The crowd waited in spellbound silence as I faced the opposition. My body tensed, ready to explode. The referee dropped the ball, and the game was on.
The action was dazzlingly fast; neither team had an advantage. I ran back and forth seemingly without reason, jostling for position and enduring sharp elbows from my bearded counterpart, taking care to avoid the stick he whirled about like a dervish. My impact so far was minimal.
Finally, after several chaotic minutes, my chance came. Pushing myself away from the Swede who had been attached to me like duct tape, I sprinted down the court for a breakaway shot. I stuck my stick out just in time to catch a sizzling pass from a teammate, and now I knew I’d get a shot off. Closer I came to the goal… closer… the goalie crouched down, eyes piercing into me with the intensity of a wild animal… I readied myself to shoot, and… wham!
For a moment all I could see were stars as I lay splayed on the court. As I slowly got up, I realized something: never, ever play floorball against Swedes.
A floorball scrimmage at Hovshaga AIF. There are over 22,000 sports clubs in Sweden, with more than three million members (photo courtesy Torbjörn Axelsson/Hovshaga AIF).
I had volunteered to participate in a brief scrimmage with the Växjö Vipers, the local floorball team, during a visit by my Swedish Culture, Leisure and Sports class to their practice facility. If I had known about the sport’s importance in Sweden beforehand, I might have reconsidered my decision.
Växjö Vipers players prepare for a scrimmage at Teleborgshallen in Växjö. The Vipers play in the Elitserien, the second-highest division in Sweden.
Floorball, also called innebandy, is similar to floor hockey, with a plastic whiffle ball used instead of a puck. It was invented in Sweden in the 1970s, and today the Swedes are easily the world’s best – they’ve won every world championship.
With such dominance, one would think that the pressure on athletes in the Swedish sports system would be enormous, but that isn’t the case.
The goal of the sports system is “young people having something to do in their free time,” says Torbjörn Axelsson, chairman of the sports club Hovshaga AIF. “It’s not about being the best in town.”
That approach may be the secret for Sweden’s success in a variety of sports, including eight hockey world championships, a third-place finish in the 1994 FIFA World Cup, several former world No. 1 tennis players, and 475 total Olympic medals.
Floorball practice at Hovshaga AIF (photo courtesy Torbjörn Axelsson/Hovshaga AIF).
Founded in 1986, Hovshaga AIF boasts more than 1700 members, participating in several sports. According to Axelsson, participation has steadily increased, and turnover is approximately three million kronor (about $450,000) per year.
They’re hardly alone. More than 22,000 clubs are part of the Swedish Sports Confederation, the governing body for sports in Sweden, with total membership numbering about three million – an incredible number for a country with less than nine million people.
Sweden is also one of the healthiest countries on earth. Walk around any Swedish city, and it’s about as easy to find someone who’s obese as it is for Cristiano Ronaldo to miss a goal.
A healthy lifestyle also leads to increased productivity – boosting the overall economy – and a reduced likelihood of developing serious diseases later in life. Getting children involved in sports has been proven to promote healthy habits throughout life, a point not lost on Axelsson. “It’s important to have the children to play sports [to be healthy],” he says.
Perhaps that explains why Swedes are such great athletes. Either that, or it’s something in the water.
Located in north Växjö, Hovshaga AIF is the largest sports club in the area, with more than 1700 members (photo courtesy Torbjörn Axelsson/Hovshaga AIF).