Active Subcultures: Urban Sports Take German Cities by Storm

Whether it's bike polo, urban golf or scaling public buildings, interesting new urban sports are leaving a distinctive mark on German cityscapes. The metropolitan antics add a twist to traditional sports -- and may be cropping up on stretch of tarmac near you soon.

Anyone for bike polo? Zoom
Christian Thiel

Anyone for bike polo?

The Wassertorplatz in Berlin's Kreuzberg district is full of black bicycle skid marks -- and more are being added all the time. The screech of bike tires merges with rattling subway cars passing overhead and punk rock which blasts from an old cassette player.

In the last game, Miguel found himself lying on the asphalt underneath his bike twice. But that didn't stop his team, called "Mallet Force," from winning the game 5-3. Miguel takes off his helmet. He's been playing bike polo for a year and says, "I'm mad about this sport." He likes the team mentality -- and the fact that play can get rough. He glances over at Marc, who today is confined to watching the game, his broken hand wrapped in plaster.

Polo is a sport with a 2,500-year history, in which two teams on horseback try to shoot a ball into a goal using a mallet. Berlin's unusual offshoot of that elite and traditional game, has its players on bicycles rather than horses, playing on asphalt instead of grass. Miguel and his teammates built their mallets themselves out of old ski poles and bamboo sticks, with pieces cut out of plastic water pipes screwed to the bottom.

Bike polo as a pastime for urban spaces was first made popular by bike couriers in New York City. Now increasing numbers of these urban sporting trends are spreading through cities across the world. And they're breaking away from traditional sports, making do without clubs and organizations -- something that makes them all the more appealing for young people.

It's a hidden and sometimes bizarre branch of the sporting world. Since the late 80's, for example, "Le Parkour" has been spreading through Europe's cities. This is a discipline involving skillful movements that takes its participants over walls, fences, and stairs. A further development of the sport is called free running -- this adds acrobatic elements such as backflips and somersaults to jumping various urban hurdles.

Another much-loved sport trend in Munich and Hamburg is urban golf, a form free of its predecessor's etiquette. Instead of well-tended lawns players tee off in pedestrian zones, on building foundations and roofs. Meanwhile, the most whimsical current trend in Berlin is "hockern" -- based on the German word "Hocker," meaning stool. Its adherents execute gymnastic moves atop plastic stools; It looks a little like breakdancing.

Scaling Towers, Walls and Bridges

At first these unusual games were not taken seriously by the world of organized sports but now they are attracting more and more followers. Christian Wopp, a sports scholar at Osnabrück University, believes only a quarter of all sport disciplines still take place in traditional locations such as stadiums and swimming pools. He sees "an ironic movement" in the trend toward alternative sports. Concrete and asphalt, Wopp suggests, "are being made into inhabitable environments again." Academics like Franz Bockrath at the Institute for Sports Science in Darmstadt also sees the spread of the new sports as a critique of the ever-contracting nature of large urban centers. To create new possibilities for movement, Bockrath says, young trendsetters have set about transforming cities' enclosed spaces.

Mainz, Frankfurt am Main and Cologne have also witnessed the emergence of an unusual rock climbing scene. "Buildering" is the art of scaling public buildings, walls, towers, and bridges. Germany already has about 2,000 active urban climbers. There's even a guide to buildering, in which doctoral student Tim Jacobs, 25, describes how best to climb the Kaiser Bridge in Mainz or the brick external walls of a swimming pool. "In the city I can find so many climbing opportunities. Opportunities which otherwise only exist far away in the mountains," Jacobs says.

One important theme among participants in all these sport trends is the potential for personal expression. The same impulse produced "sign spinning" in the United States. People hired to hold up advertising signs in front of malls eventually found it so boring that they started juggling the signs to entertain passersby. This gimmick has also made its way to Germany, where a 17-year-old student in Lübeck recently started his own company selling 1.4-meter (4.6-foot) arrow-shaped plastic signs -- he has already registered them as sports equipment at the German patent office.

Some cities have started encouraging these sporting subcultures in order to boost their own images. Berlin and Frankfurt, for example, already host alternative sports festivals. And the long-forbidden surf scene on Munich's Eisbach canal is now being legalized by the city -- the surfers have become a tourist attraction. This government support, however, doesn't appeal to everyone. The underground scene is wary of being taken over, preferring to reject strict organizational structures.

Alternative sports enthusiasts always seem to manage to find one another anyway. Next year will see the second European Championship in bike polo, which activists in Berlin and Barcelona have offered to organize. The venue will be decided in a completely non-bureaucratic fashion, through an online vote.

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