Despite not actually playing a game (I’m too scared after it took not four weeks like I thought, but four months for my leg to recover) I go to practice at least once a week, and go to every tournament. And from my view I’m getting to watch the explosion of Ultimate Frisbee in China.
For those of you that don’t know what Ultimate Frisbee is, it’s a legit sport, though a fledgling one. Usually just called Ultimate (due to the proprietary name of Frisbee) It’s recognized by most major sports organizations and they are applying to be accepted in the 2020 Olympics. It started in America in the 60’s and is similar to other field sports like soccer or football. The objective is to have someone from your team catch the frisbee in your end-zone for a point. When you are holding the frisbee you cannot move (only pivot with one leg) and have to throw it to advance it. If you drop the frisbee, or the other team manages to steal it, the “possession” of the frisbee switches to the other team. Teams are co-ed with equal numbers of guys and girls on each team. (Though there are some special ‘women only’ tournaments from time to time.)
One unique aspect of frisbee is there is no referee. The game is totally self-monitored with the team calling fouls or rule enforcement. What can I say? This is a game that has it’s roots in hippie culture of the 60’s so there is a bit of peace, love and “good sportsmanship” worked into it.
And maybe that’s why I like it so much. While quite competitive in the US, it’s just getting a foothold here in China. That makes a big difference in everyone’s attitude. As no one grew up playing this sport, or groomed themselves for the pro leagues, everyone is so welcoming. The star players have only been playing for a few years, and the person that is just picking up the frisbee for the first time, could be a MVP player one year later, so everyone is encouraging.
And after being a part of the team for the past year I have seen huge changes in Xiamen that I think speak for the wider China Ultimate community at large. When I first started playing it was mostly for fun. A way to play a game and get a little sweaty on the weekends. But everyone began to get a little serious and practice began starting a few hours earlier to give time for drills. Then an evening practice was added. More people joined. Team members began working out in their free time, and Bailu team pride became stronger and stronger. (Bailuzhou park is where we practice. Bailu means egrets which is the symbol of Xiamen and therefore our team name.)
It’s not just Xiamen, in cities all across China things are also heating up. According to a recent article written by my friend Keelan, (he plays in Fuzhou, Xiamen’s neighboring city, so I see him regularly) he says there is a 100% increase in participation across China every year. I’ve seen that in Xiamen for sure, There are easily twice as many regular players as there was a year ago.
Because it is a foreign sport, and relatively new, foreigners have kind of been at the forefront of Ultimate in China. Most Chinese who have been playing for awhile originally learned about it from a foreigner. And the teams with the most foreigners (like Shanghai) still have the highest level of play due to the large amount of people who have been playing the game for decades.
Even the captain of our team, Will, an American, admitted that if the foreigners stopped playing or encouraging others to play our team would have fallen apart as short as a year and a half ago. Now, no longer. While our captain and coach are foreigners, the most passionate and outspoken players are Chinese. It would continue and improve even if all the foreigners left. In fact, a few of the younger college-aged team members have started their own school clubs for Ultimate. And our youngest teammate, Jack, only 13-years-old has gotten his classmates and gym teacher to come to the park a few times to learn the basics. These guys are now growing up with Ultimate in a way no one in China has been able to before.
And there are more and more chances to play Ultimate. In Xiamen we had our first tournament last fall, then we had two more including the most recent Xiamen Beach Tournament which will be a new annual event (Xiamen is perfectly suited for a beach tournament). Other tournaments Bailu players have gone to this year are: Ningbo, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shenzhen and in a few weeks they are going to Malaysia to play. This many tournaments in China would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.
Even the tournaments are welcoming. Ultimate has something called a hat tournament. Instead of established teams, anyone can sign up including complete newbies. Then their names are thrown into a “hat” and teams are made of strangers. (Okay, these days it’s not a literal hat. Organizers make up teams based on skill level so every team has a few newbies, middle and expert players.) It’s a really nice, really welcoming way to get more people interested to play. Two of the tournaments in Xiamen have been hat tournaments.
And need I talk about how damn nice everyone is? Probably not because I think you got my point already, but despite not being a player they never make me feel left out or not included. The supportive, deep bonds that are forged during the weekly practices last far beyond the field and no birthday or special event goes by without the teams support. One team member recently got married and several people attended wearing our team shirt. And not just with the Xiamen team, but from players all over China. At tournaments I’ve made friends with people from all over China. The initial bond is Frisbee, but the friendships go far beyond.
So, while I’m not a player, I am a devotee to the sport. And the reason? Because Ultimate players in China are so damn nice. Being a part of the Ultimate community in China is more than just a team, but a family. It’s an exciting time to see a sport take hold and really start to grow in China, and from the sidelines in Xiamen, I’ve got a front row seat.