Postcard from Bogotá

  • Abel E. Cárdenas

    Whip it! The Bone Breakers and the Rock and Roller Queens compete head-to-head

    Baseball is said to have been introduced to Colombia by migrant sugarcane cutters who picked up the game in Cuba. Depending on whom you ask, basketball was brought here either by Colombian soldiers or students who learned to play in the U.S. But when it comes to roller derby, the latest American sports import, the genealogical lines are clear: it all traces back to the star of E.T. and Charlie's Angels .

    In 2009, Drew Barrymore directed and appeared in Whip It , a comedy-drama about a Texas misfit who joins a Bad News Bears — like roller-derby team called the Hurl Scouts. Whip It was a box-office disappointment. But when María Paola Hernández, a Bogotá graphic designer, watched the movie for the first time, she was fascinated by the women hip-checking their way around the rink in outlandish costumes and old-fashioned four-wheel skates. After downloading the rules from the Internet and watching roller derby online, Hernández began recruiting skaters via Facebook and teaching the sport.

    Since then, nearly a dozen roller-derby teams have sprung up, with names like Bone Breakers and Pain Dealers. "I learned about it through Whip It ," said Hernández, who founded Colombia's first roller-derby team, the Bogotá-based Rock and Roller Queens. "The movie exaggerated the violence, but the sport really intrigued me, and I began to look into it."

    Roller derby involves two five-member teams skating counterclockwise around a flat or banked track. Designated scorers, called jammers, pick up points when they lap members of the opposing team. Support players check, bump and brake to prevent enemy jammers from passing them. It gets pretty rough. But the controlled mayhem is the attraction, especially in Colombia, where the macho notion that women should stick to more ladylike endeavors, like beauty pageants, is still common. Francisca Perdomo, 18, a skater for the Rock and Roller Queens, said the sport allows girls "to be tough and strong. But you can also be feminine and girlish."

    Roller derby was invented in the U.S. in the 1940s as an anything-goes riot on roller skates. Mixed and all-female roller derby was an early staple on the three major TV networks. But the sport lost some of its appeal as it descended into spectacle, with scripted fights and pies in the face.

    Over the past decade, however, roller derby has enjoyed a grassroots revival in the U.S., where hundreds of teams have formed. The sport has now spread to more than 30 countries. Colombia was particularly fertile ground for roller derby because the country was already a mecca for roller skaters. The national team is a perennial powerhouse at the World Roller Speed Skating Championships and has won the overall title nine times in the past 12 years. As more Colombians learned about roller derby, often through YouTube videos of American teams, they began trying it for themselves.

    Like their American counterparts, the Colombians often draw stares for their tattoos, nose rings, risqué outfits and nicknames. When the Dinamita team formed in the western city of Manizales this spring, "it was a constant effort to convince people that this was a real sport and that we were not just inventing something," said Angela Montoya, an architecture student and team captain.

    They did manage to persuade the Colombian government to take them seriously, however: last month, roller derby received official recognition from the Colombian Sports Federation, which could lead to more money to train teams and build rinks. The players need them. On a recent evening, the Rock and Roller Queens practiced in a downtown park that smelled of marijuana and was illuminated by a single floodlight. But even though they had to share their space with men playing an even more obscure sport — bicycle polo — the Queens spent two hours racing around in circles with gusto. "I used to play soccer," Perdomo, one of the Queens' best skaters, said while taking a breather. "But when I tried roller derby, I really fell in love."

    This article originally appeared in the October 17, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.