The Ultimate Frisbee community has been buzzing this week with the news that the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has finally recognized its sport. Critics wondered whether a defiantly counter-culture sport can continue to grow as part of mainstream culture, and others braced for yet another round of jokes at the expense of the sport’s dignity, including the inevitable Frisbee dog jokes.
But the recognition of Ultimate Frisbee also puts a different spin on what has been a difficult summer of Olympics news. The IOC this week awarded the 2022 Olympics to Beijing, the first host city to not come from a snowy mountain climate. The skiing and snowboarding—not to mention the luge runs—will take place in Yanqing, a city just over 50 miles away from Beijing and which gets two inches of snow a year, and Zhangjiakou, which is 100 miles away from Beijing (next to the Gobi desert) and gets eight inches of snow a year.
One might equate this decision with that of the desert country of Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup. Perhaps that will be the international year of crazy sports tournaments, and the world will return to normal on New Year’s Day 2023.
But Beijing is not the only Olympics story competing with Ultimate Frisbee for attention. Athletes and officials are increasingly concerned about the safety of holding races in the waters surrounding Rio de Janeiro, the host city of next year’s summer Olympics. The lede from a recent Associated Press feature says it all:
“Athletes in next year’s Summer Olympics here will be swimming and boating in waters so contaminated with human feces that they risk becoming violently ill and unable to compete in the games.”
The AP story moved the World Health Organization to weigh in, and the IOC will now test Rio’s waters for a broad range of bacteria and viruses. Rio’s sewage problems were supposed to have been addressed by now as part of the conditions for hosting the games. But the promises were left unfulfilled, and the safety of more than 1,400 athletes is in question if the games take place as planned.
This is the world that the organizing bodies of Ultimate Frisbee—the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) and USA Ultimate (USAU)—have tried to enter for years. The recognition is an important yet preliminary step towards inclusion in the Olympic games. The sport is played in only 62 countries and needs to expand more broadly—under the IOC’s guidance—before becoming a full Olympics sport.
I view these efforts from a skeptical perspective. I have played the sport competitively for three decades now, competing most recently in the USAU National Championships for the Grandmaster Division (for those ages 40 and over) in 2012. What drew me to the sport and kept me playing is the competitiveness and free spirit approach that was not hampered by bureaucracy, rules, and a relentless drive for commercial exposure.
Far too many ethical guidelines fall by the wayside in this drive, something you can see in the ever-increasing ersatz nature of the Olympics. All too often now, the Olympics take place in a location that needs to engage in a massive building boom that alters the host city’s landscape. In 2022, the Chinese government will go one step further; it must manufacture an uncountable amount of snow so that skiers can ski with the desert as a backdrop.
This approach runs contrary to the way Ultimate is played and celebrated. For now, the major championships are all played on natural grass fields—polo fields and turf farms provide the best venues. No industrial-scale environmental rearrangements are required.
I have watched with bemusement as the game’s best players tried repeatedly for commercial success, often tripping over themselves, their competitive instincts, and frisbee’s alternative, marijuana-tinged culture in the process. My favorite was a fist fight between two of ultimate’s greatest players, Jon Gewirtz and Ken Dobyns, appearing in the Wall Street Journal in 1998. At the time, it was the highest profile media exposure we had ever seen for the sport, and it didn’t even mention Frisbee-catching dogs. But the reporter still found a way to trivialize our weekend passion.
As the scandal over the Rio Olympics water safety continues to escalate, it is doubtful whether articles that still playfully poke at Ultimate Frisbee—like the NY Times listicle on other sports jockeying to enter the games—can help overshadow this and other controversies. It’s worth noting that while the NY Times has covered Ultimate Frisbee’s recognition, the outlet has not done its own reporting on the Olympics sewage issue this year, relying on wire coverage instead.
Ultimately, the question is more about who is using whom for publicity, and exactly how much more of its spirit Ultimate Frisbee will lose in its quest for respectability. That’s not a priority for the folks running the IOC, however, who are happy to hide their current rash of problems behind Ultimate’s brief flare of notoriety.