Can flying discs be an exciting team sport? Shonali Muthalaly meets the men behind Chennai’s Ultimate movement

Tossing the Frisbee? Well, not really. The game has morphed from its hippy give-peace-a-chance origins into a fast, fierce, athletic sport. At the core, however, it stays true to its roots. ‘Ultimate Frisbee’ (now just called Ultimate since ‘Frisbee’ is a trademarked name) is all about the ‘Spirit Of The Game’. About playing well, and playing fair. About changing attitudes to sport. But, more importantly, changing attitudes. Which could explain why it’s been getting increasingly popular all over India, and the world.

Chennai’s slowly, but confidently, making an impact on a quickly evolving National stage. Next month, the city hosts the 5th edition of Chennai Heat at Besant Nagar beach. Sixteen teams from across the country will be pitted against one another at India’s only Ultimate tournament on sand. Of these, 7 of the competing teams are local. Last year’s Chennai Heat drew a crowd of about 2000 people. Through the year, Chennai Ultimate — currently India’s largest Ultimate club — runs camps and classes to encourage more people to take up the sport. This includes Agni Nakshatra, a summer camp for beginners, and Free Spirit, a programme dedicated to women players.

The beginnings

All this emerged from a single game played on the beach about six years ago.

When Manu Karan and Narayan Krishnan, founders of Chennai Ultimate, moved to the city in 2007, they just wanted to play a game. Manu had learnt Ultimate when he was studying in Colorado. “When I moved back from the U.S., I knew I would miss it,” he says, adding, “I wanted to be able to find a game any day of the week in the city.” They gave the Chennai Runners a call, and gradually the group grew. Today, the city has a total of ten teams and about 200 serious players, not including the many children who started playing recently. (See box.)

While Ultimate is played in more than 40 countries so far by tens of thousands of people, it’s still in its nascent stage in India. However, the data looks promising. There are about 700 regular players, and 26 registered teams so far and they stretch across the length and breadth of the country. Ludhiana’s team calls itself the ‘Ultimate Soldiers of Punjab.’ The Churu and Jhunjhunu Districts of Rajasthan have ‘Desert Dreamers’, an initiative of the Gandhi Fellowship Program. Small town Alappuzha has two teams. Everyone keeps in touch, primarily through social networking. It helps that this is possibly the friendliest game in the world, and travelling players can sign up anywhere they find a game.

Discussing how it’s time the game moves to the next stage in Chennai, Manu says, “We made sure we didn’t charge to encourage people to play. Now, we feel that to be sustainable we may need to. It’s time we get part-time volunteers. Start teaching in schools and colleges.” He adds that it’s the logical way to go. “People move out. People get older and their priorities change. I look at it this way, if you’re not growing, you’re shrinking…”

So what makes Ultimate special enough to warrant this much effort? “The Spirit Of The Game,” Manu says. “You want to win because you are good. Because you can run faster, throw better, jump higher. Not because you know how to exploit the rules. Which happens a lot in competitive sports.” He adds that this self-refereed game, where conflicts between two players are resolved between them with no interference from referees or team captains, builds character. “The best example is a team called Blitz, started by a college lecturer,” he says. “She picked out students who were always getting into fights, and asked us to help her set up a team, hoping they would channel all that energy into the game. You won’t believe the remarkable transformation in them.”

Manu says he sees these kinds of changes in players all the time. “They want to be fair; they want to be seen as fair. If you’re a good player who doesn’t play fair, there’s no respect, and you’ll gradually find yourself edged out because no one will want to play with you. If you’re aggressive, your team mates pull you up.” Nishanth Radhakrishnan, Tournament Director for Chennai Heat, agrees. He talks about how it has made him more disciplined. “I’ve made the sport a priority. I live in Porur, but make sure I’m at Besant Nagar by 6 a.m. every morning to play.” He adds, “Most of us have played football and hockey, where we learn to play aggressively. Here you play according to the rules. No cheats, no fudging, no sledging. Players mould themselves.”

WHERE TO BE

Chennai Heat 2012 will be held at Elliot’s Beach, Besant Nagar on October 12, 13, 14, 2012. For details, check out the Chennai Heat Event on Facebook, or contact Nishanth Radhakrishnan on +91 90031 65261

ULTIMATE FUN IN SCHOOLS

Chennai Ultimate has been working towards introducing the game in schools. Last month, they ran a successful summer camp with children from the 6th , 7th and 8th Standard, from four schools in Besant Nagar. It ended with the School Reach Out Frisbee Tournament, won by the students of the Olcott Memorial High School.

They’re also working on popularising ‘Gully Ultimate,’ encouraging children to play the game everywhere, just like they do gully cricket. The game’s proved to be an effective way to reach underprivileged children, starting with those from the slums around Besant Nagar who gather to watch. Local team ‘FlyWild’ recruits some of these kids every year to play with them.

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Shonali MuthalalyMay 11, 2012