Ultimate: Finding an Audience
BY Joshua Kurlantzick
Ultimate frisbee is fast-paced, but some want to turn it up a notch.
On a blazing hot field in this tropical city-state, two ultimate frisbee players, one from Taipei and one from Singapore, race after the flying frisbee.
As it descends into the end zone, the two rivals both dive, but the man from Singapore, playing defense, tips the frisbee out of bounds, preventing a score.
Almost immediately, the Taipei player calls a foul on the Singapore defender. “Foul? No way! Are you kidding?” screams the Singapore bench, which is intently focused on this game, the final of the tournament. The two players appear headed for a fight, but after minutes of arguing, they grudgingly accept that there was no foul. Spectators mutter that the Taipei player is
Here, thousands of miles from the New Jersey high school where ultimate frisbee was invented, this fast-paced, non-contact sport has gained a growing number of adherents.
Yet even in Singapore, ultimate faces a schism between people who want the game to remain true to its relatively noncompetitive, iconoclastic roots and those who want to make it more intense.
Since the sport was created at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., in 1968 by a group of anti-authoritarian students (big-shot Hollywood producer Joel Silver, then a student at Columbia University, was one of the founders), it has expanded rapidly.
Today, the Ultimate Players Association (UPA), the governing body, estimates that there are at least 100,000 men and women playing ultimate in America.
Ultimate aficionados play in informal games, organized city leagues, and more competitive “club” tournaments. The game is now played in more than 40 countries, with tournaments not only in Singapore, but also in Britain and Portugal.
“In Asia, the growth potential of ultimate is huge,” says Ken Lambert, a member of Singapore’s Angmo Freakshow team. Unusual among American sports, ultimate has no officials. In accordance with an honor system created by its founders, players call their own fouls and are supposed to maintain a “spirit of the game” that emphasizes fun over a win-at-all-costs mentality.
Historically, the “culture of the game says ‘play by the rules’ rather than ‘do whatever you won’t get called for,’ ” says James Parinella, a player for Death or Glory, the US national club champion team.
But as ultimate has grown, it has spawned a dilemma. Invented by some of the more athletically challenged students in Maplewood, the game has begun to draw top-tier athletes and more-intensely competitive players. Some of these players are making the game, at its highest levels, quicker, more goal-oriented, and more physical, says David Lawler of the Arizona ultimate team Red Dye #5.
Ultimate will be a medal sport in the 2001 World Games in Japan, and some of the game’s proponents say it is on its way to the Olympics.
Some club players already act as if they are in the Olympics. At club tournaments, games now sometimes include litanies of foul calls, intentional fouls, lengthy arguments, fights, and other ugly occurrences.
“The sport is certainly evolving from its hippie roots, but it’s a young sport, and one would expect it to be different from the way it started out,” says Joshua Meyer, who played for Washington, D.C., ultimate team Control Board.
In one now-famous incident, a player from the North Carolina men’s club team Port City Slickers spat on an opponent from the Seattle team Sockeye after the Sockeye player scored a point.
At the tournament in Singapore, long arguments and physically reckless play marred not only the Taipei-Singapore game but also several other contests. Some players say the intensity of competition has gotten out of hand.
“There is a growing divide, and I think it’s encouraged by closed-mindedness on both sides of the fence,” Mr. Parinella says.
In response to the fouling and arguments in club tournaments, some members of the UPA have proposed that the sport should utilize referees, who would be called “observers” and would step in to prevent disputes and reckless behavior. The UPA has already tried using observers at a few high-level club games.
But purists charge that using observers only contributes to the destruction of the spirit of ultimate and pushes frisbee one step closer toward resembling all other competitive sports.
“What makes ultimate unique over most team sports is that it is run solely by the people who play the game,” Mr. Lawler says.
Proponents of using “observers” counter that employing referees in ultimate is nothing new and that the game’s competitive fire has always been simmering below the surface. “While many bemoan the spitting incident, very few are aware that there was a punching incident at the very first UPA National Championships in 1979,” says Eric Simon, who played in the original Maplewood High games.
“And even before that, I competed in a game where both sides requested and agreed to a referee, in 1974. Not only that, but one of [ultimate's] founders, Irv Kalb, was the referee himself.”