The Unlikeliest Yo-Yo Mecca

A player competes during the World Yo-Yo Contest 2014 in Prague.
SourceMatej Divizna/Getty

The Unlikeliest Yo-Yo Mecca

By Nathan Siegel


Because the yo-yo is back — and this time, it might be here to stay.

By Nathan Siegel

Jan Korduosey’s store in the center of Prague looks like a design studio — high ceilings, modern furniture and a fridge stocked with artisanal soft drinks like Fritz Kola from Germany. Japanese-style lamps cast a soft glow onto wooden crates used as tables and benches. And from behind a high, glossy wooden counter, Korduosey operates the cash register while moonlighting as a DJ, for which he plays mostly classic American rock.

Given the 26-year-old’s digs and dress, you’d think we were in one of those trendy San Francisco coffee shops that boast a bike shop in the back. Actually, there are only a handful of stores like Korduosey’s on the entire European continent: It’s a yo-yo store. Remember that toy from the ’90s you thought went the way of platform shoes with goldfish in them?

Well, today, Korduosey’s store is bouncing with 20 or so dudes, and the subculture is alive and well here in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic and the place that’s become ground zero for the yo-yo’s resurgence. Last year it was the first city outside the U.S. to host the World Yo-Yo Contest and, according to most, it was the biggest yo-yo event on record — about 1,500 people showed up for it. They also threw one hell of a party, a main reason that yo-yo royalty from around the globe are pointing to Prague as the sport’s next mecca. “The entire world is looking to Prague’s yo-yo scene,” says Marcelo Bazani, 27, who relocated from Brazil to Prague last year.

As the sport continues its steady growth and its hubs of interest become less centralized, Prague may be the first city to catch a spreading yo-yo fever. After all, yo-yoing hasn’t had much success outside its two hot spots — Japan and the United States. But that’s starting to change. The Prague squad organized a European championship in 2010, which has now moved on to other cities in Europe. And in Prague, business is still booming. Since opening up shop in 2009 with an annual order of a few hundred yo-yos, Korduosey now sells about 10,000 every year. Another store has since opened just a few metro stops away, too.

This composite image shows players from five different countries as they compete during the World Yo-Yo Contest 2014 on August 9, 2014 in Prague, Czech Republic.

Players from five different countries compete during the World Yo-Yo Contest in August 2014 in Prague.

Source Matej Divizna/Getty

It’s a pretty mind-boggling jump from the scene’s origins in Prague. Back in the early 2000s, it was just a handful of guys playing yo-yos in a nearby park before getting afternoon beers at the pub. Onda Sedivy, now a resident of plastic surgery and 31 years old, was one of those guys in the park when he was a college student. The fact that Prague has become a yo-yo boomtown is “a surprise to me as well,” he says, while watching the young kids clumsily practice new tricks in the store, where free lessons are offered on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Some yo-yo pros are even picking up and moving to the land of pilsner and goulash, including two world champions.

As with most things trendy, the sport (if you can call it that) took off with older kids, who inspired younger teens to adopt it en masse. In Prague’s decade-old scene, that trend has pushed out a lot of the 17-to-21-year-olds who first started getting into it a few years ago. Now, youngins like 10-year-old Vojta Polacek are a common sight at the yo-yo shop. Polacek’s been playing for about six months, after seeing a YouTube video. He says he only plays when he’s bored — which turns out to be about three times a day. “As long as he’s not watching TV,” says his mom, who’s come to pick him up. 

While the influx of young kids has made yo-yoing seem uncool to some, Korduosey says, it hasn’t put a dent in the thriving professional circuit. In fact, some yo-yo pros are even picking up and moving to the land of pilsner and goulash, including two world champions, American Hank Freeman and  Kentaro Kimura from Japan.  The balance of power in the yo-yo world isn’t the only thing changing — the style of play is as well. 

Whereas the Japanese are focused on more technical tricks that keep the yo-yo close to the body but are practically very difficult, the new guard — like the Czechs — are flashier and more acrobatic, incorporating their whole bodies into tricks that arguably aren’t as technically challenging. After cautioning that he hasn’t done this in a while, Korduosey picks up a yo-yo and works it like a whirling dervish, flying it wildly into the middle of the room, swinging it between his legs and spinning in ways that seem to defy physics. Just like in any sport or art, old-school players always snuff their noses at innovative new-schoolers — and yo-yoing is no different.

Despite its flair, the Prague scene still has a bit of catching up to do, competition wise, with its international peers. While the Czechs are certainly more fun, says the San Francisco-based veteran yo-yo professional “Doctor Popular,” they just haven’t had the time to become as good as the Americans or the Japanese. That’s definitely changing, he adds, but the world is still a ways away from an even playing field. Still, he remembers coming to Prague for its national championships, which had beer, a DJ, professional lighting and the whole shebang. “It was a killer party,” says Doctor Popular.