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What do roller skates, fishnet stockings and ladies with lots of tattoos have to do with Europe coming together across borders? Read on if you’re intrigued…

Roller derby is allegedly the fastest growing sport in the world. A sport for girls on roller skates knocking each other over during a fast-paced and dramatic “bout”, the entertainment value is hard to deny. It may come as a surprise, though, that this sport, with its unusual conditions, has become a common European project for a bunch of very special ladies. Anna Dester tells us why following her favourite sport is not only hugely entertaining, but could also teach us something about our continent. 

Sweat, pain, and fishnet stockings

The sports arena is sizzling. The bout (a roller derby term for match) has just started, and the Danish team Copenhagen Rollin’ Heartbreakers enjoys the comfort of an enthusiastic homecourt audience. The Stuttgart team is already behind, and the few fans who have travelled here to show their support look somewhat beaten already. Still, the atmosphere is exceptional – like a mixture between a rock concert, a sports match and a really, really good night at your favourite pub. The ladies playing are all wearing protective gear – helmets, mouthguards and knee caps – but they’ve also all spiced up their outfits with sparkling shorts and the ever-present fishnet stockings, which have become a staple of the roller girl wardrobe over the years.

What’s going on on the field is a match that just a few years ago would have been impossible, not because of logistics, but because there simply wouldn’t have been any teams to play. And the fact that Copenhagen Rollin’ Heartbreakers are playing a German team is no coincidence; the sport is still in its consolidation phase and there are simply not enough teams in one country in Europe to get national leagues up and running.

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Photo: PD. Oh, it’s a contact sport alright. Here, Ann Calvallo is being kept off an opponent.

Roller derby has been an established sport in the USA since the 1960’s, when iconic women such as Judy Sowinski and Ann Cavallo made it instantly recognisable and beloved. Still, it was a niche sport that did not enjoy the large audiences of football, basketball or hockey. The aesthetics and style of play makes the women wanting to play and the people wanting to watch a minority in a sports-crazed country like the USA.

In other parts of the world, roller derby was almost entirely unknown. It wasn’t until the rise of the Rockabilly lifestyle that women in Europe came to know and practise the sport.

So, roller derby started growing all over Europe, albeit in very small communities. Sometimes, the teams didn’t have enough players to be able to practise. What do you do when you love your hobby, but don’t know enough people who are also into it?

You start calling your friends in other countries. Roller derby camps were set up and the rolling ladies started doing PR for their passion.

Making it transnationally instead of nationally

Roller derby in Europe today is a sport of the few and the passionate. You simply need to love it in order to bother putting in the effort that it demands. Like other sports, you need to practise and be in exceptional shape. But you must also be prepared to travel for matches and really be dedicated to promoting the sport.

The consequence of these conditions is that roller derby is not a national sport in Europe. It’s a transnational sport in Europe.

The consequence of these conditions is that roller derby is not a national sport in Europe. It’s a transnational sport in Europe. Matches are almost always between teams from different countries, although a proper European league has yet to be established. The different teams are also commonly display a wider variety of nationalities than other sports, at least when you exclude the major football leagues (which of course have a lot more money to buy players from around the world).

And there’s more to it than this – across the Atlantic, the American Roller Derby League has noticed that women have put on their skates in Europe. They want to play us. The problem is that no teams in Europe are good enough to match the more established American teams. What to do then? You assemble a European all-star team! Gathering the most talented women from different teams all over Europe makes up a team that is worthy of playing the American league teams. As far as I know, this is the first sport in Europe to have a team playing not for a city or a country, but for their continent. No doubt, it is a motley crew of players, but they are united in their passion – perhaps out of necessity to begin with, but now because they see the advantages of not establishing national leagues and dealing with the disadvantages of not teaming up with fellow enthusiasts across the country.

The bout between Copenhagen Rollin’ Heartbreakers and Stuttgart has ended with a comfortable victory to the home team. The women, now sweaty and many of them sporting the distinctive fishnet burn (a sports injury unique to roller derby – when you fall and slide wearing fishnet stockings, your skin gets burned in a diamond shaped pattern; make no mistake, this is a sport for girls, but not a girly sport). But there are no hard feelings between the players of the two teams – they hug and begin lively conversations after the whistle has blown. After all, they are not just opponents. Many of them are team mates on the European roller derby team – and therefore, team mates not only in the sense that they play on the same team, but also that they play for a bigger cause: making roller derby known throughout Europe.

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