Flinging Frisbees is something you do to kill time at the beach, right? Not according to the 250 players who will be descending on Cape Town this weekend to compete in the annual national Ultimate Frisbee Championships. By REBECCA DAVIS.
If your image of Frisbee involves two dudes idly chucking a disc at each other, you need to update your mental database. Although Ultimate Frisbee (often just called ‘Ultimate’, because ‘Frisbee’ is a registered trademark) is much bigger in North America than South Africa, its proponents regard it as a serious sport.
It helps to think of Ultimate a bit like touch rugby: there is no contact, and two teams compete to pass a Frisbee down a field to a player waiting in the endzone. You can’t move while you’re in possession of the disc. Play moves extremely fast: this is not a game for the unfit.
Ultimate’s origins are contested, but it developed among high-school students in the US in the 60s. A strangely fascinating paper on the history of the sport published in the Sport Journal in 2009 records that Frisbees themselves are thought to originate from the empty pie tins used by a baker called William Russell Frisbie in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at the end of the Civil War. The story goes that Yale students would buy Frisbie Pies, eat them and then throw the empty tins around. It wasn’t until 1948 that a plastic flying disc was made and commercially marketed, capitalising on the public interest in UFOs and “flying saucers”. As their popularity spread, particularly among students, a game called “Frisbee football” developed in the 50s – essentially American football played with a disc. It was from this that Ultimate Frisbee emerged.
In North America, Ultimate is taught in many high schools, and players then go on to compete at college and club level. That’s where Anne Maftei, of the South African Nationals Tournament organising committee, learnt to play – as a schoolkid in her native Canada. Since her work for a French NGO brought her to South Africa in 2009, she has been involved in Ultimate in a coaching, playing and now organising capacity.
Maftei, 28, estimates the total community of players in South Africa is about 400 at the moment, but says, “We recruit largely by word of mouth. Friends hear about it from friends, and get involved that way”.
Ultimate is special in two ways – firstly, teams are mixed: in general play worldwide, the gender division is four and three in each team, and the majority can be either men or women. Because there aren’t currently enough female players in South Africa, however, for nationals the team division is 5 to 2.
“Since 2010, I have been running training sessions for women only. I would like South Africa to get used to the idea of having a women-only game too.” To this end, there will be a women’s exhibition game played on the Friday evening of nationals this weekend.
The second aspect of Ultimate is there are no referees: the game is self-officiated. When a foul occurs and is called by a player, another player can contest that, and then the matter is settled “by discussion,’ says Maftei. If this fails to reach consensus, captains are called in. She admits that, on occasion, the atmosphere can get tense.
It is this self-officiated aspect that is one of the reasons that Ultimate is currently not an Olympic sport. “There are arguments that the inclusion of referees would change the spirit of the game,” Maftei says. “In its current form, the game teaches people to negotiate and have respect for each other.
“It has all the elements of a sport – endurance, skill, athleticism, and world championships held every two years,” says Maftei. “But we’re not too hung up on labels.”
The National Championships in Cape Town this weekend will see 250 players from 16 teams based competing. If Ultimate sounds like a sport that smacks of elitism, it may surprise you to learn that last year’s Nationals were won by a team from Khayelitsha, captained by Asanda Nanise, 24. Nanise was introduced to the sport by a teacher at Eluxolweni Primary So her team, Khayoba, is the one to beat this year, but other strong contenders include a contingent from Pietermaritzburg, Maftei’s own Ghost team and another Cape Town team, Chilli.
One of Chilli’s key players is Ant Pascoe, 39, who has been playing Ultimate for 16 years. He was introduced to the sport when a scheduled game of touch rugby failed to materialise, and Ultimate was being played on an adjacent field.
“It looked kind of fun, and there was a pretty hot girl playing, so I ingratiated myself into the mix and really enjoyed it,” says Pascoe. Sixteen years later Pascoe is one of South Africa’s top Ultimate players – and married to the girl in question. He sees the appeal of Ultimate in “the openness of the playing community, the athleticism of the game and the founding spirit of 60s idealism that still permeates the game.”
And he’s “quietly confident,” about winning this year. “We’ve trained hard and we go into the tournament with what is probably the most complete and united squad we’ve ever fielded. We’re not a team that relies on one or two stars – we have depth in every position, a good blend of youth and experience, and a strong desire to win.”
The National Championships will take place at Villager Football Club, Claremont, from Friday 27 April to Sunday 29 April. DM
Photo: Paul Vicars of Ghost Ultimate Club training at Villager Football Club. JASON BUCH
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