In London's Hackney, Julia Belluz discovers a strange sport with a serious social mission ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Not long ago, I found myself at a community centre in East London's Hackney borough, taking in Britain's most bizarre sport. From an observation deck above the gymnasium, I watch sweat-soaked hockey players recklessly thrash about—on unicycles. Balancing the aggression of the sport with the delicate acrobatics of a one-wheeled bike, unicycle hockey is a mixture of sport and circus.
"This is a game for iconoclastic weirdoes," concedes Martin "1Wheel" Izat. A fit plumber by day, Izat is a devoted unicyclist. (He once managed the entire 60 miles from Hackney to Brighton on one wheel.) Izat belongs to the Hackney Freewheelers, one of two unicycle hockey clubs in London, each of which has about a dozen players.
Tonight the Freewheelers are up against the Lunis, Britain's original team, founded by John Dash, a civil engineer. Dash discovered unicycle hockey while working in Germany, where the sport has a wider following. Acomprehensive unicycle-hockey website traces the game to a 1925 German silent film, which features two unicyclists performing on stage, one with a hockey stick. After returning to London in the late 1980s, Dash helped to build the team that now tops Britain’s league tablesand competes in international tournaments, such as the Unicycle Hockey World Championships.
While niche, unicycle hockey has players and followers around the world. The most skilled unicyclists are in China, New Zealand and Japan (“synchronised swimming on unicycles,” one player told me). In America and Canada the game is sometimes played in the dark with a fire puck.
Tonight's players are a hodgepodge of ages (eight to 54), ethnicities and occupations. A rocket scientist, circus performer, shop owner, carpenter and several schoolchildren, among others, have travelled from all over London to the community centre to practice. Every few minutes the gym is filled with a loud BANG!—the sound a player makes when he crashes from his unicycle onto the gym floor.
On a sweat-drenched break, I learn that in this part of London the sport's silly exterior belies a more serious mission. The younger players on the team are part of an informal mentoring programme. Izat explains that before these indoor games, the Hackney players used to practice on a nearby public-housing estate. One evening, in 2003, a local boy asked to join them. Over time the boy recruited schoolmates and youths in the neighbourhood, and soon the team shifted to include the younger demographic.
But some of the area's gangs began to interrupt practices. "There was a group of youth who came and started to play football in the middle of the game to intimidate us," says Izat. Gang members would follow the young unicyclists on their way to practice, shouting, swearing and threatening along the way. "The usual nonsense that goes on in the estates in Hackney," he says.
In Hackey, which has 22 identified gangs, such conflicts are not unusual. The gangs have notoriously waged a "postcode war". Simply crossing the street to enter another postcode (zip-code, in America) can be dangerous, and local gang-related violence features frequently in news reports. Izat says that all the kids who are playing this evening knew the teenagers involved in a recent gang rape on a nearby estate. "We have discovered just how much these gangs affect their lives," he says. When the team began to practice in a gymnasium, the adult players would safely ferry the young ones in cars to and from the game to circumvent gang threats.
Barry Gates, a member of the Lunis who has been playing for about 22 years, says he actively recruits local youngsters because "you see these children need a focus and this is quite a healthy focus for them." Instead of getting mixed-up in gangs, he says, they can put their energy into sport. “We’ve used [unicycle hockey] as a tool for involving people from more neglected social areas and showing them a different way. You need more equipment for uni-hockey than you do for other games, but these kids get to play for free.” Plus, they are also welcome to borrow equipment to hone their skills between games.
A fellow Lunis player, Jonathan “The Rocket” Marshal—credited with penning the international rules—observes, “Unicycle Hockey attracts a certain type of person: someone who doesn’t want to do things the easy way.” Unicycles are known as the Everest of the wheeled world. Learning how to ride one requires discipline.
The kids themselves appear enthusiastic, enjoying their mastery of an odd and difficult sport, and relishing the adult attention. When asked, they are shy about what makes unicycle hockey so compelling, expressing simply that it's fun.
The hockey team members aren’t the only ones who believe in the benefits of this oddball sport. Over the years, support from the neighbourhood has grown. A local school has offered its gym as a practice space, and new equipment will come from the London Cycling Campaign, which administers grants for urban cycling projects.
Euan Hill, who plays on the Hackney team and sells unicycles at his sporting-goods shop, says, "We're always encouraging as many young guys as possible to get into riding so that they don't get involved hanging out surrounded by gangsters." He also sees the hockey team as a way to give local kids hope. "It's just about making kids more positive. They will get better exam results, they will be more confident, they will be more likely to keep their noses clean, and stay out of trouble."
Of course, sport has long been a vehicle for positive development, and there are other sports initiatives in the borough, such as Hackney Playbus and the Albion Kids Show, which aim at creating safe play opportunities for kids.
But why does Hill think the unicycle is the thing? "It's the closest thing to flying," he smiles. "Unicyclists float above the world, glide through the sky, open to the world. It's just optimistic."
(Julia Belluz is a writer based in Toronto. Her last piece for More Intelligent Life was about green bread company.)
Picture Credit: Chris Govias