Beating the Unbeatable

Beating the Unbeatable

“What is the most precious thing that athletes and sport teams can ever possess? What sets the ultimate sports people apart? It is something that is incredibly rare to obtain and which can be lost in an instant: an aura of invincibility!” Freelance journalist Brian Salmon discusses invincible athletes or teams – are there such at The World Games, too? “This weekend in football, German side Bayer Leverkusen has the opportunity to become sporting legends comparable to Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams at their peak. Should the Rhineland side avoid defeat in their final match of the season against Augsburg, they will complete the remarkable feat of going undefeated through an entire Bundesliga season.”

The World Games legends

The hardest question that athletes or teams can ask themselves is “How do you acquire invincibility?” Even the best coaches and most motivated and talented sports people can be stumped for an answer! For modern day sports people, invincibility is only conferred by being consistently better than your opponents. The World Games has been blessed with an abundance of amazing athletes who at their peak have all earned the right to be called invincible. As soon as they set foot in the arena, the result is not in any doubt; the only thing that needs to be settled is their margin of victory. I have been privileged to watch the following athletes in action and am convinced that the rarest title in sport can be attributed to all these legendary figures; Nicole David (Squash), Bart Swings (Speed Skating), Larysa Soloviova (Powerlifting), Nina Holt (Lifesaving), Petra Senanzsky (Underwater Swimming), Paola Longoria (Raquetball), Patrick Thomas (Fistball).

Invincible teams at The World Games

Of special note are the Chinese Taipei Women's Tug of War Team. The women were first allowed to compete in Tug of War at the Duisburg 2005 edition of The World Games. The female Chinese Taipei pullers have consistently excelled, having won all five gold medals that have been on offer. Each Tug of war match consists of the best of three pulls. The achievement of the Chinese Taipei team is that during their winning run, they have never lost a pull, let alone a match! An exceptional record, but amazingly there is one sport of The World Games which can boast an even longer unbeaten streak! Korfball made its Games debut in the second edition hosted by by London in 1985. Unsurprisingly, the Netherlands were crowned champions, rather more surprisingly is the fact that in the nine subsequent editions, no country has been able to mount an effective challenge to the Dutch dominance. Every Korfball competition at The World Games follows a similar script. The Netherlands arrives in the host city, plays some weaker opponents in the qualifying round before soundly beating the Belgians in the final (with the exception of 2017, where Chinese Taipei unexpectedly knocked out the Belgians at the semi final stage) and closes with the familiar Dutch national anthem echoing around the arena.

April 6th 1991 is the most significant date in the history of modern Korfball. That is the last occasion that a Dutch side lost a match at the Korfball World Championship! The dramatic 11-10 victory by Belgium in front of their jubilant home supporters in Antwerp marks the one and only time that The Netherlands have failed to win the gold medal at either the World or European Championships or at The World Games. There was one other notable final, in the first World Championship decider in 1978, the Belgians scrapped their way to a 10-10 draw, before succumbing in extra time. To be unbeaten for a whole season like Bayer Leverkusen appear poised to do is a fabulous achievement; to not lose a competitive match for 33 years is an unparalleled accomplishment in modern sport! Two questions, why are the Dutch team so good? Is there any chance that they will ever be beaten? Surprisingly a positive answer to the second question could come as soon as the 2025 edition of The World Games in Chengdu, China!

To become an invincible korfball player requires a lot of luck and dedication. The luck is in winning the lottery of life and managing to get yourself born into a Dutch family! Korfball is a fast game of hoops with the plastic basket, (korf is the Dutch word for basket) minus backboard, positioned above the players' heads. So it is definitely a great advantage if you come from the tallest people on the planet and are able to benefit from a gene pool that has consistently provided some of the quickest speed skaters, sprinters and cyclists! The facilities that are available in The Netherlands to aspiring Korfball players are simply superior to any that are provided by other Korfball playing nations. Children will learn how to play the game at primary school, they then hone their skills on the numerous outdoor courts dotted around Dutch cities. Eventually the best players will be invited to join one of the professional clubs in the Dutch league and the cream of the crop will try out for positions with the national squad and the guarantee of world domination.

The rules of korfball reward teams who can make the most of ball retention. As the korf is positioned metres away from the dead ball line, players can pass to teammates standing behind the korf without any restriction. This additional playing space makes it very difficult to know where the forward is positioned. Unlike in basketball where a forward makes a lay up shot attempting to draw a foul from the opponent and the chance of points from the free throw line; korfball players are not permitted to shoot for goal if the defending player is within touching distance of the attacker. Thus, teams that can pass the ball quickly and accurately will have many more shooting opportunities in the game. Most Dutch players will have had a minimum of 15-20 year playing experience, so such skills will come naturally to them; hence the remarkable and prolonged dominance of the sport at international level.

What could be done to ensure that the other Korfball playing nations can begin to compete with the all conquering Dutch side? The brutal answer is that in the short term very little can be done to challenge the entrenched advantages that Netherlands possess. They have set the standard of excellence and it is up to the other nations to try and bring themselves up to that level. What if the gameplay could be changed to make it easier for the weaker teams to compete? The good news is that this modification has been attempted. The better news is that the new variant of the sport is set to debut at the 2025 edition of The World Games which will be hosted by the Chinese city of Chengdu. Even more intriguingly, the Dutch have a comparatively patchy record (for them!) at the World Championships for this novel activity, having lost two games in the last two years,and on one occasion not even making the Final.

Like many other sports, Korfball has made itself more attractive by introducing a variation that reduces the number of players, playing time and area. Beach Korfball still retains the mixed gender teams, but with the vastly reduced playing surface, space is at a premium, making it much more difficult to get away unopposed shots. Gone too is the charming tradition where the offensive and defensive units of a team walk up to the half way line after every two goals and swap roles. With the opportunity to have a breather taken away from the sides, the pace is much more frenetic. Dutch shooting accuracy is still going to trouble most sides, but the sandy variant of the sport gives the better organised teams the chance to compete as equals.

The first Beach Korfball World Championship, held in 2022 in the Moroccan resort of Nador, was an unmitigated disaster for the undisputed Korfball masters! The 31-year-wait for a senior Dutch national side to be beaten at a International Korfball Federation sanctioned event was finally and amazingly over! Hungary's shock 5-4 victory in the quarter finals meant that, for the first time ever, the shell shocked Dutch side could not even appear on the victory podium! Belgium failed to capitalise on this rare Dutch vulnerability. In a topsy-turvy tournament of surprise results, the eternal bridesmaids were dumped out 7-6 in the semi-final by an inspired Polish side. They went on to defeat Portugal and become the inaugural Beach Korfball World Champions. Followers of the sport had to pinch themselves. Had the Dutch side really been beaten? Had the Low Countries really been brought low? A final without either the Dutch or the Belgians? No, that is simply impossible!

The second Beach Korfball World Championship was staged last month in Pattaya, Thailand. The Dutch side got off to a terrible start losing their pool game 6-5 to Chinese Taipei. The two nations met again in the final; the Europeans produced a more composed performance easing to a 7-4 victory and sealing their qualification to the Chengdu tournament. The introduction of Beach Korfball has shown that in the smaller sized format the Dutch can be vulnerable and even beatable. Whisper it, but The Netherlands are no longer invincible at Korfball! Chengdu is a city where it is possible to see rare sights. The forests surrounding the city are home to one of few surviving populations of giant pandas. The Chengdu Panda Base is a must visit attraction if you wish to see the notoriously unreproductive black and and white bear in the wild. 2025 may see the even rarer sight of a Dutch team losing a Korfball match at The World Games! The introduction of bumpy sand may ironically end up being the great leveller for the sport.

Brian Salmon for The World Games


The International World Games Association (IWGA) is a non-profit-making international sports organisation recognised and supported by the International Olympic Committee. The IWGA comprises 38 International Member Sports Federations. It administers and promotes The World Games (TWG), a multi-sport event held every four years that features around 35 sports on its programme. The next edition of TWG will be in Chengdu (CHN) from 7-17 August 2025. 5,000 participants from more than 100 countries are expected to take part in this 12th edition. The latest Games were hosted by Birmingham, Alabama (USA).


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