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Roll Britannia

Dazed delves into the humour, politics and spectacle behind Europe’s first roller derby tournament.

To visit Roll Britannia, the first ever European roller derby tournament, which took place at Earl’s Court last weekend, you would not know that this was a sport driven by ideological strife. But it is, sort of. Women who play roller derby give themselves burlesque-style aliases, many of which are pretty funny (Correctional Felicity, Eleanor Bruisevelt, Apocalypse Frau) but there are a growing number who want to switch back to their real names – the aforementioned Correctional Felicity, for instance, one of the London Brawling team’s star players, will soon be skating simply as Stefanie Mainey. The point is that roller derby players are athletes, not performers, and it’s difficult to take someone seriously as an athlete if they’re calling themselves, say, Marie Slamtoinette. Roller derby may have begun in the 1930s as nothing more than trashy entertainment, but today it’s like football, not like WWF wrestling.

Stakes are high right now for roller derby, because later this year a film is coming out called Whip It which is likely to turn the sport into a minor craze. Directed by Drew Barrymore and starring Ellen Page, it’s an adaptation by Shauna Cross of her excellent teen-girl novel Derby Girl. (Yes, I have read that. No, it’s not the only teen-girl novel I have read recently.) So roller derby has to decide what face it’s going to present to an increasingly attentive world. And a lot of players are bored of newspaper articles that focus on the fishnets and the funny names instead of the game itself.

But if the media is excited about roller derby for the wrong reasons, then, frankly, so am I. I love the spectacle, I love the provocative goth/rockabilly/steampunk outfits, I love the mock-bloodthirstiness, and as for the skate-out – the bit at the beginning of the match, when each player skates a grinning lap of the track as the announcer introduces her by her alias – well, I love that so much that I get tears in my eyes every single time. There’s a reason I don’t go to watch any other sport. Normal sport is boring. I really hope roller derby doesn’t become like normal sport (although, at least, whatever happens, it’s always going to be all-female. I love that too).

So, anyway, back to Roll Britannia. Two days, two tracks, twelve teams and sixteen bouts. It was pretty great, although the huge space of Brompton Hall did have an unfortunate tendency to swallow up the cheers of the crowd. London Brawling won, as they were certain to do, with the score in the final, against the Birmingham Blitz Derby, a preposterous 346-13. That didn’t make it dull, though. As far as I’m concerned, roller derby isn’t really about winning. But then there are probably a lot of roller girls who would disagree with me.