Ultimate frisbee is hardcore
Because of ultimate frisbee, during the Shanghai Ultimate Tournament a few years ago I witnessed one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen.
Halfway through the championship game between Taiwan and Korea, a player from my very own Beijing squad was carried across the field suspended on the shoulders of four teammates, totally naked, his package dangling toward the worn-out grass below.
Squeezed between his butt cheeks was a Frisbee, standing erect like a shark's fin. Fittingly, the stunt is called the "Land Shark." (The female equivalent, called the "Land Tortoise," has the Frisbee squeezed between two breasts. See here for definitions of Land Shark and other ultimate lingo.)
So went my introduction to ultimate frisbee in Asia. I've never looked back.
Ultimate history, unfortunate name
Invented in the 1960s by high school students in the United States, ultimate Frisbee (now known just as "ultimate") emerged as a counterculture sport, with no referees and all action governed by what's called "Spirit of the Game." Today there are 5 million players in the U.S. and ultimate organizations in about 50 countries worldwide.
Its name is unfortunate (imagine if, say, basketball was called awesome ball) but the game itself is fast, exciting, mixed (women and men play at the same time) and it often ends with the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol and the odd flash of nudity.
There are seven players to a side -- usually four men and three women, or five men and two women -- on a grass pitch. The object is to get the disc into the opponent's end zone without dropping it. It's not easy. I often find myself more winded during a game of ultimate than any other sport. As the Wall Street Journal noted, "ultimate frisbee combines speed, grace and powerful hurling with a grueling pace."
Ultimate's popularity is soaring in Asia. Tournaments are held in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Jeju, Manila, Bangkok, Singapore and elsewhere.
In November, Manila hosted its annual "Spirits" tournament, which drew a record 47 teams from across Asia. The tournament attracted corporate sponsors and was covered by local media.
"This year's tournament was huge, not just for Manila but for all of Asia ultimate," says Mel Lozano, a tournament organizer. "What started as a small group is now a huge international community that continues to grow. It's beyond what anyone expected."
While the bulk of players are foreigners, locals are taking notice. In Beijing, the number of Chinese players has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. There's a team devoted entirely to cultivating local talent.
"You don't have young people watching ultimate on TV like the NBA and thinking, 'When I grow up I want to be like Kobe and I can do that through ultimate'," says Jeff Orcutt, a key organizer of Beijing's ultimate scene. "The kids who are playing do it because they see their peers playing and they come to love the sport as much as the rest of us do."