Reinventing Bandy—Innovation on Ice

1/8/14

Later this month, a team of Somali youngsters living in Sweden will travel to Siberia, to compete in the world championships of bandy, an exotic winter sport mostly played in the icier parts of Europe.

Innovation often means moving something from one context to a new one, for instance, by applying a known technology into a different field. Like when inkjet printing is used to deposit DNA probes on diagnostic gene chips, or when Tesla Motors uses lithium batteries, originally developed for laptops and similar gadgets, in its cars.

But innovation can also mean introducing an old product to a new, different market. That may sound simpler, until you run into a bunch of barriers you didn´t know existed. I’ve argued that this explains why it is hard to introduce new sports outside their traditional areas, as in convincing the part of the world that is weaned on soccer to play baseball instead.

But in Sweden, some top-class athletes are trying to do just that. They are coaching a group of Somali refugees in “bandy,” a winter sport mostly played in a few countries in northern Europe. They’ve set a high goal for themselves: The team will travel to Siberia at the end of January to compete in 2014 World Bandy Championships in Irkutsk.

Bandy is a fast-moving sport, played with clubs and a very small ball on a wide ice field. Think of it as a mix of ice hockey and soccer, with a strong emphasis on speed and ball handling. To put it in an other way, a top bandy player should know how to hit a volley 40 yards while skating backwards at full speed.

So why does a group of African youngsters, most of whom have never even skated, start playing this rather exotic game?

It all started as an “integration project” in Borlänge, an industrial town in mid-Sweden with a strong bandy tradition. Borlänge has several thousand Somali refugees among its 50 000 inhabitants. In the spring of 2013, the entrepreneur Patrik Andersson approached the soccer team, Swesom (Sweden/Somalia) FC. He wanted to increase the interaction between refugees and Swedes. The idea of teaching Somali children to play the game had been around for a while in the local bandy club, but Andersson took it a step further. He convinced Swesom FC to form a Somali national bandy team for the 2014 championships, and also got the team accepted by the International Bandy Federation and Somalia’s Olympic Committee.

During the summer, the players practiced on inline roller skates; their ice training started just a few months ago. It is of course nearly impossible to become a good, or at least decent, bandy player in such a short time, even if the team has recruited one of the sport’s superstars as its coach.

Pelle Fosshaug is a living legend who has won five bandy world championships. He has said that this is one of his most rewarding experiences in the sport, despite the fact that it means training players who don´t know how to skate.

To be honest, interest in bandy is not as strong as it used to be in Sweden. The traditional bandy strongholds are in the steel, timber, and mining districts, in towns and villages with shrinking populations, not in the fast-growing big cities. However, even if bandy may not be very cool nowadays, it is definitely cold and often played on natural ice, which probably explains why Finland, Russia, and Sweden are three of the favorites in the championships. Just coping with the cold will be a challenge in itself during the games—the average daily temperature in Irkutsk in January is below 0 degrees F.

The Somali team’s chances to get a single win in the championships must be said to be extremely slim. In their first real match, against Borlänge Bandy, they lost 16-0.

There is, however, more than one way to measure success.

The effort has stimulated other local sports clubs and associations to think along similar lines. For the town of Borlänge it has meant an enormous amount of good publicity: the team has caught the attention of news media both in Sweden and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal. The story will be the basis of a new film documentary and the Borlänge-based reggae band Apopocalyps has written a tribute to the team, called “Somalia.”

And maybe someday we will see a new generation of bandy players in Sweden of Somalian ancestry, recruited among the younger siblings of today’s pioneers.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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