Ultimate Frisbee: How a sport no one knows is creating a ground-up revolution

A club (Chennai Ultimate Frisbee) and an NGO (Pudiyador) are breaking barriers to give Indian Sport its first inclusive game.

The white disc whizzed through the air, charting a wide arc across the murky October skies of Chennai. Strollers on the beach, holding their chappals in their hands and their pants and sarees pulled up above their ankles, stopped and stared as the pearly circle began drifting back down to the earth. But then out of nowhere a hand grabs the disc, moments before it touches the brownish white sands of Elliot’s Beach. In the background, a hundred odd spectators whooped in joy as the player returned to his teammates.

Pic - Karthik Viswanathan

Pic – Karthik Viswanathan

Welcome to Ultimate Frisbee. Welcome to Chennai Heat 2014.

What in the world is Ultimate Frisbee?

Played seven-a-side, this is the amped up competitive version of the otherwise sedate ‘beach sands’ pastime, i.e., Frisbee. Through four quarters of 10 minutes each, two opposing teams race to try and score points by passing the flying disc into the ‘end zones’ of the rectangular playing area. The team with the most such ‘touchdowns’ is declared the winner in this heady cocktail mix of basketball, soccer, and American football.

Ultimate Frisbee came into being in the late 1960s in the US. Slowly, it spread to other countries because of the universal popularity of flying discs, zero resources needed and the inclusive nature of the sport. Due to trademark reasons— ‘Frisbee’ is actually the name of a flying disc manufacturer— it was christened ‘Ultimate Frisbee’ or simply ‘Ultimate’, as practitioners felt it was the ultimate pastime.

A standout feature of Ultimate is that there is no external officiating even at the professional level. Every conflict is resolved through discussion between rival teams, something known as the Spirit of the Game (SOTG) rule.

How India embraced the Ultimate

“A couple of decades ago, a few students at IIM Ahmedabad began playing recreationally at nights. That’s how the sport made its way into India,” says Manu Karan, an avid Ultimate player. Today, there are as many as 34 teams from 17 cities nationwide.

Pic - Karthik Viswanathan

Pic – Karthik Viswanathan

Karan is in fact a prominent name in the Indian Ultimate circles. He, along with Indian School of Business (ISB) batchmate Narayan Krishnan and a few others, brought Ultimate to Chennai in June 2007. They co-founded the Chennai Ultimate Frisbee Club and following in the footsteps of Ahmedabad and Bengaluru, in 2008, launched a national-level tournament called ‘Chennai Heat‘ at Elliot’s beach—India’s only Ultimate that is played on sand.

“The other three tournaments in India— in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and now in Mumbai— are played on grass. So just like the tennis grand slams have different surfaces, we wanted ours to be played on the beach.” Karan tells us over phone. “Also, beaches were the only public spaces freely available to us.”

Location, location, location. That was one of the chief reasons Ultimate spread beyond the regular socio-economic barriers that plague sports in India. Playing in a landmark tourist spot drew many spectators who in turn joined the action, irrespective of age and socio-economic barriers.

“As many as 50 of our 250 players are from the local fishing village community, or are coconut water sellers, or flower sellers. On the other side, one of our best players is Mr Sudhish, a 43-year-old business head at Satyam Mahindra. Talent knows no background,” says Karan.

Encouraged by this response, Chennai Ultimate Frisbee Club has also been organising a summer camp called Agninakshatra to teach the sport to beginners.

Women and Ultimate: a truly inclusive combination

The Airborne team.  Pic – Karthik Viswanathan

If Chennai Heat had started out purely as an excuse to compete with other teams in India, it has now turned into a flag-bearer for greater women participation in sports. “There are two key features of Ultimate that aid its popularity: first is that it is unrefereed, and second is the involvement of women, since it is a mixed gender sport,” says Karan, adding, “Earlier in India, the man to woman ratio was 7:0, then 6:1 and later to 5:2. In this year’s Chennai Heat, we went a step ahead and insisted on a ratio of 4:3, on par with international standards.”

The new rule had some of the participating teams struggling to comply, while for the remaining squads that did manage to recruit at least three women players, there were other headaches. “Female players still have to be on the pitch for the entire duration of the game, while there are 5-6 men players on the sidelines who are always waiting for their turn,” says Chiai Uraguchi, a Japanese national who is one of the woman players in the current Airborne team from Chennai.

Uraguchi moved to India four years ago and is the Director of a local NGO called ‘Pudiyador’ which teaches life skills to underprivileged children. “The 4:3 rule provides opportunities for young boys from our NGO to break through socio-gender barriers in order to personally recruit girl players and in some cases convince parents of these girls to let them play!” says Uraguchi, outlining the positive effect of gender inclusivity in sports.

Sports for change: The Pudiyador life-skills project

Pudiyador kids at play.  Pic - Varsha Yeshwant Kumar

Pudiyador kids at play.
Pic – Varsha Yeshwant Kumar

Pudiyador, an NGO based in Chennai, has been using Ultimate as a common platform for kids to explore play through team sports and develop crucial life skills such as leadership and diversity. The programme is meant for children between seventh standard till their late teens.

“Our NGO was begun in 2001 by Professor Narayanan as an after-school programme so that kids whose parents cannot supervise them at night have a safe environment to come to,” explains Uraguchi. Many of these kids’ parents are rag pickers, fishermen, carpenters and cooks with odd working hours.

Sport was recognised as an effective tool for building leadership, camaraderie and respect for gender and other inequities. “Team sports help children grow in a holistic way and creates channels for friendship. It encourages youngsters to appreciate the success of others and teaches them to be humble and confident.”

Ultimate was introduced in the sports curriculum in early 2013. “Being an NGO with limited resources, we chose Ultimate because it needs less space, money and is a sport meant for both boys and girls. What usually happens otherwise is that girls are made to feel awkward playing sports.”

Two teams from Pudiyador played in this edition of Chennai Heat, the Comeback team from Besant Nagar and UFO Riders from Ramapuram, with two other girls joining a third team Blitz. “Some teams told me that they underestimated our players thinking these are just children. But our Comeback team, which lives by the beach, had trained hard for a whole year and ended up with a bronze medal. The UFO Riders more importantly showcased good sportsmanship and won two Spirit awards during the tournament.” says Uraguchi with obvious pride.

Future Forward: Higher, Faster, Better

Any sport acquires complexity over time as efforts are made to commercialise it. In a bid to outperform each other, Ultimate players are running faster, jumping higher and training better. There are already professional leagues in US and Europe.


Pic - Karthik Viswanathan

Pic – Karthik Viswanathan

Yet, the sport remains largely unknown in India, something which Karan acknowledges.

“We joke about this in our circles that Ultimate is the most popular sport that nobody knows about.”

Recent developments though, point towards a surge in popularity. The latest 7th edition of the just concluded Chennai Heat 2014 , held between October 3rd to 5th, saw 24 teams and 350 odd participants from across the country. A year and a half ago, a national level body, Ultimate Players Association of India (UPAI), was founded to oversee affairs and is working towards getting affiliated with the World Flying Disc Federation.

“In 2007 when we started the Chennai Ultimate Frisbee Club there were only seven of us. On the final day of this year’s Chennai Heat, which was played under floodlights on a Sunday, there were close to 20000 spectators.” says Karan. “Such a turnout would have been unheard of seven years ago.”

Lawyer by degree. Independent writer by profession, with a soft spot for stories on Indian basketball. Co-creator of ekalavyas.com, India's first and only basketball news website. more


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Lawyer by degree. Independent writer by profession, with a soft spot for stories on Indian basketball. Co-creator of ekalavyas.com, India's first and only basketball news website. more

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