• Ideas

Don’t Let the IOC Ruin Ultimate Frisbee

5 minute read
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!

30 Legends of Women's Tennis

Na of China serves to Cibulkova at the Rogers Cup tennis tournament in Toronto
Li Na understands rebellion. In 2008 she split from the Chinese Tennis Association, which had been taking up to 65% of her tournament earnings. Under a Chinese pilot program for sports stars dubbed Fly Alone, she gave up state funding so that she could hold on to her millions in prize money and choose her coach (who, until recently, was also her husband). Mark Blinch—Reuters
2014 US Open - Day 4
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova first made headlines in 2006, when she defeated Caroline Wozniacki at the junior championships of the Australian Open. Since then, she’s reached the quarterfinals at the 2011 Australian Open, defeated third-ranked Vera Zvonareva at Roland Garros and amassed nearly $2 million in prize money.Al Bello—Getty Images
Connecticut Open - Day 4
Andrea Petkovic immigrated to Germany from Bosnia with her parents when she was just 6 months old. Her father, a former Yugoslav tennis player, coached her at a club in Darmstadt but insisted that she finish high school before pursuing tennis professionally.Elsa—Getty Images
Western & Southern Open - Day 5
Petra Kvitova In 2008, Kvitova, then a 17-year-old ranked No. 143 in the world, made headlines by upsetting former top-ranked Venus Williams at a tournament in Memphis. She woke her father back in the Czech Republic at 3 a.m. to tell him the good news and describe her first-ever press conference. Andy Lyons—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 9
Caroline Wozniacki In November 2010, 20-year-old Caroline Wozniacki surged past Serena Williams to grab the No. 1 ranking — and she held tight. The daughter of Polish immigrants to Denmark, she speaks six languages — including Russian and Swedish — and keeps busy off the court by playing the piano and baking with her mom.Streeter Lecka—Getty Images
2014 French Open - Day Three
Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium didn’t pick up a tennis racket until she turned 9. That year her mother died of cancer, and Yanina’s father introduced her to the sport as a distraction from her grief.Matthew Stockman—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 2
Victoria Azarenka knows that her notorious grunting makes Monica Seles sound tame — and she remains unapologetic about it. The 21-year-old Belarusian says the shrieking helps her accelerate and deliver more power to the ball — skills that have taken her to the quarterfinals at four Grand Slams and helped her climb to No. 4 in the world rankings in 2011. Al Bello—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 3
Agnieszka Radwanska What she lacks in power, she makes up for in cunning. Agnieszka Radwanska, relies on tactical accuracy and her understanding of geometry to outfox her opponents, skills that have drawn comparisons to Martina Hingis.Julian Finney—Getty Images
The Championships - Wimbledon 2013: Day Two
Bethanie Mattek-Sands Fellow players have dubbed her the “rock chick” of tennis because of her tattoos and penchant for motorcycles and the fact that she wore a black dress to her wedding. The 29-year-old brings her free-spirited ways to the court, where she wears knee-high socks and black antiglare paint.Clive Brunskill—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 2
Ana Ivanovic As a teenager in war-torn Yugoslavia, Ana Ivanovic practiced in the early morning to avoid bomb raids. When all the courts were destroyed, she used an abandoned swimming pool. “Tennis was definitely a distraction from the war and all of the bad things that were going on in the country at the time,” she says. Elsa—Getty Images
Day Four: The Championships - Wimbledon 2014
Samantha Stosur stumbled into tennis at the age of 6 after a flood destroyed her family’s home in Brisbane, Australia. The family — which lost everything — moved to Adelaide with just $5,000, and her parents worked round the clock running a café. To keep Stosur occupied, her older brother hit balls with her at the park, and eventually persuaded his parents to enroll Stosur in tennis lessons.Al Bello—Getty Images
Olympics Day 5 - Tennis
Vera Zvonareva Brutally honest, Vera Zvonareva’s personal website describes the “row of failures” that knocked her out of the top 10 to a lowly ranking of 42nd in 2005. By 2010, however, the 26-year-old had gone on to reach the finals of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon and had risen to No. 2 in the world — all while pursuing a degree in international economic relations in Moscow.Clive Brunskill—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 3
Maria Sharapova Anna Kournikova — the glamorous Muscovite who reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1997 — showed Russian tennis players what was possible. But it was Maria Sharapova who confirmed that they could have it all — if they worked really, really hard. She won Wimbledon at 17, went on to take titles at the U.S. Open and Australian Open and earned the No. 1 ranking on four occasions.Streeter Lecka—Getty Images
US Open Day 14
Kim Clijsters Critics have always said Kim Clijsters lacks the killer instinct that defines greats like Monica Seles and Serena Williams. She rose to No. 1 anyway. The Belgian, who won the U.S. Open in 2005 with her well-placed ground strokes, retired in 2007 so she could have a baby. But in March 2009, in the lead-up to an exhibition match at Wimbledon, Clijsters, then 25, announced that she was returning, partly to help cope with the loss of her father, who had died of skin cancer two months earlier. Matthew Stockman—Getty Images
2011 Australian Open - Day 5
Justine Henin's steely determination and cool demeanor didn’t endear her to the masses, nor did her retiring from the 2006 Australian Open final as a result of intense stomach pain. But even her critics have to respect her sublime one-handed backhand, described by John McEnroe as the best in the women’s or men’s game.Cameron Spencer—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 6
Serena Williams's off-court pursuits, which have included acting, launching a collection of handbags and completing 240 hours of course work to become a certified nail technician, are often dismissed by critics. But those pursuits likely account for some of her longevityJulian Finney—Getty Images
2014 US Open - Day 5
Venus Williams Before her first professional tournament, when she was just 14 and wearing cornrows, Venus Williams had the audacity to tell Sports Illustrated, “I think I can change the game.” That proved prescient. Williams — who honed her skills at a public park in Compton, Calif., while gang members guarded the grounds — brought explosive power to women’s tennis, setting a Grand Slam record with her 129-m.p.h. serve in 2007.Al Bello—Getty Images
Martina Hingis Participates In Tennis Classic Exhibition Match
Martina Hingis Drawing on her tactical instinct and unmatched finesse, Martina Hingis championed an elegant style of play that has slowly been replaced by power — and a whole lot of grunting. Born in present-day Slovakia, she clutched her first racket at the age of 2 and entered her first tournament at the age of 4.Tomas Benedikovic—Isifa/Getty Images
Monica Seles Born in Serbia, Monica Seles, now 40, burst onto the professional tennis scene as a 14-year-old and by the end of her first year on the tour had climbed to No. 6 in the world. Known for her aggressive game and for introducing the grunt to women’s tennis, she became the youngest player ever to win the French Open in 1990, when she defeated Germany’s Steffi Graf, the reigning queen of tennis, in straight sets.Simon Bruty—Getty Images
Arantxa Sanchez Vicaro's ability to chase down the most distant ball earned her the nickname Barcelona Bumblebee. That, coupled with her dogged clay-court style, helped her rise to No. 1 in both singles and doubles — no easy feat in an era that included greats like Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini. Gary M. Prior—Getty Images
Gabriela Sabatini
Gabriela Sabatini In 1985, 15-year-old Gabriela Sabatini became the youngest-ever player to reach the semifinals of the French Open and finished the year in the top 10, where she stayed for nearly a decade. Her movie-star looks turned her into one of South America’s biggest stars — the media referred to her as the Pearl of the Pampas and the Divine Argentine — and she displayed another kind of beauty on the court, where her topspin tricks and sweeping backhand remain legendary. Bob Martin—Getty Images
Steffi Graf's father, a car-insurance salesman from Brühl, Germany, taught her how to swing a racket in their living room when she turned 3. She never stopped. Although Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert hit the ball hard, Graf brought new explosiveness to the game: her forehand remains one of the greatest shots in women’s tennis. She contested 31 Grand Slam singles finals and won 22 of them.Pascal Rondeau—Getty Images
1981 US Open Tennis Championship
Tracy Austin In 1979, 16-year-old Tracy Austin became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Open when she defeated four-time defending champion Chris Evert 6-4, 6-3. Austin’s deep and unerring ground strokes led her to the title at Flushing Meadows again in 1981, and despite recurring sciatica, she intermittently held the No. 1 ranking.Focus On Sport/Getty Images
1981 US Open Tennis Championship
Martina Navratilova Born in Prague, Martina Navratilova wanted to conquer the tennis world, and she knew she had a better shot at doing that in the U.S. than in communist Czechoslovakia. So during the 1975 U.S. Open, American authorities helped her defect, the Czech government subsequently stripped her of her citizenship, and she went on to dominate women’s tennis, winning 18 Grand Slam singles titles.Focus On Sport/Getty Images
Chris Evert - File Photos
Chris Evert With her girl-next-door looks and blond locks, Chris Evert earned the nickname America’s Sweetheart and became one of the first tennis celebrities of the TV era. Born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1954, she had a traditional feminine deportment that made parents more comfortable with their daughters’ taking up the sport, and her rivalry with Martina Navratilova fueled interest in the women’s game throughout the 1970s and ’80s.Paul Natkin—WireImage/Getty Images
1979 US Open Tennis Championship
Evonne Goolagong The daughter of a poor Aboriginal sheep shearer, Evonne Goolagong shot down the notion that tennis stars had to be groomed at the country club. Born in 1951 — 16 years before Australia even recognized Aborigines in its census — she took up the sport after an encouraging neighbor spotted her peering through the fence at a local court.Focus On Sport/Getty Images
Virginia Wade
Virginia Wade The daughter of a British archdeacon, Virginia Wade, now 68, took up tennis as a child growing up in South Africa and honed her game when she moved back to England at 15.Bob Thomas—Getty Images
Rosemary Casals - Wimbeldon
Rosie Casals now 65, entered tennis as an outsider and a long shot: she was the 5-ft.-2 daughter of immigrants to the U.S. from El Salvador. “The other kids had nice tennis clothes, nice rackets, nice white shoes, and came in Cadillacs,” Casals once told People. “I felt stigmatized because we were poor.” She got over it — and she forced the rest of the tennis world to as well.Ed Lacey—Popperfoto/Getty Images
Court At Wimbledon
Margaret Court Born to poor parents in New South Wales, Australia, Margaret Court, now 71, grew up with an inferiority complex. Her family didn’t have a television or a car, and her first tennis racket was fashioned from the stakes of an old wooden fence. She eventually turned it into gold. Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Billie Jean King - Wimbledon
Billie Jean King After winning Wimbledon in 1968, the men’s champion, Rod Laver, walked away with $4,800. Billie Jean King, the women’s champion, left with just $1,800. At other events, the gap in pay was even wider. King — who won 129 career titles, including 12 Grand Slam single titles — fought to change that. Ed Lacey—Popperfoto/Getty Images

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.