By the time most athletes reach middle school, boys and girls stop playing on the same teams. But this doesn’t happen in korfball, a century-old sport created to keep male and female athletes on the court together.
According to the International Korfball Federation, co-ed cooperation isn’t just what makes the best korfball teams succeed — it’s a model the next generation of sports will take to heart.
“Korf” literally translates to “basket” in Dutch, and korfball itself looks something like basketball at first glance. Dig a bit deeper and the differences emerge.
Korfball courts are larger than basketball courts and are divided into two zones: an attacking zone and a defending zone. The teams consist of eight players — four male and four female —only two of whom can be in the attacking or defending zone at any time. Only athletes of the same gender are allowed to guard one another (an imperfect rule, as gender isn’t shorthand for ability but one that is enshrined in korfball all the same). Points are scored by throwing a ball through an 11-foot-high basket with no backboard.
Korfball was created in the early 20th century and achieved enough popularity to warrant two Olympic demonstrations, the first in 1920 at the Olympics in Antwerp and a reprise eight years later at the Games in Amsterdam.
Those old and unassuming photographs contain a nugget of korfball’s identity that is now “in its DNA,” Tilbert La Haye, the CEO of the International Korfball Federation, tells Inverse. Men and women played together on the same court.
Mixed-gender sports have trickled onto the world stage since 1900 — the year when two women were allowed to compete against men in an Olympic equestrian event. Today, it’s common to see mixed doubles events in tennis or co-ed curling teams.
Korfball, however, still claims to be the “world’s only dedicated mixed-gender sport” because there’s no way to play it without both men and women. A mixed team is as central to the game as a basket and a court is.
“The gender equality part has never been a discussion,” says La Haye. “Effectively, it is the only way to practice the sport.”
“You cannot stand out without the direct help of your teammates.”
What makes korfball a sport — Korfball looks and sounds like basketball, but with one big change: You can’t shoot the ball at all with someone guarding you, nor can you move once you’ve caught the pass. Dribbling, or one-on-one moves that intentionally avoid cooperation with a teammate, are considered solo play and not allowed.
The only way to achieve glory in korfball is to work as a unit. A shot can only come off of a quick pass that catches a defender out of position or a well-timed cut that gives a player enough space to both receive the ball and shoot it in a matter of milliseconds.
This, La Haye explains, is one of the major ways that korfball stands out. Korfball seems designed to minimize the value of individual talent, though it can never truly remove it. Some players have achieved korfball fame, but they can’t be standouts on an otherwise bad team. Superstars, for better or worse, have to be surrounded by other talents to show off their skills.
“As an individual, you cannot stand out without the direct help of your teammates,” La Haye says. “If you're able to combine the strength of women and men in your team, then you really have the best opportunity [to win].”
The Michael Jordan of korfball — Korfball is a game designed to minimize the power of one individual player, but that doesn’t mean that players can’t stand out. Leon Simons, a member of the Dutch National Team between 1996 and 2009, has managed to do so with one-armed hook shots from the outside and behind-the-back passes to teammates.
His play is so unique that he’s currently being considered for the title “Best World Games Athlete of All Time” by the administration of the World Games itself. The World Games, an international sports event for games not played in the Olympics, is one of the highest levels of korfball competition outside of the World Championships, held every four years.
Keeping in the spirit of Korfball, Simons happens to have been a part of the most powerful team in the sport. The Dutch national team, with whom Simons has won three World Games titles and four World Championships, is the korfball equivalent of the 1990s Chicago Bulls.
Their supremacy, says La Haye, comes from the fact that the Dutch team plays korfball professionally in a domestic league he calls “the NBA of korfball.”
That league has made them nearly unbeatable. The Dutch national team has won every World Championship competition (held every four years) except when they fell to Belgium in the finals in 1991.
Their reign probably won’t continue forever. Korfball is growing. La Haye estimates there are about 300,000 to 400,000 active players in the world right now. He is also planning to launch a small-sided “beach korfball variety” where each team only consists of four players as opposed to eight. He imagines that it will be easier for even more countries to put teams together. As the sport grows, the supremacy of the Dutch and Belgian teams may be threatened, and it seems that it is already happening.
In the 2017 World Games, a team from Chinese Taipei knocked the Belgian team out of the tournament in the semi-finals. The Netherlands eventually won the title, but the “iron law” (the World Games’ phrase, arguing that it’s set in stone whether the Netherlands or Belgium will reign supreme) showed its first cracks.
The spirit of Korfball — Since its inception in 1901, korfball has had mixed-gender participation written into the rules. It’s one step ahead of what La Haye sees as a movement in the wider sports world to encourage co-ed competitions at the highest level of sports.
The Tokyo 2021 Olympics will double the amount of mixed-gender events in the program, raising the number of events where men and women can compete together to 18 across seven different sports. That includes niche sports like archery and judo and big Olympic favorites like swimming and track, where teams will compete in mixed relays.
“You see more and more sports that are also trying to find a gender-equal discipline,” La Haye says. But creating mixed-gender disciplines was always part of korfball’s DNA.
Those new events, says La Haye, indicate that mixed-gender sports are probably here to stay, and if anything, expand. If the rules are right, men and women can compete together at the highest levels.
That’s a lesson korfball learned 100 years ago the rest of the world is learning today.
NOT SPORTS is an occasional series from Inverse celebrating the weird and wild organized competitions that fall just short of being a sport.