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April 20, 2015

Roller Derby at the Olympics!? Not so fast…

Smarty Pants Nadia Kean

As the 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi slip away from memory and the Paralympics ramp up in their place, the usual chatter from derby fans and participants can be heard at games and in practice spaces across North America and the world: Should roller derby be an Olympic sport?

The questions has gained even more traction given that the first ever Men’s Roller Derby World Cup is now only weeks away, and the second Women’s World Cup will have played out by the end of the calendar year. Fifteen countries will be represented at the Men’s World Cup, but the remarkable stat may be that twenty-nine nations are scheduled to be represented at the 2014 Women’s World Cup, a phenomenal increase over the thirteen present in 2011, and with the inclusion of South Africa and Japan, all six inhabited continents will be represented.

Of the fifteen men’s countries participating, eleven of them were represented at the first women’s world cup and the other four will be participating this year in Dallas. Which means that for the most part, where the women play, the men soon follow (Brazil and New Zealand presently excluded).  What it all means is that this, until very recently all-female “underground” American game has become a global, multi-cultural sport played by members of both sexes.

Considering 2014 will mark the 11th anniversary of the birth of flat track roller derby, that rate of growth is remarkable and unprecedented.

It seems then, that the groundwork for participation in the Olympics is now being laid. The question may not be if roller derby will ever be an Olympic sport, but when. And unfortunately, the realistic answer could be that it is a long way off.

The relationship between roller sports and the Olympics is actually not a new one. FIRS, theFederation of International Roller Sports, has been lobbying for inclusion in the Olympics for decades now. In 1992, roller hockey (AKA: rink hockey) was included as a demonstration sport in Barcelona, which remains the only example of quads being represented at the Games.

Since then, no demonstration sports have been included in the Olympics in a move to keep the numbers of sports under control (currently there are twenty five “core” sports and three “floaters,” all of whom are under review after every Games). Since spaces were opened up after the recent axing of a few sports from the Summer Games, there was significant optimism that at the very least inline speed skating could be a demonstration sport in 2016; in the end, it lost out to rugby and golf.

So with an already bloated Summer Games seeming to be reluctant to add any more sports to its roster, inclusion is becoming tougher. But this isn’t the only challenge roller derby is facing.

Despite the immense—and immensely broad—growth, roller derby remains in its infancy. In many cases the desire and the ability to strap on skates and start a league or a team is far outpacing the development of the infrastructure that the sport needs to flourish at an international level.

First off, for a sport to even be recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it must adhere to a few conventions:

  1. The sport must have an International Federation (IF) that acts as an international governing body and runs world championships.
  2. That body must adhere to the Olympics’ anti-doping policy
  3. The sport must be played by men in at least seventy-five countries on four continents, and women in forty countries on three continents.

At present, roller derby doesn’t even adhere to these three rules for consideration. Many will argue that we do have an international governing body in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). Similarly, the men’s game is governed by the Men’s Roller Derby Association [MRDA], which has close and in some cases crossover ties with WFTDA. However, FIRS, the leading international body of roller sports and one with a relationship with the IOC, actually recognizes the USARS version of roller derby: a comparatively little-played form of the sport that has no participation (nor any recognition) outside of the US.

Neither USARS nor WFTDA/MRDA adheres to the IOC’s strict (and incredibly expensive) anti-doping policy, and neither body runs a world championships (the men’s World Cup is indirectly linked to the MRDA, but the women’s is run by the magazine Blood and Thunder).

And of course, roller derby doesn’t adhere to the current, inherently sexist, gender ratio. To the IOC’s defense, roller derby’s female-driven rise is nearly unprecedented in the history of competitive sport, and given the recent controversy over the inclusion of women ski jumpers, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that the members of the IOC would be more than willing to flip those ratios. However, even with the flipped ratios, roller derby still isn’t quite there yet.

Outside of these technicalities, roller derby still has some internal issues that will have to be dealt with in order for it to ever be ready for the Olympic spotlight. One of these issues is with the lack of parity in the international game. At the first World Cup there were noticeable tiers, with Team USA in its own stratosphere, England and Canada on a stage of their own, a handful of countries were on the next tier (Finland, Sweden, Australia, etc.) and eventually there was a drop off at the end. It is safe to assume that this will be the case in Dallas as well.

There are, however, examples of the IOC overlooking a lack of parity to allow for participation in the hopes that it will fuel growth in the sport. Germany’s dominance in luge and the Netherland’s dominance in long-track speed skating are good examples, but in comparison to roller derby, Women’s hockey is the most apt.  Canada and USA are in a league of their own in that sport and starting in 1998, the first few Olympic tournaments were, to put it bluntly, a joke. But beginning in 2006 (when Sweden upset the US and eventually took home silver), the rest of the world has begun to catch up. There is still a long way to go, but the common scores of 3-1 and 4-2 at this year’s tournament have replaced the 11-1 and 13-0 drubbings that were once commonplace. It has been the spotlight of the Olympics that has supported this growth.

Probably the largest internal obstacle that roller derby faces is in defining a consistent rule set.  Right now, there is no question that the WFTDA/MRDA rule set is the most dominant rule set in the sport (and certainly the most refined); however, there are a number of competing sets, most notably USARS, but also MADE (Modern Athletic Derby Endeavour) and OSDA (Old School Derby Association). Once again, this plurality essentially only exists in the US and, therefore, is not too big a concern on a global scale and another look at hockey illustrates that this is an issue that can be dealt with (the International Ice Hockey Federation uses a different sized rink and slightly altered—some would say more strict—rule set from that used in the National Hockey League, for example).

So, while the desire is there and the growth is consistent, the sport of roller derby is still a long way off from inclusion in the Olympic Games. But given how much and how quickly the sport has grown in the first decade of its existence, it is not hard to imagine that in just another twenty or even ten years, roller derby could be ready for that brightest of spotlights.

The Derby Nerd is a Toronto-based roller derby writer and play-by-play announcer, whose analysis can be found at www.derbynerd.com.

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