It’s a white January in Moscow, the temperature is a freezing -8 degrees Celsius outside. There is shin-deep snow and the cold bites you down to your bones. Abundant snow is not a one-day anomaly for Russians, but a half year-long struggle with Marzanna and the great outdoors. But necessity and desperation beget innovation, and hardly anyone is more innovative than sports-fans starved of adrenaline and action. To combat the cold and keep their spirits up, people living in the colder regions of Russia came up with an intriguing take on an age-old sport, and Snow Rugby came into being. Historically played informally, snow rugby became the solution for those who could not sit indoors for five long winter months without any sort of activity. Soon, the game spread to the Baltic States, then went deeper into Europe, and finally reached the shores of North America. Snow Rugby is a variation of Rugby Union and is a contact sport. It is played in challenging conditions of snow-filled open fields and has been consistently gaining popularity in the colder regions of the world. The rules of the sport are similar to those of beach rugby. There is a standard field of play which is 31 meters long and 25 meters wide. The goal area is 3 meters. The ball used is the same as the one used in conventional rugby. Each match has five members on each side and the game is played over two halves, each running for five minutes. Tackles are allowed, but rucks and mauls are not. The test of the sport includes withstanding extremely cold temperatures and the difficulty of running on snow, in addition to all the skills required while playing a game of conventional rugby. The sport has a lot of enthusiasm in Russia. Historically, it involved local matches within towns and between cities. Now, they are played in a much more formal sense. Although there is no official governing body, over 100 amateur clubs are estimated to exist across 30 cities in Russia. The men’s and women’s teams are expected to survive harsh conditions as they battle it out on fields of white to win the Golden Samovar and Golden Iron. But as already stated, the sport isn’t confined to just these countries. In the 2008 Winter Games, Snow Rugby was held as a demonstrative event. In the very next year, India held its first snow rugby championship. The National Snow Rugby Championship was conducted in Gulmarg, Kashmir. Consistent temperatures below zero and almost all-year-round snow coverage made it an ideal place for the sport. Additionally, Snow-Rugby also helped break gender barriers in Kashmir. In the past, winters meant the traditional confinement of women to the household. While games like Kho-Kho and Kabaddi gave relief to teenagers in the summer months, winter brought with it confinement. However, the high-intensity sport has attracted the attention of girls in Kashmir who are taking to playing outdoors even in the harsh conditions. Irtiqa Ayub, a 20-year-old student of Srinagar’s Government Women’s College is chasing freedom as she plays snow rugby. “I picked up this game purely for its speed, energy-level and blood rush. When the rugby ball is in your hands and you race to score a goal, it’s an extraordinary feeling,” she said as she prepared for a national event in Gulmarg in 2017. There are around 4000 girls enrolled for snow rugby with the State Sports Council of Kashmir. Sports enthusiasts ranging from the ages of 12 to 25 are increasingly interested in snow rugby citing the energy levels, speed and adrenaline rush as a big draw for them. However, the path to sporting success remains a wonky one. Soliha Yousuf, the captain of the Jammu and Kashmir Women’s Rugby Team talks about how people discouraged her from playing the sport and have her weird looks, implying it was not a suitable game for women because of all the ‘fighting’. Due to these traditional patriarchal notions, most women stayed away from the sport, and she often found herself practising with boys. Only recently has the stigma begun to decrease, though they still have to face comments like, ’Even men don’t play such sports,’ hinting at the violent nature of the game. But that didn’t stop her from playing in the Snow Sevens Championship in Gulmarg. It did not matter to her or her teammates what everyone else thought of the sport, when they were so passionate about the game. Indeed, winter sports have a surprisingly strong base in the country. Skiing is one of the more popular snow sports in India right now, primarily in the regions of Sikkim, Shimla, Kashmir and Uttarakhand. Ice climbing, sledging, ice skating and ice hockey are also sports that are played quite frequently in Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir. The country has even had been a participant in the Winter Olympics and won medals in international tournaments for skiing and luge. Often, winter sports are organized hand-in-hand with tourism agencies in order to invite more participants and boost encouragement for sportspeople. The winter sports industry has a lot of scope for development in India, especially when there are women like Soliha and Irtiqa who are willing to rise against societal pressures for the sake of their passion. With some encouragement and formal training, the cold sport of Snow Rugby could have a warm future in the country.
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