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A 100 Year Grudge? - Why Bandy Is Not In The Winter Olympics

By Christopher Middlebrook, 01/04/21, 12:00PM CST


World Championship Final Match Russia Vs. Sweden Khabarovsk, Russia 2018

Almost 100 years ago, as planning was underway for the very first Winter Olympics, the ancient and very popular team ice sport of bandy was excluded. No explanation was given by the organizers of those Games, held in Chamonix, France. This surprised the winter athletic world, especially in the many European countries where bandy predated ice hockey. 

Czar Nicholas, Bandy Player

Prior to World War I, bandy was already an established sport throughout Europe. The culture and tradition of bandy, skating on ice covered lakes, rivers and fens, striking a ball with a short, curved wooden stick, was already hundreds of years old in Europe, Russia and Asia before hockey was even a gleam in a Canadian's eye. Organized bandy competitions first arose on the frozen fens of East Anglia in England; the first recorded game took place there in the winter of 1813-14. The world's original bandy club, Bury Fen, formed in the 1830s. In 1875 a bandy match was played on an ice surface inside the Crystal Palace in London. In 1882 bandy rules were codified, ultimately leading to the first ever international match between Bury Fen and Dutch Sporting Club Haarlem in 1892. Organized bandy teams spread across most of winter Europe. The countries of the far north-Sweden, Norway, Russia and Finland-played 11 on 11 bandy. In 1910 they joined with Denmark and Germany to form the Northern Alliance Bandy Federation. Throughout the rest of Europe 7 on 7 bandy was played, including the first European Bandy Championship, held in St Moritz in 1913, with 8 countries, England, Austria-Hungary, Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, France and Germany competing. In sum, bandy had established itself as a popular winter team sport with strong history, heritage, culture and tradition. This, however could not save bandy from being excluded from the very first Winter Olympics-from continuing to be excluded almost 100 years later.

The story of bandy's exclusion from the Winter Olympics actually begins in 1901, with the organization of the first Nordic Games. Staged in Stockholm, the Nordic Games were the precursor to the Winter Olympics-the first event to focus on multiple winter sports. Bandy was one of the premier competitions in these inaugural Nordic games. A Swede, Viktor Balck, was both the emotion and the intellect behind the Nordic Games. He was also one of the original five members of the International Olympic Committee. After the Nordic Games were firmly established, Balck emphasized their importance to Sweden. "The Nordic Games have now become a major concern for our entire people" he proclaimed. "Above all we placed the national goal of rendering a service to the fatherland and bringing honor to our country". The Nordic Games were of such importance to Balck that in 1911 he refused when the other members of the IOC proposed that Sweden, after hosting the 1912 Summer Olympics, should also host the very first Winter Olympics that same year. Balck believed that a Winter Olympics would threaten the wintertime primacy of the Nordic Games. In the short term, Balck prevailed in this clash of wills with the IOC-there were no 1912 Winter Olympic Games. But in winning this battle he likely created an IOC grudge of 100 plus years' duration.

The first evidence of this rift appears during the preparations for the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics. Suspended because of World War I, the Summer Olympic Games resumed in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium. Ice hockey was included as a sport because Antwerp had a small indoor ice rink. Partly inspired by ice hockey's inclusion in the 1920 Summer Games, the French organizers of the 1924 Summer Games worked together with the IOC to accomplish what Viktor Balck had refused to do in 1912-host a Winter Olympics. Viktor Balck played no role in the organization of these first Winter Games at Chamonix-and bandy, a favorite sport of Balck's, and of Sweden, was excluded. Indeed. it was conspicuous by its absence. Of course, Balck still had his Nordic Games, but they were now overshadowed and overwhelmed by the Winter Olympic Games. Interest in the Nordic Games quickly waned, with the last Nordic Games being held in 1926. Balck died in 1928, and two years later after the Nordic Games were cancelled due to a lack of snow, they ceased to exist.


In retrospect, a century later, Viktor Balck's decision to spurn the creation of the Winter Olympics in 1911, and in doing so spurn the IOC, now seems an epic miscalculation- and a catastrophic one for bandy in particular. Whether or not Balck's decisions led directly to the exclusion of bandy as an Olympic sport in 1924, that exclusion set the stage for the disappearance of bandy from the majority of European countries. Only in Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Soviet Union and, for a brief period, Estonia, did bandy continue to be played. With just 4 continuously competing countries, bandy had no easy path into the Olympics. And as we shall see, that path would be blocked again and again by the IOC.

Bandy in Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Soviet Union not only survived, it thrived, further solidifying its place as an essential element of the identity, culture and heritage of these winter nations. In both Sweden and Finland, almost every city, town or hamlet had a bandy club. In the Soviet Union bandy spread across Siberia and to the far east of Khabarovsk. Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Krygystan, all had their own bandy championships. In Norway bandy was even played during the German occupation of World War II, in clandestine games on frozen lakes in the deep forests. In 1952, as host nation for the Winter Olympics, Norway chose to present bandy as a demonstration sport, with Sweden, Finland and Norway competing-in essence the first international bandy tournament since the European Championships in St Moritz  in 1913. Bandy's inclusion in the 1952 Oslo Winter Games was a success with the spectators and the Press. Unfortunately, this did not buy goodwill for bandy; the IOC had instead wanted curling and military patrol(later known as biathlon) to be the demonstration sports. 

The Soviet Union did not compete at Oslo '52, as the country was just beginning to enter international competitions, but the Soviets were impressed enough that in 1954 they arranged the inaugural Four Nations Bandy Tournament in Moscow. These 4 nations then formed the International Bandy Federation in 1955, with the first Bandy World Championships, won by the Soviet Union, taking place in Finland in 1957. But four countries were not enough to motivate the IOC to consider adding bandy to the Winter Games. In the run-up to the 1968 Winter Olympics the sport of bandy came up again, as the Norway bid for the Games included bandy as part of the sports program. But the IOC rejected Norway and bandy, and instead chose Grenoble, France. For the next 13 years, bandy, although immensely popular in the existing four bandy playing nations, stayed off the IOC radar and consequently remained invisible to the rest of the world.

First U.S. Bandy Team, Ljusdal, Sweden, 1981

Finally, in December 1980, bandy's six decades of isolation came to an end with the sport's introduction into the United States. There was now a fifth bandy nation, and within two years the USA was competing in the world club team championships, and in 1985 began competing in the world championships. In 1995, the USA even hosted the world championships, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The dam of isolation broken, the bandy floodgates opened. First Canada, the Netherlands and Hungary entered international competition. Then the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Estonia. The growth accelerated as Mongolia, Latvia, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Somalia, Germany, China, Switzerland, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Slovakia and the 1913 European champion Great Britain, began competing in the men's world championships, bringing to 23 the total number of countries that have appeared.

Prince William and Princess Kate support Bandy as Great Britain Rejoins Bandy in 2018

Women's bandy also exploded in popularity, with the first women's world championships held in Finland in 2004 and taking place every two years since, including in China, Siberia, Hungary and twice in the United States. Russia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, the USA, China, Hungary, Japan, Canada, Estonia and Switzerland, have all skated in the women's tournament so far(with a heavy emphasis on the "so far"). Meanwhile, youth world championships for both boys and girls in the U15, U17 and U19 age groups are held semi annually. Bandy was included in the Asian Winter Games in 2011, as a cultural sport in the 2016 Youth Winter Olympics, at the 2019 Universiade Winter Games in Krasnoyarsk, Russia (where it drew the most spectators and the most interest) and finally as a demonstration sport in the 2020 Youth Winter Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland. Yet the IOC remains unmoved and unwilling to accept bandy into the Winter Olympic Games. 

Viking Ship Bandy Rink in Hamar, Norway

A 100 year grudge by the IOC against bandy? Some might call the continued exclusion of the sport from the Winter Olympics more of a curse, like the American baseball legend, the "Curse of the Bambino". (In 1919, Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest baseball player of all time, was sold by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees, who went on to be the most successful baseball team of all time while the Red Sox went 85 years without winning a championship). Perhaps the continued exclusion of bandy from the Winter Games could be termed "The Curse of the Nordic Games", first laid when Viktor Balck spurned the IOC desire for a Winter Games in Sweden in 1912. In recent years the IOC's actions seem more and more intended to deliberately exclude bandy. In 1994 Norway was again the host country for the Winter Olympics, in the city of Hamar. The speed skating events were held at the indoor Hamar Olympic Hall, also known as the Viking Ship. The Viking Ship also contained a full sized, refrigerated bandy rink which was so perfect for many that the 1993 Men's Bandy World Championships were played there. Norway proposed the obvious, that bandy be included as a demonstration sport in the Viking Ship. But the IOC instead decided to change its rules regarding demonstration sports. Whereas perviously the host country could choose at least one demonstration sport, the IOC decided to eliminate this option. Norway, with its perfect bandy venue the Viking Ship and a desire to present bandy as a demonstration sport, was precluded from doing so by the brand new IOC rule. Grudge or curse?

President Putin gives a "thumbs up" to Bandy in the Olympics

In 2014 the Winter Olympics were held in Sochi Russia. Bandy was not only the national winter sport of Russia, it was also a sport that President Putin was a supporter and proponent of. Russia had the capability of creating a bandy rink for Sochi, or could host bandy at a seperate  location. The Sochi organizing committee proposed to the IOC that demonstration games take place between the Russian and Swedish national teams, consistently the two top bandy teams in the world. For no explainable reason this Olympic demonstration of bandy never took place. Grudge or curse?

Swedish Bandy Final 2013, 38,000 spectators Friends Arena Solna, Sweden

Eight times since 1912, when Sweden rejected the IOC's request to host a Winter Olympics because they wanted to protect the primacy of the Nordic Games, the Swedes have applied to the IOC to host the Winter Games. Sweden not only has the capability to host the Winter Games, they also have a powerful winter sports tradition. Swedish athletes have won 157 medals in Winter Olympics competition. Yet the IOC has rejected Sweden's bids 8 separate times over the decades, with the resultant effect of effectively eliminating bandy from the Winter Olympic Games. Grudge or curse?

Knut Sorensen (Right) with IOC representative at IOC Headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland

In 2014 Norwegian Knut Sorensen decided to conduct a complete investigation into this 100 year exclusion, as he had never, even as a young child, understood why bandy was not an Olympic sport. Born in Drammen, one of four brothers, Sorensen grew up playing bandy for the storied Mjøndalen club. A solid player, he was an even better student, earning two Masters Degrees. Sorensen researched the popularity and world position of bandy in relation to all other winter sports, in particular those already included in the Winter Olympic Games. He also researched the IOC process for accepting, or in the case of bandy, denying access to the Winter Games. Sorensen also posed a question that neither the IOC, nor anyone else, had been willing or able to answer. Sports played with a ball are by far the most popular worldwide from a participation and from a spectator standpoint, led by soccer, cricket and field hockey. Yet the only winter sport played with a ball, with its similarities to soccer and field hockey, its tremendous history, heritage and culture, its established place in the modern sporting world, is not considered worthy for the Winter Olympics by the IOC?

Team USA and Team Russia come together for a photo after their World Championship Match Khabarovsk, Russia 2015

Authorized and supported by the Federation of International Bandy, Sorensen prepared his initial presentation to the IOC. He labeled it Cutterbolt 1, because in his view he was attempting to cut the shackles that were holding bandy out of the Winter Olympics. In late 2015 Sorensen presented his findings to the IOC. He emphasized that bandy was a heritage sport, integral to the history, tradition and culture of countries participating in the Winter Olympics, which is traditionally an extremely important criteria for the IOC including sports in the Winter Games. Bandy was a heritage sport for Sweden , Russia and Finland, as well as countries in central Asia, just as ice hockey was a heritage sport for Canada and downhill skiing for the alpine countries of Europe. He stressed the universality of bandy. It was played on all three continents with significant populations living in winter climates, and was the second largest winter sport as measured by international licenses in both Europe and Asia, No 5 in the US, and even No 4 in Africa(because Somalians living in Sweden had formed a national team). Played by both men and women, bandy was the 4th most popular women's winter sport in the world as measured by participation. Bandy thus met equity, equality and diversity requirements, all supposedly of very high importance to the IOC and Olympic Principles. Sorensen highlighted that in winter, bandy was No. 2, behind only ice hockey, in the number of registered participants. After presenting all this information to the IOC, Sorensen suggested that perhaps it was just a mistake that bandy was being excluded from the Winter Olympics and proposed that the IOC approve a peer review by their experts to confirm the accuracy of the information Sorensen was presenting. But, according to Sorensen, the IOC representative stated that informal discussion of the matter was preferred and then referred to the importance of popularity of a sport in determining whether it was worthy of being included in the Winter Games. The IOC representative did not offer what the IOC definition of popularity was, nor did he comment on the fact that bandy was second only to ice hockey in number of participants and how this somehow did not meet the definition of popularity.

In response  to the IOC's vague comments on the popularity of bandy Sorensen further refined his Cutterbolt research. He asserted that bandy, with 35,500 registered participants, had the second highest number of registered winter athletes worldwide, 35,00 more than luge, 34,000 more than skeleton, 33,000 more than nordic combined and 31,000 more than bobsled and biathlon, all of which are established winter sports. He noted that in addition to bandy there are at least 7 other sports that desire inclusion in the Winter Games, and bandy has 17 times more registered athletes than all these sports combined. He next addressed IOC concerns about the costs of adding an additional sport such as bandy. He proposed an Olympic pre qualifying tournament that would determine the four to six countries that would send teams, men's and women's, to the actual Olympic Games. As for a venue, the bandy rink itself, there would be no additional cost if the games were hosted by a country with bandy rinks already in place.  if not the inside surface of the speed skating oval has the perfect dimensions for a bandy rink. Finally, if necessary, a temporary bandy ice surface could be created at acceptable cost. In sum, Sorensen found neither participation, nor costs and economics should be obstacles to bandy's inclusion in the Winter games. Yet none of these powerful arguments persuaded the IOC to acknowledge that bandy should receive legitimate consideration as an added sport to the Winter Olympic Games. 


Sorensen was not about to give up. He next reviewed the Olympic Charter itself, in particular the section titled "The Sports Programmes" which addresses the steps the IOC must take in considering and determining the addition of new sports to the Olympic Games. Sorensen knew that The Federation of International Bandy had been formally recognized by the IOC in 2004, a necessary step in achieving Olympic status. He felt he had presented compelling information and argument to the IOC that should have persuaded them that bandy met all the necessary requirements for inclusion into the Winter Olympics. The next appropriate and necessary step by the IOC would be, per the IOC's own rules, to perform a "Review" of all information, both pro and con, regarding the worthiness of bandy as a sport in the Winter Games. But Sorensen instead confirmed that the IOC had never, not once, authorized a "Review" of bandy, not prior to Sorensen's involvement in 2015 when he began the compelling Cutterbolt information, nor at any time since. Sorensen now concluded that the IOC had no desire or intention of allowing bandy into the Winter Olympic Games.

USA and Japanese Women's Bandy team after their match, Oslo, Norway, 2020 

In 2019 the IOC made its most recent pronouncement as to why bandy is not being considered as worthy of inclusion in the Winter Games. "There is a gap between participation and popularity and a global audience" the IOC asserted. The IOC, it would appear, is thus stating that bandy with the second highest number of registered winter athletes, is not sufficiently popular. That bandy, with 30,000 more athletes than luge, skelton, bobsled and biathlon, is less popular than these sports? Perhaps the IOC is referring to television popularity. But in doing so the IOC has created a Catch 22. Bandy, if included in the Winter Games, will draw a global television audience that is meaningful to the IOC. Yet the IOC won't let bandy in because there is not sufficient television audience? (And by the way-how many people are watching Luge and skeleton on television in non Olympic years?). Sorensen, in digesting the IOC's 100 years of excluding bandy from the Winter Olympics, found himself reading again and again the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, as stated in the Olympic Charter:


                                       "The Goal of the Olympics is to contribute building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport

                                       Practiced without discrimination of any kind

                                       And in the Olympic spirit

                                       Which requires mutual understanding, with a spirit of friendship, solidarity

                                       And Fair play"


"Where is the fair play, the absence of discrimination, the mutual understanding and the spirit of friendship, in the IOC's clearly intentional ongoing exclusion of bandy from the Winter Olympics"? Sorensen asked himself. "And where is the accountability? The IOC answers to nobody but themselves. They have created a closed system, not an open system based on meritocracy, but are instead operating as privileged, modern aristocracy. How does this lead to a peaceful and better world? In effect, by intentionally excusing bandy from the opportunity to be included in the Winter Olympic Games, the IOC is violating not only their own Olympic principles, but also the universal laws of fair play and fair opportunity. Is this what we wish the world to learn from the IOC and the Olympic Games? That those in power are above the rules, including their own, and do not have to answer to the people and the principles they are supposed to represent?

Sorensen considers the hundreds of thousands of bandy players and enthusiasts who have lived and died since bandy was originally excluded from the Winter Olympics in 1924, the hundreds of thousands of bandy players and enthusiasts who are currently alive and hoping that bandy will one day become an Olympic sport, the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of bandy players and enthusiasts not yet born. "There is a powerful human and moral element to all this" Sorensen states.  "The ongoing exclusion of bandy from the Winter Olympics and the discrimination exhibited by the IOC is indefensible. It is an injustice of Olympic proportions."