The Beach Ultimate Frisbee Tournament on Elliot’s Beach was fun, reports Shonali Muthalaly
It’s a triumph of speed, agility and Mysore pak. Supporters chant slogans. The air is electric with adrenalin. Players, toned with months of intense practice, stretch their muscles and swagger onto the field.
Then, as the crowds explode with excitement, the tournament takes a bizarre turn. Suddenly, the teams pass around chocolate and Mysore pak, smiling fondly at each other like they’re at a grandmother’s convention. A minute later, they’re fiercely locked in a fast, tense and astonishingly athletic game.
Welcome to the world’s friendliest sport: Ultimate Frisbee.
This weekend, Chennai Heat, the city’s annual Beach Ultimate Frisbee Tournament, was held on Elliot’s Beach, drawing approximately 1,500 spectators and 10 teams from around the country.
Originally called Ultimate Frisbee, the sport — which is rapidly becoming one of the most popular in the world — originated in Columbia High School, New Jersey, in 1968. Student Joel Silver, credited with creating the first game, and his friends moulded the game to their convenience. The field was the size of their school parking lot and the team size depended on how many players turned up, and there was no referee.
Over the years, the game’s been refined, and is now highly competitive, and played in more than 42 countries. However, one feature has not changed, and this is what sets it apart — there are still no referees. “That’s the coolest thing about it,” says Ultimate enthusiast Navin Balachandran, between backslapping members of various competing teams: “It’s all about SOTG — Spirit Of The Game. You call your own fouls, referee your own game.”
Not surprisingly, the atmosphere at Elliot’s beach feels dramatically different from a conventional match. While the play is aggressive, it’s never antagonistic. The team captains are quietly supportive rather than belligerent and players from opposing teams cheer each other.
The focus is really on enjoying the process of playing and camaraderie, says Manu Karan, one of the organisers of Chennai Heat. “At Ultimate, I’ll win because I’m good, not because I can sledge,” he says.
One of the first players in Chennai, Manu started playing in the U.S.; he began organising games with friends here a couple of years ago. Today, there are about a 100 players in the city, 60 of whom play every week.
Ultimate enthusiasts from different cities have similar stories. Sammy from Bangalore used to play a version of the game with friend in Cubbon Park. They left messages for other Frisbee buyers at sports stores and eventually hooked up with Disc-O-Deewane, an athletic group of adventure sports enthusiasts primarily into rock climbing, mountaineering and water sports. Sammy introduces 14-year-old Anant Narayan, captain of his team. “Since I was the youngest, they made me captain,” he grins.
Ultimate is not about getting together a crack team of unbeatable athletes. It’s about bringing together enthusiasts, regardless of their age, fitness or gender. “How long will it take for you to get on a field and play? Ten seconds,” smiles John Daniel, an American teacher from the Delhi team, ‘Stray Dogs In Sweaters.’ Explaining why it’s such a democratic sport, Daniel says experienced players enjoy working with beginners. “It makes me more accurate, when I make an effort to throw to you. It elevates my game.” His team mate Troy Duffield agrees: “It’s more of a challenge — like doing weights slowly.”
While the game does require skill and stamina — players need to run up and down in the sand, on a pitch the size of a football field and combat the wind with every throw — it’s not intimidating because it’s not propelled by the win-at-all-costs philosophy of conventional sport.
“People are having fun. They want to win, of course. But they’ll also cheer the other team,” says Coren Linfield, of AV Ultimate, the Auroville Team, which won the SOTG title.
“Self-refereeing works beautifully,” says Daniel, “they call it the happy game.” As always, there were some examples of impressive sportsmanship at this tournament. “We disagreed about two points with the Bangalore team, so we talked it out on the field and the captain gave us those two points. Which is class.” He adds: “They won in the end. And, I’m pleased that they won.”
“I’ve played football and basketball, which are great,” says Linfield. “But Ultimate Frisbee, it’s fun.”