Bryan Walsh is the author of End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World. Previously, he was TIME’s International Editor, its energy and environmental correspondent and was the Tokyo bureau chief in 2006 and 2007. He lives in New York.
One Friday night in the spring of 1998, I found myself sitting in the front passenger seat of an ancient Toyota Corolla packed with four of my college classmates, somewhere in South Carolina, on the way to an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. Because stereotypes are sometimes true, we were arguing over which Grateful Dead tape to play when the cops pulled us over for speeding. This was concerning—a bunch of vaguely hippieish college students in a car with New Jersey plates getting escorted into a police station in a very small Southern town. And we had a tournament to get to, which is what we patiently explained to the police officer on duty, who kept one eye on the NCAA tournament game playing in the background. An Ultimate Frisbee tournament, where we would compete against other college clubs in Ultimate Frisbee! To which the cop responded, looking at each of us in our Umbro shorts and faded T-shirts: “So which one of you is the dog?”
Go ahead, laugh—Ultimate players are used to it. There’s no getting around the fact that this highly athletic, highly competitive sport involves grown men and women, often wearing extremely silly shirts, running, jumping and diving (sorry—”laying out“) after what is ultimately a child’s toy. Or that even Ultimate games played at the very highest of levels often go unrefereed, with players instead calling their own fouls and settling any disagreements through on-field discussions that sometimes end only slightly quicker than the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks. Or that college Ultimate clubs—of which there are now more than 700 throughout North America—have names like Süperfly (Yale, which of course adds the umlaut); Army of Darkness (the wild men of Amherst); Nun Betta (Catholic University, and hats off to them); or the Apes of Wrath (University of Oklahoma by way of Steinbeck). Or that matches often end with each team improvising a cheer for the other—the more NSFW the better, which is something I must say that the Clockwork Orange at Princeton University excelled at during my time there, even if we were less great at the actual winning.
The point is that Ultimate is, at its heart, a goofy, spirited sport, even if it’s often played by very serious and very athletic people. (If you doubt the latter, check out this highlight reel from the legendary—within Ultimate, at least—Brodie Smith.) The actual 10th commandment of the sport makes it clear—Ultimate is about “the basic joy of play.” No coaches! No referees! No pressure! That was what attracted to me the sport when I was a college freshman burned out from playing varsity sports in high school. (Well, that and access to 21-year-old teammates who could buy beer.) We had fun! We had discs—no one calls them Frisbees, FYI—that had Malcolm McDowell’s mascaraed eye from the Clockwork Orange movie emblazoned on them! And absolutely no one thought that Ultimate would lead to anything but playing Ultimate.
And that’s why the news that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had decided to recognize Ultimate Frisbee—or rather, the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF), the closest thing the sport has to a governing body—has left me concerned. There’s a simple reason: the IOC, which is prevented from being the most corrupt body in international sport only by the existence of FIFA, has the unique ability to suck the life out of sport. While I’m all for the best players in the Ultimate world getting a chance to represent their country at the Olympic Games—although, guys, watch out for the drug testing—the sheer bureaucracy of the IOC, and the increasing commercialism of the Games themselves, go against the spirit of Ultimate. This is a sport with rules only slightly more complicated than those of checkers. The first ever game of Ultimate was played by New Jersey high schoolers in 1968, and it pitted the student council against the student newspaper. (And the journalists won!) Ultimate belongs to the people, not the sportocrats of Lausanne.
Of course, Ultimate still has a long road to go before you’re watching Olympians hucking and pulling and flicking. Just ask billiards, netball and waterskiing, all sports recognized by the IOC that aren’t close to actually making the Olympics. But in a world where commercial values trump sporting ones, and the only countries that seem eager to host the Olympics are authoritarian ones, inclusion in the Games with its winner-take-all attitude could dilute what makes Ultimate so special. I call foul.
Walsh was a member of Princeton’s Clockwork Orange Ultimate club team from the fall of 1997 to the spring of 1999, when he quit because they started doing wind sprints in practice. Wind sprints!
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