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Swedish roller girls cruising for a bruising

Written off by many as an American fad from the 1960s, roller derby is enjoying a renaissance in Sweden, where camaraderie and image are just as important as inflicting maximum pain on your opponent, The Local's Geoff Mortimore discovers.

Swedish roller girls cruising for a bruising

The threat of violence hangs menacingly in the air. Blood flows freely, wounds are attended to and physical injuries are shown off as badges of honour.

But this isn’t a football terrace or a smoky backroom mafia joint, it’s an all-female roller derby match between Malmö’s Crime City Rollers in their first ever “bout”, against their rivals from the capital, Stockholm Roller Derby.

Inspired by punk, rockabilly and burlesque, with a heavy dose of aggression thrown in for good measure, roller derby is a sport on the up.

“Like with all sports, to be good at it takes a lot of training, but you have to dare to take blows, know it is sometimes going to hurt, and be prepared to do the same to your opponents” says Emmelie Bogårdh or “Countess Blood” of Stockholm Roller Derby.

One of the fastest growing female sports, to the outsider it is a mix of skill, speed and aggression, a kind of Rocky Horror Picture show on wheels.

To those involved, it is more than a sport, it’s a lifestyle.

“First and foremost it’s fun. It’s full on, fast-paced and hard, but also not important to win at all costs. On top of that you get to meet loads of new friends and widen your social circle,” Bogårdh explains.

“Grrl power” may be the first impression you get but there is more to it than that – seldom these days do you see females actively involved in contact sports, while the proponents of the game point out that it gives them a chance to express themselves individually as well as enjoy the camaraderie of the team.

This is key, and image is everything. From the nicknames to the generously applied warpaint, these girls send out a tough streetwise message: “mess with us at your peril”.

To the uninitiated, roller derby could equally be described as is a relay-race on roller skates, or all-female rugby without the ball.

This American-invented full contact sport, (with emphasis on the “contact”), is played around an oval track. Each team has 5 members – 1 Pivot, 3 Blockers and 1 Jammer. The aim is to get the Jammer past a member of the opposing team and hence gain points.

Originating in the United States in the 1930s, roller derby became a recognised sport during the sixties and has since spread rapidly, with leagues in Australia, Belgium, Canada (which will host the World Championships in December), Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and of course, Sweden which boasts teams from six cities: Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, Umeå, Luleå and Visby.

The girls all have their own suitably aggressive nicknames: Misty Muffdiver, Venomous Violet, Go Go Rillah, Cookie Hoe and Vix Viking leave little to the imagination or their motivation.

This is no place for shrinking violets.

The Stockholm side was formed in 2007 by Bogårdh, Nattis Mörkenstam, Linn Hultström, Jenny Stendahland, and Michel Diaz Nocetti and now has some 50 active members.

At first they practiced in a car park, but progress was slow and just when things were looking like never really taking off, along came Drew Barrymore to save the day.

In the actress’s 2009 directing debut “Whip It”, she plays a misfit in Texas, who finds a way of dealing with her small-town misery after she discovers a roller derby league in nearby Austin.

This started the ball rolling so to speak, and thanks to the strong DIY ethic, the power of social networking and the spreading of Youtube clips, the sport has started to boom.

Last year over 200 players from all over the world gathered in London for an event, and there are now more than 23,000 registered participants globally.

Bogårdh says she is typical of the current generation of players.

Always active as a kid she lost enthusiasm for more traditional sports as a teenager, but found herself attracted to roller derby.

“I came along and felt this was right for me. Cool chicks and a great subculture, it suited me down to the ground,” she explains.

As Bogårdh and her fellow roller girls prepare to lace up their skates for a home match against visiting German side Hamburg Harbor Girls on Saturday, May 21st, image and subculture will certainly be on display.

“There is no obligation to come up with your own name and image, but it is about ‘going the whole way’, and this is important,” she says.

“You get to go on to the track as your alter ego and maybe that helps you be a bit more daring than you would normally be in life. I love this side of it, where you can be a little crazy and live out some of your hidden fantasies.”

Stockholm Roller Derby takes on the Hamburg Harbor Girls on Saturday, May 21st at Visättrahallen in Huddinge, south of Stockholm. Doors open at 6pm and tickets range from 59 to 100 kronor. Check out the website below for more information.

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SPORT

Could Scandinavian countries lead the way in taking stand against Qatar World Cup?

Vehemently opposed to Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup, football federations in the Nordic countries are putting pressure on Doha and FIFA to improve conditions for migrant workers in the emirate.

Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event.
Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

Together with rights organisation Amnesty International, the federations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland have ratcheted up the pressure in recent months, raising their concerns and presenting recommendations in letters, meetings with officials and pre-game protests.

“We are against holding the World Cup in Qatar, we thought it was a bad decision,” the head of the Danish federation DBU, Jakob Jensen, told AFP.

“It is wrong in many ways. Because of the human rights situation, the environment, building new stadiums in a country with very little stadium capacity,” he said.

Denmark is the only Nordic country to have qualified for the tournament so far. Sweden face a playoff next year to secure a place and Norway, Finland and Iceland have been eliminated.

Leading the charge, the Danish federation regularly publishes the Nordic countries’ letters sent to FIFA and holds talks with Qatari officials, including an October meeting with Qatar head organiser Hassan Al-Thawadi.

The main concern is migrant workers’ rights.

Qatar has faced criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom are involved in the construction of the World Cup stadiums and infrastructure.

Campaigners accuse employers of exploitation and forcing labourers to work in dangerous conditions.

Qatari authorities meanwhile insist they have done more than any country in the region to improve worker welfare, and reject international media reports about thousands of workers’ deaths.

The Nordics have also raised other concerns with al-Thawadi, Jensen said.

“Will homosexuals be allowed to attend the World Cup? Will men and women be able to attend the matches together? Will the press have free access to all sorts of issues to do investigations in the country?”

“And all the answers we received were ‘yes’. So of course we’re going to hold him responsible for that,” Jensen said.

The Danish federation said its World Cup participation would focus on the games played on the pitch, and it will not do anything to promote the event for organisers.

It will limit the number of trips it makes to Qatar, the team’s commercial partners will not take part in official activities there, and its two jersey sponsors will allow training kit to carry critical messages.

In Norway, whose qualification bid fell apart when its best player Erling Braut Haaland missed games through injury, the issue culminated in June when its federation held a vote on whether to boycott the World Cup.

READ ALSO: Norway’s economic police call for boycott of Qatar World Cup

Delegates ultimately voted against the idea, but an expert committee recommended 26 measures, including the creation of a resource centre for migrant workers and an alert system to detect human rights violations and inform the international community.

Like other teams, Norway’s squad also protested before each match by wearing jerseys or holding banners like the one unfurled during a recent match against Turkey, reading “Fair play for migrant workers”.

But the Nordic countries have not always acted in line with their own campaign.

Last month at a Copenhagen stadium, a Danish fan was ordered to take down his banner criticising the World Cup in Qatar, as FIFA rules prohibit political statements.

And Sweden’s federation recently scratched plans to hold its winter training camp in the emirate as it has done the past two years.

Sweden’s professional clubs had protested against the hypocrisy of holding the camp there while at the same the federation was leading the protests with Nordic counterparts.

The professional clubs wanted to send a “signal”, the chairman of Swedish Professional Football Leagues, Jens Andersson, told AFP.

Individual players have also spoken out. 

Finland’s captain Tim Sparv last week issued a joint appeal with Amnesty demanding that “FIFA must ensure that human rights are respected”, adding: “We are in debt to those people who have worked for years in poor conditions.”

So far, none of FIFA’s 200 other member federations have joined the Nordic campaign.

“Hopefully all these Nordic neighbours of ours and us taking these steps will have an impact on other countries,” Mats Enquist, secretary general of the Swedish Professional Football League, told AFP.

“We need to ensure that all the aspects of football, not just the richest, are really taken care of when we come to a place.”

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