Berlin on Wheels: The Berliner Roller Derby

‘Berliner Bombshells’ is not the title of a three-day exposition about Germany's war damages. Eardrum damages is what you may experience though, if you happen to find yourself among the supporters of Berlin's leading Rollerderby squad: namely, the Berliner Bombshells.

The Rollerderby is an indoor sport, fought by two formations (known as ‘packs’ for the initiated) of five skaters each. Some of you may have seen a movie called Rollerball (1975): an extra-violent game on wheels, played inside an arena. While having little to do with the Rollerderby, the plot took great inspiration from this sport, which was founded in the 20s and has recently known a huge revival in the late 2000s. The modern spirit of this sport is heavily punk and heavy-metal fueled, and this is quite evident looking at the tribunes: the above mentioned supporters randomly display behavior like bringing rock drumkits inside stadiums to better spur the players, whose name  are substituted by nicknames, such as: Bloody Mary, Assault E.Hag, Chilli Machete, Peanut Butter Panic, etc. Squad's names can vary from Dirty River Roller Grrrls (Malmo, Sweden) to Portneuf Valley Bruisers (Pocatello, Idaho) or Battle Creek Cereal Killers (Battle Creek, Michigan). Such a fine background for a discipline that takes pride in its independent spirit, being completely self-funded, self-ruled: ‘By the skaters, for the skaters’ is their motto, do-it-yourself.

Back to the game: how do you play? Get a jersey, a pair of classic skates, protections and a helmet. Start skating counter-clockwise, and follow some (quite) simple rules. Rule one: Both squads run at the same time. Of a formation of fourteen, only five play: these skaters form the pack.
Of these five, only one is the jammer, or the one who runs. His role is to overtake as many adversaries as possible. The role of the other four, now called blockers, is to physically and tactically obstruct the way to the adversary's jammer. Timeouts and penalties are given when necessary: if the jammer gets a penalty, a designated player, the pivot, takes its place. The jammer wears a starred helmet cover, a pivot a striped cover. Every run (or jam) ends after two minutes. The two games (bouts) last 30 minutes each. Overtake thy enemy, you shall win.

Nobody normally expects a sport to have more than a referee normally, but this sport relies heavily on the squad concept, so there are seven referees, and more importantly, they're not part of an external federation, like in almost every sport known to man. They do belong to the hosting squad, or league as it's properly called. Berlin's League has three teams, the top one being the Berliner Bombshells. Then comes the B-team (the Inglorious Bombshells) and the C-Team. Then comes the Referee Group. As you may understand yourself, this is like having Barcellona providing its own referees for the match against Real Madrid, but this is absolutely normal here, where trust and bonds are thicker and the enthusiasm rule. As a general example, rugby has the so-called Third Time: players hugging and mingling after the game's end: here players, referees, and sometime part of the public clean the hall after the match. And they all go drinking together and then on transoceanic matches, all thanks only to self-funding and sponsor's money.

All the rules are under constant scrutiny, and as written in the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, “All member leagues have a voice in the decision-making process, and agree to comply with WFTDA policies”. Rules are made by the clubs. Ah, yes, Woman's Associations. Did a forget to say that this quite rude sport is made by and for girls? Only exception within the WFTDA are the Referees. The WFTDA has 329 Full Member Leagues and 97 Apprentice Leagues. The Men's Roller Derby Association (MRDA) counts to date (March 2015) 58 Clubs, and it's trying to catch a bit up. Talk about Girl Power.

In this hugely international sport (the abundant use of English words by all the Germans leagues is a hint), the Bombshells were founded in 2008, and have since been Germany Champions (2013), opened a Bootcamp and Junior section (7-17). Every player usually goes through roughly six months of training to pass the Minimum Skills exam, this being a theory-and-practice check of all your wheel-related knowledge. Then, after another six months of lovely blows in your face and power fitness training you can make it to the A-squad. The next Minimum Skills Test for External Skaters in Berlin takes place the 5th December 2015. Make a revolutionary New Year resolution: join the Pack – or the referees, they even got personalized jerseys. And nicknames.

By Guido Mori

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