ONE-WHEELED HOCKEY JOCKS

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The Independent Culture
Unicyclists like to make things hard for themselves. Not content with downsizing from two wheels to one, they feel compelled to find something equally difficult to do with their hands: fire-eating, juggling or - perhaps most bizarrely of all - playing hockey. This last has become a veritable craze in the capital, where the London Lunis (pronounced loonies) are the premier team.

Primarily an indoor sport, the game uses ice-hockey sticks to place a tennis or street-hockey ball into an ice-hockey goal. Its origins are obscure: there's no anecdotal seminal moment in which an ordinary hockey player suddenly leapt on to a unicycle and scored a goal. Rolf Sander, an internationally distinguished player, claims that Japanese unicycle guru Takafumi Ogasawara pioneered the game in the late Sixties. (He treasures a newspaper article with a picture that appears to show a team engaged in a hockey-like game with broomsticks.) Professor Nicholas Hewitt argues that he formulated it at about the same time with the second Totteridge boy scout troop. (He can back this up with a Times cutting and an appearance on Blue Peter.) Certainly, from 1976, the so-called "Wheel People" played the game across California, and in 1985, the globetrotting Ogasawara helped found the first German unicycle hockey team; a league has since flourished there and inspired the formation of British teams, of which there are now nearly 30.

I asked Peter Philip, senior member of the London Lunis and organiser of the hockey tournament at Unicon VIII, the world unicycling convention which culminated in Guildford last week, about the origin of the game. He scorns the notion that it was the brainchild of a north London scoutmaster: "Totteridge was an aberration, a kind of genetic dead end - we're not descended from them. We're clearly descended from the German teams: one of our members played with Takafumi and his lot."

The rulebook warns of the potential for crashes and manglings, but Philip is adamant that the sport is relatively hazard-free: "It's not that dangerous because you can get off in any direction you like and land on your feet. It's pretty fast and we play without padding, but I've been playing for four years and the only injury I've seen is one broken leg."

What sort of people are attracted to the game? Philip opts to describe occupations rather than personalities: "We have three engineers, one rocket scientist, an environmentalist, a circus performer and a couple of schoolkids." Many got into it through juggling, but they're trying to get away from that. "We take it a bit more seriously - though that's not to say we don't realise it's very silly."

Others are less modest: the International Unicycling Federation wants Olympic status for it. Philip has his doubts. "I don't see the point in pressing for something so ridiculous."

But his praise for fellow unicyclists' skills is unstinting. "When they've mastered one thing they want to make it more complex. Some can take both feet off the pedals and freewheel, or ride uni-cycles without frames - just a wheel and some pedals." Suddenly the conversation has scooted out into metaphysical territory: "The only things that prevent you riding a unicycle are the limitations of your own mind." !

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