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GUY RAZ, host:

Sticking with the world of sports now, I'm joined by Rick Reilly. He was named the National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times over his career.

Now, Rick, you've covered the Super Bowl, right?

Mr. RICK REILLY (Author, "Sports From Hell: My Search for the World's Dumbest Competition"): Yes.

RAZ: And the World Series?

Mr. REILLY: Yes. Yes.

RAZ: And the World Sauna Championship?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REILLY: Sadly, yes.

RAZ: Now, that last one, as you might have guessed, isn't highlighted in the pantheon of world sporting events, but it is among the competitive games covered in Reilly's new book, appropriately titled "Sports From Hell: My Search For the World's Dumbest Competition." Rick Reilly joins me form our studios at NPR West in Southern California.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. REILLY: Thank you.

RAZ: Now, I should say this book is a little bit of gonzo journalism. I mean, you actually took part in just about every sport in the book, right?

Mr. REILLY: Yes, at my own peril.

RAZ: Now, as I mentioned, you went to check out the World Sauna Championships in Finland. First of all, what are the rules of that game?

Mr. REILLY: The rules seem to be, are you willing to let your inner organs boil? Because they set the sauna at 261 degrees, which I didn't know when I entered. You cannot touch your body, and you're going to want to because you're going to feel like it's on fire. You can touch your face. Whoever sits in there the longest wins.

I lasted four minutes. The winner went 12 minutes, 25 seconds at 261 degrees. And I said to him afterwards: You realize that's the recipe for baked lasagna? But he spoke Finnish. So he didn't really know.

RAZ: Can an American really out- sweat a Finn in the World...

Mr. REILLY: No.

RAZ: No.

Mr. REILLY: No. You're totally right. They can't. This guy was a professional. He showed up in a Winnebago with two saunas built into it. He had the company logo of his sponsor across his Speedo.

There were only two Americans entered, myself and a guy from New York. He lasted eight minutes. And when he came out, I said: Oh, dude, did you breathe through your nose? And he said: Yeah, why? I said: All the skin under your nostrils is gone.

RAZ: Oh god.

Mr. REILLY: And he - we ran to the he ran to the mirror and it was gone. And we had to take him to the hospital, my wife and I, and he got second skin all over his body. I mean, he was in surgery for like three hours.

RAZ: Oh my gosh. And presumably, you have to sign waivers before you enter the competition.

Mr. REILLY: Yes, you do. You sign a lot of waivers. But these people are into it. It's televised nationally in Finland. There's 500 people and they're like chanting like soccer chants, only it's in Finnish. And like, what could the chant possibly be for a sauna athlete? We love Boris here in the sand. He won't sweat, he has no glands. We didn't know.

RAZ: Now, Rick Reilly, if anyone remembers playing rock, paper, scissors as a kid, I'm sure they'd have trouble thinking of it as a sport, but there actually is a rock, paper, scissors championship for people over the age of eight, and it's held in Las Vegas. And you write that there is some serious logic behind it. What's the logic?

Mr. REILLY: Well, first of all, I didn't know there was. A guy took me for 20 bucks in Vegas said: I can beat you nine out of 10 in rock, paper, scissors. People have just instincts they go to that they don't realize. For instance...

RAZ: He beat you nine out of 10 times?

Mr. REILLY: He did. He did. He was a professional rock-paper-scissorist.

RAZ: But how does that work?

Mr. REILLY: Because he said all men usually go rock first. Women usually go scissors. No person who isn't a professional will repeat the same throw three times. So one time we both tied at scissors twice in a row. I just didn't go scissors and he knew it. So he knew therefore he could do paper, which beat my rock.

He also said I had a tell, like in poker you have a tell with your face when you have good cards. He said, at the top of your stroke, you show paper instead of waiting for the very bottom or you'll show scissors. He says the only tell you don't have is rock and because you don't have a tell, I know you're going rock. So that's how he was able to beat me quite easily.

RAZ: And you interviewed the world Rock Paper Scissor, I should say RPS Society President named Doug Walker. He was once asked if people with prosthetic arms should be allowed to compete. He said no because it opens the possibility for infrared technology to send signals to the arm to instantly fire a throw a millisecond before it hits. And that would give that person an unfair advantage.

Mr. REILLY: Yes. It seems maybe he was pulling my leg. There was a lot of mind games at the world championship I went to, which was in Toronto. I got taken by what's called a second. I was in the third round doing pretty well, and this guy sidles up to me. I was about to go against a waitress who seemed high, and the guy goes: Dude, she never throws rock, so don't worry about scissors.

So I threw tons of scissors and she threw nothing but rock. And it turns out people have seconds who go around...

RAZ: Oh, wow.

Mr. REILLY: ...and plant ideas in the back of your brain.

RAZ: Now, in all seriousness for a moment, I mean, one of your self-imposed criteria for profiling any sport was that it had to be dumb to everybody, except those people who actually played the sport. And many of the competitors you met were really earnest about the games they took part in, right? I mean, it's not a joke for them.

Mr. REILLY: Yeah. I mean, the name of the book is "Sports from Hell." But for them, it really was their passion.

For instance, we didn't do cheese rolling or wife carrying, bog snorkeling, shin kicking. These are all things that chambers of commerce dream up to get people to come to their tiny Swedish hamlet, you know? We did stuff where they really didn't realize it was dumb.

For instance, so chess boxing, which we did it happens in Poland and in England.

RAZ: This is chess, like chess, the game chess and boxing, a combination of the two.

Mr. REILLY: Yeah. These two people are boxing in a ring with gloves, and then at the bell, a little guy brings in a waterproof chessboard and they take off one glove very quickly and play speed chess for four minutes and then back to the boxing, back to the chess. And they're bleeding now on the chess board, they're sweating.

They're terrible boxers, so they've taken about 25 straight jabs to the temple. Now they can't even remember which way the pieces move, and, like, you see a guy move a knight, you know, diagonally and like, okay, we're done here and the ref calls it off.

RAZ: Rick Reilly, over the course of your career, you have seen amazing catches in baseball and incredible touchdown, Hail Mary passes. Did you see any beauty in any of these games? Did you see any moments that you thought: You know what? That's exactly why I went into this business.

Mr. REILLY: Well, it sounds bizarre, but we went to the de facto World Target Vomiting Championships, and these guys...

RAZ: I had to ask.

Mr. REILLY: You had to I'm sorry, but they drink food coloring beforehand. They run a mile. They paddle their surfboard a mile. Then they must drink a six-pack of beer, warm beer, inside 15 minutes, and then they have mastered the art of target vomiting.

So they're like, guy with the toupee, I'm going to hit him in the left elbow: whack. The artistry, the target and the color of it because they drink in all this food coloring. It was sort of a fire hydrant out of Willy Wonka or something. And to stand there was amazing until I realized, oh, crap. Someone could get me. And at that moment, one of the better players painted me across the chest and I ran for the Pacific Ocean. And at that point, I didn't think it was all that beautiful.

RAZ: And with that story, we will leave it there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Rick Reilly is a columnist with espn.com. His new book is called "Sports from Hell: My Search for the World's Dumbest Competition."

Rick Reilly, thank you so much.

Mr. REILLY: I hope you ate beforehand. I'm sorry.

RAZ: And if you want to read the play-by-play of a chess boxing match, you can find an excerpt from Rick's book at our website, npr.org.

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