In a sports culture dominated by elite academies and finely crafted super-athletes, there’s an irreverent newcomer on the scene. For the past decade Ultimate Frisbee (极限飞盘 jíxiàn fēipán) has slowly been gaining a foothold at universities across the country, bringing with it a culture and community that many young Chinese thirst for. Operating largely outside of official university auspices, “Ultimate” offers young Chinese and their foreign teammates the kind of fun conspicuously absent from most sports experiences at universities on the Chinese mainland, blending athletic competition, travel, intercultural exchange and a little bit of craziness. This year, a season’s-worth of competition will culminate in the China Nationals, held May 19-20 in Beijing.
Ultimate Frisbee (officially called “Ultimate” as “Frisbee” is a brand name) developed across America in the 1970s, evolving into one of the fastest growing sports in the world today. Played on a 110 x 37 meter field, the sport is similar in game-play to American football, but without contact or stoppages in play.
From humble beginnings 20 years ago, Ultimate in China has spread to over 15 cities and more than 25 teams. Beijing alone boasts six competing squads. Most Chinese teams emerge from university campuses, while first-tier cities have squads largely made up of ex-pats who bring skills developed in their home countries. Beijing’s Big Brother (大哥) and Shanghai’s Huwa (沪蛙) consistently rank among the top teams in Asia, while of the Chinese squads Tianjin Speed (天津速度) and a team of Hong Kong nationals regularly emerge triumphant.
Asian Ultimate is gender-mixed, meaning most games will feature men and women playing together. Competition is always structured around weekend tournaments (公开赛, gōngkāi sài) 48-hour marathons that include half-a-dozen games, a raucous party and very little sleep. With Chinese university dorms strictly gender-segregated and most student groups engaging in activities little more exciting than promoting Leifeng’s legacy, this gives Chinese students a rare chance to travel, play and stay together.
After cramming onto overnight trains, teams will compete all day, with just a second to catch their breath before the Saturday night party. Usually hosted off-campus, an Ultimate tournament party is about as far removed as it’s possible to get from the monotony of Chinese undergraduate life. In between drinking competitions and toasts to the best plays of the day, you’ll find Chinese players from around the country putting a face to the QQ persona they’ve been chatting with for months.
“Are you ‘Beijing Bella’ from QQ?”
Nǐ shì bù shì QQ shàng de ‘Běijīng Bella’?
“Yea, are you Kai from the Xi’an Roujiamo? How have things been coming along with your team?”
Duì a, nǐ shì xī’ān ròu jiā mó de’kǎigē’ma? Nǐ nà biān de duì fāzhǎn de zěnmeyang?
It’s this sense of community that brings a lot Chinese players into the sport, and the chance to connect with foreigners is an added bonus. Many Chinese teams were founded by a foreigner who brought their love of the sport to a new city. Tournaments are cultural and linguistic mishmashes. Strategy is often explained in Chinese with most Frisbee specific terms (“forehand,” “stall”) spoken in English. For many players from third-tier Chinese cities, Ultimate tournaments are their first chance to interact with foreigners. These meetings are cultural exchanges in their best sense: unforced, fun and involving meaningful time spent together.
Attending his first Ultimate tournament turned out to be a life-changing experience for Wuyi Kai (吴祎恺). After playing at last year’s China Nationals tournament, he returned to his university in Xi’an and founded the first-ever Ultimate team in the city: The Xi’an Roujiamo (西安 肉夹馍). “Frisbee not only brought me happy times, but also a happier attitude to life,” Kai wrote to me shortly after attending the tournament. “Before I found this sport, I was afraid of the idea of intensely competing for something, so I always thought I couldn’t really fight for what I wanted. But when I throw the Frisbee it feels good, and I’m no longer afraid of the defenders or of failure.”
Over the May 19 and 20 weekend, a new batch of players will have a chance to enjoy this kind of transformative experience when the China Nationals returns to Beijing. Registration is still open to teams and individual players. Complete beginners and experienced players are welcome to sign up by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. Spectators will be cramming in to Bayhood No. 9 Golf Course to watch the finals and enjoy the all-you-can-drink beer on Sunday afternoon. Directions to the fields can be found at http://www.zhongguofeipan.com/?page_id=9. For more information visit www.zhongguofeipan.com or contact email@example.com.
Ultimate Frisbee? Easy enough to understand. But shuttlecock, that game you see played on every Beijing street corner? What’s that all about?