A strategic, full-contact sport on roller blades. Roller derby is a sport where women take centre stage.

By Nicklas Hägen

ROLLER DERBY has its origin in the USA of the 1930s. In the fifties and sixties, the sport became more of an entertainment sport, like wrestling. After failed attempts to get the sport onto television, little was heard of roller derby for som­e decades before it appeared in its present form in Austin, Texas, in 2001.
Roller derby is said to be the fastest growing women’s sport in the world today. For instance, when the Turku team, the Dirty River Roller Grrrls played their first match, or ‘bout’, at home in the autumn of 2013, the 270 seats spectator stand was sold out.

It was Laura Savolainen who brought roller derby to Turku, having been an exchange student in Lund, Sweden. Savolainen received her Master’s degree in women’s studies from Åbo Akademi University with a thesis called ‘Gender and Sexuality in Sports – a Study of the Quee­r Potential of Roller Derby’ (“Kön och sexualitet inom idrott – en studie i roller derbyns queera potential”). She was  herself a member of the Finnish national team in the World Championships in Toronto, Canada, in 2011.

“I was living in Malmö in Sweden and my best friend set up a roller derby team there. I joined it and when I moved back to Turku I wanted to continue playing,” says Savolainen.
“There were three of us who got the whole thing going in Turku, rolling around on an asphalt court in the park. We received a lot of support from the sports instructor at Åbo Akademi University at the beginning, so that was an advantage.”
According to Salla Peltonen, researcher in women’s studies at Åbo Akademi University and a roller derby enthusiast, the sport has a liberating function, having encouraged many women to actually start practising a sport. All the leader positions are held by women and it is possible to connect the aesthetics of the sport with the riot grrrl phenomenon, which has its roots in the punk and anarchofeminist movements.

“As a sport roller derby is like any other. Watching a bout is a bit like watching a handball match. Things are happening all the time and the scores roll in,” says Peltonen.
“The sport has a visibly feminist aspect, even if it is not possible to unambiguously define it as such. Roller derby is not actually explicitly feminist even if many women claim that the sport has changed their live­s. There is something liberating about women tackling each other on roller blades.”
“Roller derby is also practised by men, but they do not have such a prominent role within the sport. The sport is the only one which has a policy of including transgendered people; people whose gender identity deviates from the gender norms.
“Despite this, roller derby is not a problem-free area for transgendered people. Sexual conservatism can be found also here.”

Roller derby is played by teams of five on an oval court. A match is divided into two halves of thirty minutes each. In a simplified version, the rules of the game are that one player on both teams – the so-called ‘jammer’ – should pass by the players in the competing team. When this happens, the team scores. The other players are called blockers and they try to stop the jammer from overtaking them.