Tuesday, August 17, 2004

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Why ultimate will not become an Olympic sport

In my life before spouse and child, your humble blogger was a halfway-decent ultimate frisbee player -- good enough to play for the Williams College men's team in the late eighties and Stanford men's ultimate team back in the early nineties. I loved the sport, loved the people who played the sport, and counted myself lucky that my only ultimate-related injury was a broken collarbone.

Ultimate has its own national organization and its own world organization as well; according to this census, over 38,000 people actively participate in the sport across the globe. It was always on the cusp of achieving greater mainstream success when I played. So it's with a slight twinge of sadness that I read Barry Newman's Wall Street Journal story explaining why ultimate is unlikely to ever become an Olympic sport. The key sections:

Frisbee, meantime, has blossomed from a lazy game of catch on the frat-house lawn into the sport of "ultimate," a high-voltage cross between soccer and American football. It was known early on as ultimate Frisbee, but Wham-O Inc., which owns the Frisbee trademark, wouldn't get behind it. So it's just plain ultimate now.

That causes branding issues: Ultimate? Ultimate what? But as far as its fans are aware, the truly ultimate championships aren't the ones taking place here. They rolled out two weeks ago up in Turku, Finland, where 1,500 athletes joined in, playing on 76 teams from 23 countries.

How come the Frisbee is on the outs in Athens while the discus, after 2,700 years, remains so unbendably in? For those who think the Olympics are slightly behind the times -- members of the International Olympic Committee included -- that's the ultimate question.

As soon as Athens shuts down, the IOC will begin a rethink of the games people play at future Olympics. "It's going to happen from now on -- a revision and checkup of the program," says Ron Froehlich, head of USA Gymnastics and a member of the IOC's program commission. "It's a matter of what appeals to the audience."

....How about Frisbee? Perhaps like skateboarding, which seems content for now with the X Games, ultimate is happy with gathering in places like Finland for its own World Games. But as for the Olympics, ultimate's organizers just don't think it's worth the hassle.

"A sport with Olympic aspirations needs to be a political organization," says Nob Rauch, a Bostonian who has checked this out for the World Flying Disc Federation. "It takes too much energy."

So Athens 2004 is a one-flying-disc town. In Olympic lore, the discus is secure.

Full disclosure: I know Nob Rauch, as he also attended Williams and played ultimate there.

UPDATE: Zach Braff -- who's clearly hooked on the blogging -- has some really amusing thoughts on how to spiece up the Olympics. Surprisingly, my favorite idea of Braff's was not "Olympic Pole Dancing," but rather adding hedge-clippers to the synchonized diving competition!!

posted by Dan on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM


This is not a comment, it is a thank you and a question. Now that I've learned what Ultimate is (and for that I thank you), can anyone tell me what "elephant polo" is. I think it was a put on but it didn't have of the marks of satire where I read it.

posted by: chuck rightmire on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

There are already too many Olympic sports. I'd rather see the Olympics stick to the classics.

BTW, I also played ultimate in college. My ultimate career was ended unfortunately by an accident at work which partially amputated my right middle finger. I can't throw sidearm anymore. Alas.

posted by: Joel on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

Politics and TV ratings aside -- which of course they never are -- I see no reason why Ultimate shouldn't be an Olympic sport. Beach Volleyball, once derided as a game only for sun-addled Californians, has done quite well. At the 1984 L.A. Olympics, I saw a field hockey match and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's an odd hybrid of soccer, lacrosse and jai-alai, played in countries like India and Pakistan.

I watch the Olympics to view sports that American TV neglects. Why bother with making basketball, baseball and tennis Olympic sports when they're on in the USA year-in and year-out? All it does is add to the number of arenas that a poor country like Greece has to build. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm assuming that an Olympic Ultimate competition wouldn't require an elaborate facility.

posted by: Richard Bellikoff on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]


That's why you don't dive for frisbees.

When I was a freshman, a guy broke his collarbone about four feet in front of me diving to catch a frisbee. I heard the crunch (and then the screaming). I was never tempted afterwards.

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

Ultimate would not be ultimate without layouts. Broken bones are the risk you take.

I can see why the Olympics wouldn't want to add Ultimate. They prefer to stick to the sports people are really clamoring to watch and play -- like synchronized diving.

posted by: brett on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

But who would put Ultimate players in their commercials? What semi-relevant products could Ultimate players endorse? Band-Aid? Bactine?

Maybe with the right 2-pc swimsuit, er, uniform... or, how about assembling a dream team?

A fan for all the wrong reasons

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

Screw ultimate. Try Static Apnea-- it's IOC-approved:


posted by: lex on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

wishiwas2: Advil. All ultimate players worship Advil.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

but Wham-O Inc., which owns the Frisbee trademark, wouldn't get behind it.

I don't understand. Why wouldn't they want a higher profile for a fun sport that revolves entirely around their patented product. It's sort of like Wilson, inc. saying "Gee, that's a nice game you've got there, Abner. But our gloves are made for taking hot pans out of the oven. We can't mess with our brand image right now."

posted by: Fledermaus on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

If it's only for popular sports they might as well shut down the olympics, we already see popular sports every day on TV, and we surely don;t need the nationalism of the Olympics.

posted by: Fred on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

Vitamin I (ibuprofen) is, along with sunscreen and PowerBars, the ultimate player's best friend.

Another reason ultimate will never be an Olympic sport is that, when played at a high enough level, the self-officiating becomes a weapon. Back when I played I went to the Canadian nationals a bunch of times and the finals always seemed to degenerate into long arguments about foul calls interspersed with brief moments of disc.

There's also the matter of drug testing...

posted by: george on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

Joel suggested sticking to the classic sports. Be careful what you wish for... Last night, in a puff-piece about de Coubertin and the Olympic revival, US TV showed still shots of ..... Olympic Team Tug-of-War. Men's teams, of course, and no mud-pit. After seeing that, I swore I'd never object to any proposal for a new Olympic event. Fortunately, I had already registered my disapproval of Team Diving, so I'm safe there.

posted by: Fred on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

Go Ephs!

(I've been reading you for about a year but never read your bio.)

posted by: Bryan Lovely '86 on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

Back in the 70's, National Lampoon did a piece called 'The Encyclopedia of Participatory Sport.' They got a few digs in at the ridiculous things being added to the Olympics even then. In the entry for Pool, after explaing that this is not a sport no matter what it's adherents claim, came this line.

"Pool is scheduled to become and Olympic event right after farting in the bathtub."

posted by: Eric Pobirs on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

And if they can have equestrian events, why not dog frisbee? I've got this great border collie....

posted by: Susan on 08.17.04 at 03:19 PM [permalink]

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