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The Attack of the Red Rubber Ball

For many, dodgeball felt like school-sanctioned bullying. Yet some adults want to relive the experience.

Jon Azpiri 5 Jul

Loverboy's Working for the Weekend pumps through the gym at Coal Harbour Community Centre, as dozens of young professionals roam around in Afro wigs, short shorts, headbands and knee-high tube socks. It's a break between games at the inaugural Dodgeball B.C tournament.

Most of the nearly 100 participants haven't played dodgeball since they were school kids in the 1980s, so the retro trappings fit in perfectly. Nostalgia is thick in the air. "It brings back good memories," 31-year-old Wai Yeung says with a devilish grin, "just whipping balls at people and hurting people."

Greg Edgelow, a 40-year-old former wrestler who competed for Canada at the 1992 Summer Olympics, can't seem to get enough of this schoolyard staple, in which two teams of six try to eliminate opponents by hitting them with rubber balls. "Who didn't like dodgeball as a kid?"

Well, many kids who weren't Olympics-calibre athletes, for a start. For unathletic children, dodgeball offered little except a lesson in social Darwinism, as the big kids eliminated the weak. For those on the short side of the vast size differential among growing children, dodgeball could seem like nothing more than a school-sanctioned bullying.

Dodgeball pummelings mirrored life

I dreaded the days when we played dodgeball. I was a fat, uncoordinated, slow-moving target -- and everyone knew it. On the dodgeball court, I acted as I did elsewhere in school -- I tried not to get noticed to avoid getting pummeled.

From time to time, however, I would go on the offensive against the more aggressive players. They were often so involved in wiping out smaller opponents that they left themselves open to attack from unlikely adversaries. I once took pride in knocking out an opposing player by taking advantage of his over-aggressiveness. I thought of my strategy as something akin to the ancient Japanese art of jujitsu, where you use your opponent's force against him.

Such moments of glory were fleeting, however. I inevitably ended up crumpled on the floor after receiving a dodgeball to the kidney.

Fifteen years have passed and I have shed the excess pounds of my youth. But I can't manage to shake the bad memories. During the tournament, errant dodgeballs carom off my shins as I sit on the sideline, dutifully writing in my notebook. These tournaments are not intended for people like myself.

This is a sport for those who actually looked forward to gym class. And there seem to be a lot of them. Thanks to both nostalgia and the recent release of the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, adults are taking on a game that was originally played by kids.

Kids' games making a comeback

The Vancouver tournament was organized by Bobby Chan, a 35-year-old Health Canada employee. He originally envisioned it as a social gathering for a few friends, and sent out an email that quickly circulated around town. Interest grew to the point where he had nearly 100 people registered and turned away 30 more. "There's talk of a league forming," says Chan, who is wearing a mullet wig. "We'll see what the interest is.  We're confident that a league will come to fruition…. There's so much potential in terms of bringing this game to the next level."

If an adult dodgeball league does form, it won't be the first. Dodgeball leagues have popped up in dozens of cities across the US. There is even an outdoor championship held each year outside of Chicago by the International Dodgeball Federation. And Dodgeball is not the only childhood game being played increasingly by adults. Kickball leagues have formed in more than 30 U.S. states. At this rate, tetherball and Red Rover leagues may not be far behind.

For many, dodgeball is "a sport of violence, exclusion and degradation," as one character in the film Dodgeball declares. But Chan believes that the game can appeal to a wide group of people, because it's fun and a good workout that requires jumping, throwing, running and lateral movement.

Despite my own scepticism, the participants also argue the game is not as cruel for adults as it is for kids. Instead of seeing dodgeball as a game where alpha males can relive their schoolyard dominance, they see it as a game for everyone. "What's good about it is that you can play at any size," says Edgelow. "Big people, small people; you can be successful at it no matter what your size, no matter how fast you are or how you slow you are. There's a lot of skill. It's very inclusive."

We're all adults now…

In fact, Chan suggests that the playground game may be better suited for adults than kids. "In school, it's big kids picking on little kids," he says. "We're all adults here and I think everyone is sportsmanlike and takes it all in stride. It's all for fun."

Much of that fun seems tied to memories of childhood, when we were free of jobs, relationships and mortgages. Dodging rubber balls for a few hours may have been a nightmare for many kids, but for these adults it is a pleasant diversion that helps them forget about the stress of being a grown-up.

Still, trying to bring back the past comes with a price. "I'm going to have to ice down when I get home," says Yeung, as he nurses a sore hamstring at the post-game party at the Lions Pub.  "I think I'm too old for this."

Jon Azpiri is a Vancouver freelance writer.


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