Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sanka, You Dead?

The Olympics begin in a few weeks. Given my Kickstarter prep, I don't know how well I'll be able to adhere to what I did in Vancouver and London; that is, having some kind of Olympics content here every day of the Games. (But I'll try.) Sweden, as you might expect, will feature rather prominently as usual. One nation that won't, and never has, is Somalia. A handful of African nations can typically be seen these days at any given Winter Olympics with token representation. Togo and Zimbabwe are projected to make their winter debuts in Sochi, and over the years, Africa has previously sent delegations from Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Swaziland. None of them, of course, have ever won a medal.

Bandy is not an Olympic sport. For those of you who don't know what bandy is, and I imagine there's a lot of you, bandy is essentially soccer on ice: 11 players per side, playing on a soccer-pitch-sized rink, playing two halves of 45 minutes, competing to direct a ball into a large goal. The players are using hockey sticks (apart from the goalie, who's relying on his hands), with a ball small enough to be hit by a hockey stick. There are restarts similar to soccer's, with free... well, strokes, corner strokes, goal... well, goal throws, and the like. You've even got red cards and bandy's yellow-card equivalent, the blue card. Russia, Sweden and Finland dominate the sport, though Kazakhstan has also been in the mix since the Soviet breakup.

You might see where this is going by now, but just in case you haven't figured it out, I've got a Somali expat bandy team for you, based out of Sweden. They'll be competing in this year's Bandy World Championships in Irkutsk, Russia, which starts on Saturday and runs through February 2, five days prior to the Opening Ceremony.

Somalia will not win. That's not just due to the Cool Runnings factor, where few even expect them to score let alone win. They literally can't win. The way the tournament is structured, the 17 participating teams are split into two divisions, Division A and Division B. Division A is the only one a champion can come from; Division B is playing for promotion into next year's Division A. Final rankings are sorted by division first and performance second. The divisions can get shuffled a bit from year to year depending on how many countries enter a team, but the divisions are sorted out based on what happened the previous year, with the top team from a lower division swapping places with the bottom team from the division above. This year, it's eight teams in Division A, the top eight from last year (Belarus, Canada, Finland, Kazakhstan, Norway, Sweden, Russia, United States), and nine in Division B (Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Mongolia, Netherlands, Somalia, Ukraine). The teams are further divided into groups for the first round, also based on previous performance... but not with seeding, like you'd think would happen. Instead, the top teams- Finland, Kazakhstan, Norway and Russia- are all thrown into the same group together, with the other groups sorted out likewise.

All of that means Somalia, in exchange for not being eligible to win, will at least be grouped alongside the weakest other teams in the field. They're still not expected to do anything but be a human-interest story.

And here's that human-interest story, from Sarah Crompton of the Telegraph, who was so caught up in the human-interest part (they only learned to skate a couple months ago, how charming!) that she missed the fact that there are 17 competing nations, not 15. Another such story, in video form, comes courtesy of Cia Silver for Journeyman Pictures.

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