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The sport has changed almost not at all since Major Killander's day. It is—make no mistake about it—a race. The winner is the one who comes in quickest, with the least time elapsed in finding his way. But not all laurels go to the fastest long-distance runner. At the start of each competition (divided into categories to equalize the contestants by age and experience), each orienteer is given a contour map of the region (the more explicit the better) and a compass. Each runner starts alone, at intervals of a minute or two. A whistle blows, the contestant leaps forward to a board on which there is a master map marked with the controls (red and white flags) that must be located. Quickly—but accurately—he copies on his map the location of each control flag. There will be at least four, perhaps as many as 10 or 12, over a twisting, demanding course as long as five or six miles. Then with only his compass, his map and his wits for guidance, he sets out to find each control, in sequence. At each there will be a specially coded punch which he uses to mark a card he carries. This is to prove to the judges at FINISH that he did indeed find every control point laid out on the map.
A well-done orienteering course has its controls fairly well concealed, perhaps even hidden between boulders or up a tree. And in the so-called "elite" category, a contender must practically step on a bright little flag before he knows he has actually found it. The decisions involved in a hard-fought, top-class orienteering contest are innumerable.
A first-class orienteer must be able to scan a map, see the infinity of potential routes from one control to the next and analyze the terrain, the angles of approach and his own physical agility and stamina, as well as the apparent strength of the competition.
"Almost no one beats an American running from the last control to the finish," says a military man, "but we've never come close to winning a major European event. That's because we can't pick all the nuances off a map as fast as the Europeans can. Those guys take a glance and start running. We have to work it out for maybe a minute or more after every control. You're talking about seconds between the first 10 or 12 competitors in world-class meets."
In the U.S., the godfather of the sport is—or will be when the game finally catches on with the masses—Bjorn Kjellstrom, 62, a tall, handsome Swede who lives in Pound Ridge. N.Y. Not many years after orienteering was invented in Sweden, Kjellstrom and his brothers, Arvid and Alvar, became the nation's champions, in relays as well as individual competition. They went on orienteering barnstorming tours to the backwoods of Sweden, organizing weekend meets, taking on all comers and making a fairly good income. They used the money they earned from orienteering to perfect and manufacture a fine compass, Silva by name, which combines a rotating, liquid-based compass needle with a protractor. It is the orienteer's delight, particularly the amateur orienteer's delight, for it is a marvel of simplicity and precision. Today, 40 years and millions of Silva compasses later (the firm sells some 750,000 annually), Bjorn Kjellstrom is a wealthy man, an intelligent and influential force in world skiing (he is an executive vice-president of the F�d�ration Internationale de Ski) and, quite logically, a devoted supporter of the game of orienteering.
Kjellstrom has written the orienteers' bible, a handbook titled Be Expert with Map & Compass. It was Kjellstrom who coined the English word "orienteering" (in Swedish it is o-ringen), and his company owns the rights to the word.
"I do think orienteering has not caught on in the United States mostly because people have not heard much about it," he says hopefully. ""But I am sure it is a game Americans will learn to love. After all, the greatest feat of orienteering in the history of the world was done by Americans—landing a man on the moon."
Perhaps the fourth, fifth and sixth U.S. Orienteering Championships will be only a little more popular than was the third. But the chances are very good that ultimately there will be many, many more people like that scratched and sweating enthusiast in the shades and boat sneakers. For the fascinations and the satisfactions of orienteering—alien and esoteric as the game may sound now—are precisely the stuff of which the Age of Aquarius should be made.