The Ultimate sporting spirit

| July 11, 2012

Sports critics often say that modern sport lacks a spirit of fair play and honesty. Richard Moore says there is one sport that operates on a principle of player responsibility when it comes to following the rules and playing fair.

Sportsmanship and “sporting spirit” are recognised, praised and (hopefully) encouraged in every sporting endeavour in the world, but I only know of one sport where it is the primary rule, and that sport is called simply “Ultimate”. 

You may have heard of it as “Ultimate Frisbee”, but since Frisbee is a trademarked term, we’ll officially just refer to the main piece of equipment as a “flying disc”.

Rule 1.1 of the World Flying Disc Federation’s rules of Ultimate refers to “a Spirit of the Game that places the responsibility for fair play on every player”.  This is not merely some wishy-washy hippy idea coming out of Ultimate’s origins as a casual, counter-culture game at high schools and colleges in the United States, but is in fact a deliberate and solid basis for an international sport that is rapidly growing in popularity around the world.

As I write this, the 2012 World Ultimate and Guts Championships are well under way in Sakai, Japan.  (I should add: “Guts” is a separate disc sport and is left to the reader as a startling YouTube research exercise!)  Australia has sent our very best Ultimate players in every division: Women’s (“The Firetails”), Open (“The Dingoes”), Mixed (“The Barramundis”), Women’s Masters (“The Flying Foxes”) and Open Masters (“The Wombats”).

These players are joining teams from twenty-three other countries who have been selected from a large group of eager players and have trained hard for months to represent us on the world stage.  What makes it unique?  There is not a single referee in sight.  In Ultimate the responsibility lies squarely on the players to make the calls, whether that be an out-of-bounds decision, a foul for non-incidental body contact or an illegal pick (similar to a moving screen or shepherd).  Similarly, players have the right to “contest” (and discuss briefly) a call made against them.  What is the incentive for players to make fair calls, to calmly agree or disagree with the calls of others and indeed to avoid dangerous play?  Saying that “it’s the right thing to do” doesn’t quite sum it up.  Right from a player’s first game of Ultimate, whether that be on the lawn at university, in a local league or with some friends at the beach, that Spirit of the Game informs every decision they make in the sport.  Many other sports may have “pickup” rules for casual games among friends, but no other sport has successfully extended this sense of camaraderie and fair play, even between strangers, into a high-level, extremely athletic and hard-fought international tournament.

One theory I have for part of this ongoing spirit is the simple joy of the flight of the disc and the flow of the game.  It leads to a sense of peace and enjoyment that many people (not just Ultimate players) have expressed through the simple act of throwing the Frisbee.  Making bad calls, acting overly competitive, abusing the opposition and endangering others leaves a bad taste in the mouths of players and spectators alike. Ultimate aims to avoid that, while providing an environment where people can run their hearts out chasing a simple piece of plastic.  Its beauty is often its simplicity. True, this can often be best exemplified in a game where there is good humour between players that includes banter and maybe even the odd jibe among friends.

The sense of community is central to Ultimate.  But I’ve also seen it work beautifully when I’ve stepped out onto fields all around Australia and during my travels in London, Paris, Amsterdam, even a beach in Venice and playing against some top-class players at the World Ultimate Club Championships in Prague in 2010.  Swapping jerseys and shaking hands with guys from Colombia, discussing the finer points of the rules on the sideline with an Austrian, realising you have a friend in common with an English girl – these are elements of the spirit of Ultimate in action that I’ve been privileged to experience.

Compared to many global sports, Ultimate is still in its relative infancy.  There are growing pains to be faced: in recent years players themselves have had to deal with the transition from being an unknown “quirky” past-time to a legitimate sport, for example with college teams in the U.S.A. now taking on elite athletes from other sporting disciplines.  This growth and increase in seriousness particularly at the top level has led to the introduction of “observers” in college finals.  These observers are tasked with making certain calls and assisting in other arbitration when asked by players, to keep the game flowing smoothly and quickly and to encourage Spirit of the Game.  Observers will not be used at the world championships this week, but some see their introduction as a necessary step towards making Ultimate a professional or even Olympic sport.  A controversial new “American Ultimate Disc League” is another one to watch.  It’s the first professional Ultimate league and they’ve introduced referees in a bid to speed up the game and make it accessible to new spectators.

That all seems a world away at Coogee Beach on a chilly winter afternoon, where I’m playing a casual but sweaty game with some friends.  Sand lends itself to plenty of gratuitous dives and “interesting” throws.  One goes out the back of our makeshift field.  I retrieve the disc from the sand not too far from where a dad is playing with his kids.  I’d called out for him to watch out as it flew towards them, but it had landed safely short.  “Sorry about that”, I said.  He replied enthusiastically.  “No worries, I really love watching you guys play, it looks really athletic.”  Moments like that – sharing a little smile and the respect of a stranger, introducing a passer-by to the sport, or watching an amazing athlete execute an impressive play – that’s what the Spirit of UItimate is all about.


Richard Moore has played Ultimate for over thirteen years and has been proud to play on teams in London and Sydney that consistently won prizes for showing good spirit.  After reaping the benefits of volunteer-organised leagues and tournaments, Richard has joined the WFDF Spirit of the Game Committee this year, hoping to put something back into the sport.  You can follow the Australian teams’ progress at the World Ultimate and Guts Championships from July 7-14 here.