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The Growing Popularity of Contact Sports: A Guide to Roller Derby

In 2017, roller derby is a tough contact sport played by strong, fearless women (and increasingly, men), in a growing number of countries across the globe. The sport is played in teams of 14, with 5 members on the track at any one point, consisting of 4 blockers (the defence) and 1 jammer (the scorer). But during the sports' formation, roller derby looked very different.

The Origins of Roller Derby

Roller Derby was founded in the United States in 1935. The brain child of Leo Seltzer, roller derby was created after the popularity of 1920s walk-a-thons and dance marathons began to decline. The first roller derby was held on 13th August at the Chicago Coliseum and was attended by 20,000 people.

Unlike today's full contact sport, roller derby began as a long-distance endurance event, in which paired skaters (a man and a woman), would skate thousands of miles around a track over several days. The events were known as Transcontinental Roller Derby, whereby organisers would map a route across America, such as New York to San Diego, and participants would skate thousands of laps to complete an imaginary route.

In 1937, two years after its creation, roller derby changed forever, moving from an endurance event to a full contact sport. Seltzer introduced a scoring system, permitted contact between players, introduced the idea of blocking opponents, and implemented teams of five skaters. Thus, modern day roller derby was born.

Increase in Popularity

Like many sports, roller derby has experienced both lulls and periods of popularity, but has seen a huge resurgence in recent years. In addition to more roller derby players across the U.S, the sport has also gathered momentum as far as Australia and China, where roller derby is empowering women to break free from the constraints of traditional gender roles.

In addition to China and Australia, roller derby has also taken off in the UK. In 2010, the United Kingdom Roller Derby Association (UKDRA) was formed. At the time, the national association was composed of only 15 leagues but more quickly joined over the next few years. In fact, in 2017, the number of official member leagues now sits at 44. But why? What is its appeal?

Redefining Gender

Although roller derby began as a co-ed sport, it has largely become known as a physical women's sport – although the number of co-ed leagues is on the rise. Roller derby has become a sport in which women can push gender norms. It is a sport about power, physical strength, competition and endurance. In many ways, roller derby redefines women as athletes. It is re-inventing ad-fuelled beauty standards that portray what it means to be feminine by redefining women's bodies.

Roller derby can be a brutal and aggressive sport and has been hailed by some as the feminist sport – it is a sport for women, by women. Players sport bright and battered clothing, protective equipment and gum shields, with each encouraged to create their own character.

A Real Contact Sport

While clothing and characters add an element of fun to roller derby, protective equipment is essential. As a physical sport, roller derby has a long list of legal moves to block opponents, all of which can result in serious injury. These include hip checks (bumping an opponent's hips), j-blocks (a shoulder-to-chest movement), and waterfalls (a strategic move to continuously hit a player).

The various methods of attack can result in serious injury. In fact, in 2007, the WFTDA (the Women's Flat Track Derby Association) carried out a survey of more than 1000 players, which revealed some shocking injury statistics.

46% of respondents, 574 players, stated that they had sustained an injury which had prevented them from participating, while half of those said they had received a knee injury. Knee injuries are the most common among roller derby players, and treatment of this injury can take several months.

In addition to knee injuries, ankle injuries, deep tissue bruising, broken bones and strapped-up fingers are common. In many instances, players miss practices or games, and in some circumstances, must even seek emergency medical attention.

However, players sign up for roller derby knowing that it is a physical, full-contact sport and that injury is to be expected. Buying protective roller derby equipment is essential, but even when wearing this, skaters often become injured both during practices and games.

The resurgence of roller derby is fantastic and due to its physical nature, the sport has become known for its confident and fearless players. Viewed by many as the ultimate feminist sport, roller derby is continuing to flourish across the globe, empowering women through physical competition.