Yesterday (Monday) night I attended the US v. Kazakhstan match in the world championship tournament of a game I think few people have ever heard of despite its several colorful names: bandy, a.k.a. “Russian hockey” or “hockey with a ball” in Russia, “football of the winter” in Scandinavia and “ball hockey” in Kazakh.
As far as I could gather from watching a game, bandy is a lot like soccer crossed with field hockey. This was confirmed today by a quick trip to the Wikipedia page about bandy, which is actually full of fascinating facts, like: “Bandy in Norway is more an upper class sport. Ice hockey doesn’t even exist in the richer part of Oslo.”
Also according to Wikipedia, the sport originated independently and almost simultaneously in two different countries, rather like calculus, but in the case of bandy those countries are Russia and Wales of the early 18th century. Now, however, it is popular primarily in Scandinavia and the CIS countries, although both India and the United States field teams. Indeed, according to a 2010 New York Times article, “In the United States, perhaps 300 men, 50 women and 200 youngsters play bandy. All of them live in the Twin Cities, except for a handful from Duluth who drive down on weekends.”
Low levels of popularity mean that bandy in the USA does not attract the interest and sponsorship to field really professional-quality teams, and it shows. Although the American Bandy Association website tries to be uplifting in its reporting on last night’s game, it fails to overcome the fact that Team Kazakhstan walked all over Team USA, winning 13 to 3.
I went to the game despite heavy snow with my friend Darren; Darren, despite being ethnically Kazakh, joined me to cheer on the Stars and Stripes. We were the only people supporting the US side. The only other non-Kazakh, non-Russians at the stadium were two Germans on vacation, and they were cheering for the home team. It was my first sporting event here, and it was good fun despite the loss.
What I found most interesting is that almost all of the “Kazakh” national team (more appropriately the “Kazakhstani” team, although the demonyms for this part of the world are confusing enough to be the subject of their own post) are ethnic Russians, and the fans were mixed. This is more casual evidence for either of two contradictory propositions: 1, that Kazakhstan really has achieved Eurasian racial harmony; or 2, that this is a deeply confused “nation” in which two very different cultures coexist, more or less temporarily. I am, admittedly, of both opinions depending on the day.
So far, the USA has done poorly in the tournament, losing to favorite Russia 19-3 the day before losing to Kazakhstan 13-3. This might not matter to anyone, but here’s why it should: the Russians are pushing to include bandy in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, which could (given our record) adversely affect the ultimate medal count to the USA’s detriment – and everyone knows the importance of the medal count!