by Afghans, the UK is setting a worrying precedent which risks encouraging other countries to do likewise. If the government doesn’t stop deporting Afghans, it will have blood on its hands.”
Amnesty International researchers interviewed several families who described their experiences after being forcibly returned from European countries – losing loved ones, narrowly surviving attacks on civilians and living in fear of persecution.
The researchers highlighted the case of a woman and her family who fled Afghanistan in 2015 after her husband was kidnapped, beaten and released in return for a ransom. After travelling for a month, they arrived in Norway, where the authorities “denied their asylum claim and gave them a choice between being detained before being deported or being given €10,700 to return voluntarily”.
A few months after returning to Afghanistan, the husband disappeared and was later discovered to have been killed, presumably by kidnappers.
Anna Shea, Amnesty International’s researcher on refugee and migrant rights, said: “In their determination to increase the number of deportations, European governments are implementing a policy that is reckless and unlawful. Wilfully blind to the evidence that violence is at a record high and no part of Afghanistan is safe, they are putting people at risk of torture, abduction, death and other horrors.”
The Home Office said: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection. Where a decision has been made that a person does not require international protection removal is only enforced when we and the courts conclude that it is safe to do so, with a safe route of return.”
The suspected killer of Swedish journalist Kim Wall will be detained for four more weeks after a Copenhagen court heard that 15 stab wounds had been found on her body.
Peter Madsen, 46, is charged with murdering the 30-year-old journalist, whose headless, dismembered torso was found floating off Denmark’s capital city 10 days after she boarded the inventor’s self-built submarine for an interview.
Prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen told the court that cause of death had not yet been formally established, but that the multiple knife wounds had been inflicted “at the time of death or shortly afterwards”.
Traces of Madsen’s DNA had also been also recovered from Wall’s body, as well as traces of a saw blade consistent with the removal of her head and limbs after her death, Buch-Jepsen said. An examination of Madsen’s computer had also uncovered material featuring women being tortured and killed.
Madsen, who denies killing Wall, took part in the half-hour custody hearing with his lawyer via a video link from Copenhagen’s Vestre prison. He said he was “not the only person” with access to the computer in his workshop, and the extreme content did not belong to him.
His defence lawyer, Betina Hald Engmark, said the court had heard “nothing that supports Kim Wall being killed by my client”. No investigations had been carried out to substantiate Madsen’s claim that the journalist died in an accident and that her body was still intact when he disposed of it at sea, she said.
Madsen told a hearing last month that the journalist died when a 70kg hatch cover fell on her head while she was climbing on to the deck of the surfaced submarine. “It was a terrible accident, a disaster,” he said.
Feeling “suicidal”, he attached a metal weight around her waist so her body would sink, and planned to sink his submarine, taking his own life. “In my shock I thought it was the right thing to do,” he told the court.
Wall, who had written for the Guardian and New York Times, was last seen alive on the Nautilus, on 10 August. After her boyfriend reported her missing, the 18-metre submarine was located south of Copenhagen the following morning.
Madsen, an entrepreneur, artist, submarine builder and self-taught aerospace engineer, was rescued just before the Nautilus sank, and arrested. He will appear in court again on 31 October.
Scania maintains its innocence and says it fully cooperated with the commission and was likely to appeal.
A Scania spokeswoman said: “We just received the information and it will take some time to go through the material. If no new information has emerged in the investigation we are planning to prepare an appeal against the decision.”
She added: “Scania has not on any level or in any context entered into an agreement with other manufacturers with regards to pricing. Scania has also not delayed the introduction of new engines that meet EU legislation on exhaust emissions.”
MAN, also owned by VW, alerted the commission to the cartel and escaped a €1.2bn fine. The other four received reduced fines for settling. The biggest penalty, of €1bn, was imposed on Germany’s Daimler. Dutch company DAF was fined €753m, Volvo/Renault €670m and Italy’s Iveco €495m.
“This cartel affected very substantial numbers of road hauliers in Europe, since Scania and the other truck manufacturers in the cartel produce more than nine out of every 10 medium and heavy trucks sold in Europe. Instead of colluding on pricing, the truck manufacturers should have been competing against each other – also on environmental improvements.”
Vestager said Scania would have received a 10% lower fine if it had reached a settlement with the commission.
She said road haulage was an essential part of the European transport sector, and its competitiveness depended on truck prices.
The collusion began at a meeting at a hotel in Brussels in January 1997, according to the commission, and came to an end in 2011 when it carried out surprise inspections of the firms.
Senior managers colluded at meetings on the fringes of trade fairs and other events, and also discussed price fixing by phone. From 2004, the cartel was run by lower- level managers through the companies’ German subsidiaries and information was exchanged by email.
The truck makers coordinated “gross list” prices and also colluded on passing on to customers the costs of new technologies to meet stricter emission rules.
The commission said its investigation did not reveal any links between this cartel and the use of defeat devices to cheat emissions tests.
Vestager said the commission had investigated nine car cartels and fined manufacturers more than €6bn in total, with more investigations ongoing.
From the sky, the Stockholm archipelago looks benign. More than 30,000 islands spread off the Swedish coastline in the Baltic Sea. In the Summer, they’re the islands of love, packed with holidaymakers. Today, it’s early September and the weather is a little rough: winds, swell and constant rain.
I’m on a safety boat, following the progress of one of the world’s toughest adventure races, the ÖtillÖ (“ö till ö”, or island to island), where participants racing as a team of two must run and swim across 26 of the islands, from Sandhamn to Utö. A total of 75km, if you manage to navigate the currents and rocks in a straight-ish line.
They call this a swimrun. A race that alternates multiple times between swimming and running. You can’t stop and change kit during the race, which means running in your wetsuit – usually cut above the knee – and swimming with your shoes on. It might sound odd, but the chance to race across rugged and often wild landscapes easily makes up for this inconvenience.
Six years ago the sport didn’t even exist. There was just the ÖtillÖ race, invented by a group of Swedes on Utö looking for a challenge. But as word of the annual event spread, it picked up imitators and, through one of its early competitors Erika Rosenbaum, the name swimrun.
Now it’s one of the fastest growing endurance sports in the world, with more than 100 events in Europe alone. The world’s best teams still come back to the ÖtillÖ every year, either through qualifying events or a lucky ballot, for what is classified as the swimrun world championship.
I had tried out a shorter version of the course two days before the race with one of the ÖtillÖ founders, Jesper Andersson. The race had originated as a challenge between Andersson, his brother and two other friends, competing in pairs, to beat each other to reach the island of Sandhamn. That spirit of camaraderie and teamwork, as well as safety, is the reason the majority of swimrun events continue as team-only races.
The other tactic most teams use is to keep a line between each other. Under race rules, competitors can’t be more than 10 metres apart at any point in time. For the swim, especially on a day of rough seas, this makes sense as an elastic rope keeps you from drifting apart and also allows one to draft the other, saving energy.
But being in a pair doesn’t stop things going awry. A large chunk of our time watching the race was spent chasing after competitors swimming in the wrong direction. The problem point for many was the so-called ‘pig swim’. A mile long stretch of open sea from the islands of Mörtöklobb to Kvinnholmen notorious for its difficulty. With winds of 20 knots, countless teams were thrown off-course by waves and currents. They look startled and disoriented as Andersson shouted at them from the safety boat.
The harsh weather did not relent from dawn to dusk. We could only watch in sympathy as teams coming off a later swim beached themselves on rocks. Tired from their exertions in the sea, they had aimed for the first rocky outcrop. It was a false hope. They faced either a slippery time-wasting traverse to the shore, or jumping back into the sea and trying to fight their way through waves to an easier exit point closer to land.
“These are good athletes, but they are getting stressed as things don’t go to plan. That’s the challenge of this sport,” said Andersson, “It’s not just about how fast you can run or swim, but about how you deal with the elements and manoeuvre into and out of the water.”
I’d had my own lesson two days earlier after confidently taking the lead on a shorter swim section. I was roughly following the direction of a team just ahead before losing sight of them. As I neared the shoreline rocks on the other side, I heard laughing behind and a tug on the rope. I’d taken the wrong route around a tiny rocky island outcrop and was now engaged in a futile attempt at swimming against a current to get to a shoreline less than 20 metres away. Andersson pointed to the nearest rocks and said we had better exit there and make our way back to the course.
Back on land wasn’t the easy part for competitors. The longest run was just under 20km, with the terrain a mix of rocks, woodlands and hills. There were directional markers on the course, but sometimes you had to pick your own route over sections. Mistakes can quickly lead to an argument for the team that ends up in bog or making an unnecessary detour.
Given the ordeal that faced them, it was surprising to discover later that only 30 of 148 teams starting the race had failed to make the finish, missing cutoff times or pulling out on the course. The winning team – a pair of Swedes whose men and women dominate the sport – made it home in under eight hours. A record despite the hostile weather.
After them the real story of swimrun was taking place, with teams crossing the finish line locked in an embrace, tears of joy and relief. It was near darkness for the final team, home after almost 14 hours of racing, a gentle hand on the lower back helping to propel a clearly exhausted teammate to the end.