The last weekend in April, men and women from across the country made the long trip to Kodaikanal to attend the Fly Baba tournament at the Kodaikanal International School. The participants came from Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi, all for a chance to chase and throw a little spinning disc made of plastic.
Welcome to the cult of Ultimate Frisbee, or Ultimate, as the players refer to it.
Disc jockeying: (left) Teams compete at the Ahmedabad tournament in February; (right) Chennai team captain Manu Karan dives for the frisbee.
Ultimate is a competitive sport, played by two teams of seven, which score points by passing the Frisbee, a thin, round disc, to a player in the end zone. The players have to constantly run to catch the throws, block the other players and accurately throw the frisbee to other team members. It looks a little like a combination of basketball and football, but with a spinning disc, instead of a ball.
Kiruba Shankar, a software engineer in Chennai, plays every weekend on the beach with friends. He says that the sport was brought to India by expats and a few Indians who studied in the US. The sport started on college campuses in the US in 1968 and the Ultimate Players Association, the governing board of the sport in the US, says that more than 824,000 people now regularly play it.
Shankar says in India, Ultimate has grown into a sport that many are passionate about. “It’s picking up a lot of steam.”
The sport seems to inspire strong dedication from its players. In the players’ minds, it stands apart from other competitive games because of the “Spirit of the Game”.
This term, used by almost every player to describe the game, refers to the fact that no referees are used, even at competitive levels. The players themselves must resolve contested points and fouls.
Preetham Kajekar, 29, says that the Spirit of the Game is “one of the most unique things about the game. The bottom line is that everyone is there for fun. We’re not really interested in finding a winner or a champion. We’re looking for other people to play with and have a good time.”
Kajekar and about seven of his friends in Bangalore initially had trouble finding other people to play with; they had been playing another frisbee game, Goaltimate, for a few years with their group Learning to Fly. They set up a website and would leave their telephone number in sports stores, in the hope that other enthusiasts would contact them.
But it wasn’t till February that Venky (who requested us not to use his full name) found them on the Internet. His friends — primarily a bunch of rock climbers — would end up flinging a frisbee after a weekend of climbing, but he switched to Ultimate when he heard about a tournament being organized in Ahmedabad. Now, Bangalore has three competitive teams that travel to tournaments and regularly play one another.
Another part of the draw, to some members, is the diversity of the game. Bryan Plymale, a teacher at the Kodaikanal International School, says, “That’s the beauty of Ultimate. You can have a 13-year-old girl guarding a 30-year-old man.”
Even in international competitions, co-ed teams are encouraged. Shankar says every team that plays in Chennai must have two women. Plymale says two of the best players at the Fly Baba tournament were women.
There is economic and cultural diversity as well. Ahmedabad Ultimate could not attend the Fly Baba tournament, but it hosted a tournament in February for Delhi, Chennai and Ahmedabad.
The Ahmedabad Ultimate team, formed under the direction of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Indicorps, is a group of young men in their 20s who come from an underprivileged neighbourhood. At the tournament, the men, who only speak Gujarati, were playing with Chennai engineers and Delhi expats and, though they couldn’t speak each other’s languages, they all had an incredible time, making up songs for the other teams and sharing meals.
Roopal Shah, 39, an attorney from the US, moved to India to start Indicorps with her brother and sister. The siblings — all big sports enthusiasts — looked for a game they could introduce to Indian children that would help promote “leadership, unity, fitness and a culture of teamwork” in underprivileged areas. They settled on Ultimate — in part because of the Spirit of the Game. The NGO brings over interns from the US to teach children the game and is also working on creating an Ultimate sports league for schoolchildren in Ahmedabad.
Bangalore-based Gnana Shekar says his team has started bringing in youngsters from the neighbourhood to play Ultimate three days a week. And, Plymale brought the sport to the Kodaikanal International School 10 years ago to teach his students there. The students hosted the Fly Baba tournament and the Kodaikanal team won the tournament, although Plymale insists that “everybody won”.
The sport does face some problems in India. First, special regulation-size frisbees are required to play. These special discs only weigh 175g and are not available for purchase in India. The Delhi team brings in new equipment each time a player returns from a visit to the US or Canada. The Chennai team got a big boost when the Internet Disc Shop sent them a big box of discs after their team leader emailed them about the growing popularity of Ultimate in India.
The other problem the teams face is a lack of good field space. The players lament that most open fields are usually dominated by cricket. But Jordan Bower, one of Indicorps’ interns, says they are approaching private sports clubs, universities and government officials in the hope of finding new playing fields.
Despite these challenges, the players still seem to see only a bright future for Ultimate in India, with visions of corporate sponsorship, future tournaments and perhaps, one day, private stadiums dedicated to Ultimate.
For now, though, the teams are concentrating on attracting more players to the sport, on the upcoming tournaments in Delhi and Chennai and, perhaps, on forming an All-India team to send to the Singapore Open in August.
Contact these clubs to start throwing the disc
Ultimate Frisbee in India
Ahmedabad Ultimate, Ahmedabad
Chennai Ultimate Frisbee, Chennai
Stray Dogs in Sweaters, New Delhi
Learning to Fly, Bangalore
To learn more about the sport, look online at ‘www.upa.org’ for rules and instructional videos.