When you think about frisbees, it might conjure up memories of lobbing a disc across the mud with friends or dashing it across the turf for the dog to chase. But Ultimate Frisbee is a lot more than just messing around in the park.
On a cold, wintry Sunday afternoon, some of the Frisbee players were on hand at their training pitch on the Meadows to fill us in on the University team known as ‘Ro Sham Bo’ (which means rock-paper-scissors), and why the frisbee is gaining a greater amount of attention and respect.
Despite having been started a fair few decades ago in 1968 by Jared Kass, the “ultimate game”, as its founding father baptised it, has not reached the mainstream until relatively recently.
One of the Edinburgh University players, Mathias Kallick, says that “when I played in high school four years ago, no one knew about it and we were pretty much the only people at our school to play it, and now when I talk to people about it they’re like, ‘oh yeah’, and there are a couple of pro leagues in the US now and there’s a world championship.”
Perhaps you are unaware, but this year the World Ultimate & Guts Championship took place in London, and over 30 countries took part; it saw the country of Ultimate Frisbee’s origin, the United States, as victors.
Another of the Ro Sham Bo players, Ben Wilson, understands the initial reactions that people first have towards Ultimate Frisbee, and admits that he shared those prejudices before he took to the sport. However, once he got involved with Ultimate, he realised that the sport was indeed no different than any other in terms of its demands.
“Once you start to play, you realise you have to be athletic and it takes a lot of skill and fitness so, once you see it played to a high level, you gain some respect for it.”
It is similar to other more traditional sports such as basketball, American football and football. Ultimate Frisbee is similar to these sports, albeit with a flying disc – as it is officially known – rather than a ball. They all include elements of both teams attacking the other side’s half while also defending their own half.
The main rules of the game are summed up by Kallick: “You can’t move with the disc once you have the disc in your hand, if the disc goes out of bounds or hits the ground then that’s a turnover, and to score a point you catch it in the end zone.”
Everyone who was interviewed agreed that the spirit of Ultimate Frisbee was something which set it apart from other sports. Ironically, the lack of the presence of a referee means that teams tend to get on rather than scrap.
Erasmus Häggblom, also of Ro Sham Bo, said that “it’s a non-contact sport, meaning that it’s relatively simple to self-officiate any infractions because any kind of contact is a foul”.
His teammate Tobias Griessler added that there is an incentive for players to behave themselves: “Even during the most competitive tournaments you still have to do spirit scores, so you judge the other team on how well spirited they were, including a knowledge of the rules, fairness, how willing they were to solve calls for fouls, and also having no referees adds to the element of having to figure out everything for yourself, while keeping the flow of the game alive.”
There is less zealotry in terms of keeping to the rules all of the time for minor mishaps, as it can help the game to run more smoothly. In spite of this, referees have this year been introduced at the elite level in the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL). The introduction of officials this year has generated divided opinion, for similar reasons to goal-line technology in football.
Opponents of the implementation of referees argue that it could break up the flow of the game, but as the sport rises in popularity as well as the stakes, usage of officials will be of greater value.
There is every reason to believe that Ultimate Frisbee will continue to grow as a sport, as it has been officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This will be a positive for the sport, concludes Wilson:
“Yeah I heard about that and it would be awesome to have all the countries playing against each other as an Olympic sport, and would be really good for the Ultimate scene as a whole.”
For now, however, self-officiating will continue to be the modus operandi at grassroots level, as “people just learn the spirit of the game better that way”, says Häggblom. It is integral that the “spirit of the game” (SOTG) is maintained, as it is a key cornerstone of the sport, and is enshrined in the ethos of the World Flying Disc Association.
This is also one of the reasons that attracted Kallick to the game: “For me it was the spirit of the game, it was the idea that it’s self-refereed and players are expected to uphold this level of competitiveness but also friendliness towards each other.”
Meanwhile Häggblom and Griessler are relatively new converts, having taken to the sport in their second year of University. Häggblom recalls: “I had a couple friends I knew from primary school that started playing while I was here and I picked up with their team over a summer and I started playing with Ro Sham.”
Likewise, Griessler is fairly new: “I got into frisbee with a friend calling me and asking me a couple years ago, and asking if I was playing today, so I came along and I just really enjoyed playing the sport; the team was very welcoming and I see that with a lot of teams, like with Ro Sham.”
Having found their way to Ro Sham Bo one way or another, the team’s season has been punctuated with British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) matches: a 11-9 defeat to Glasgow and a 15-1 thrashing of Stirling.
The team also lost to St. Andrews on the opening day of the season at the Varsity match. The weather, according to Wilson, had not been too favourable to the side: “It was a really windy day and Ultimate’s really influenced by the wind.”
Both the male and the female teams have enjoyed success this year, as well as the mixed team coming third in Scotland.
It seems that the squads will also be on for facing the cream of university frisbee talent says Wilson.
“The girls at the regionals won all their games, so it looks like they’ll be going to the Division 1 nationals. The men’s team came fourth in Scotland so they’re going to the Division 1 nationals some time in January.”
Earlier this month, the Edinburgh women’s first team scooped the regionals with a 9-3 drubbing of Strathclyde in the final. For a sport that, for some, barely registers in the sporting consciousness, Ultimate Frisbee’s trajectory appears to be heading in only one direction. Our University has had a massive part in that, with Ro Sham Bo’s success testament to both the growth of the sport and its ability to strike a chord with all those who come into contact with it.
Moreover, the success of the sport can also be attributed to the aforementioned emphasis on good sportsmanship. Other sports have long fallen foul of fair play but Ultimate Frisbee isn’t one of them.
Their emphasis on playing the game in the right way, on fairness and inclusivity, and indeed on their respect for opponents are lessons for us all.
With the news that the IOC have recognised the sport, it is not inconceivable to suggest that the rise from one man’s vision in the United States to the Olympic stage is edging a little bit closer. But it isn’t all about competitiveness. Many of those we spoke to play the game for the fun of it, and that’s how it should be.
Ro Sham Bo’s recent triumphs also serve to break down any lingering misconceptions that people have about the sport. One afternoon of watching them on the Meadows will be enough to banish any attempts to denigrate the sport.
Ro Sham Bo appear to be well placed to lay down a marker nationally, while also playing a big part as ambassadors for the sport as a whole.
If you are interested in finding out more about Ultimate Frisbee, or how you can get involved with Ro Sham Bo, then check out their Facebook page or contact the club directly through the university’s Sports Union.
Image courtesy of Ro Sham Bo