Will Ultimate Ever be an Olympic Sport?

Published in Ultimatum 2012


Ultimate was invented in 1968 and is now played by millions in over 75 countries around the world. As the sport has grown in participation and recognition, and with this year’s 2012 Olympic Games being hosted by London, the question has been raised again of it being played in the Olympics. Despite the fact that getting onto the Olympics programme is especially tough for team sports in the age where Olympic villages have sprawled out of control. So why should Ultimate deserve consideration? Here are five reasons:

1. Spirit of the Game

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) website outlines seven “Fundamental Principles of Olympism”. Among them, it states: “Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles … Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Ultimate is played, even at the highest levels of the sport, without referees, under a concept called Spirit of the Game. We believe that Ultimate embraces the Olympic ideal. Athletes are challenged to play within the spirit of the rules and, surprising to some, this self-governing principle works remarkably well.

2. Participation

The World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) estimates that Ultimate is currently played by 7 million people worldwide, of which 2.2 million athletes play actively (more than 12 times per year). In the most scientific survey, per the results provided in the 2011 Sports and Fitness Participation Report conducted annually by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), there were 4.7 million people who played Ultimate in the USA alone in 2010. Core participants, defined as those playing 13 or more times per year, were estimated to be 1.52 million. This is similar to participation in gymnastics with 4.8 million total participants and 1.89 million core participants, and compares favourably to more established team sports in the USA such as field hockey (1.3 million/0.64 million, respectively), lacrosse (1.6 million/0.90 million), or rugby (1.1 million/0.37 million).

In addition to our competitive athletes, almost everyone has at some time in their life thrown a flying disc, whether at the beach, in the garden, or in the park. The “Frisbee” is familiar to most potential spectators, and its flight path continues to fascinate.

3. Competition

Since the first World Ultimate Championship, which was held in 1983 in Sweden, Ultimate has moved to a quadrennial competition format between national teams and clubs. The latest World Ultimate Championship was just held in Osaka, Japan with 23 nations and 1,400 athletes competing in five divisions. The next World Ultimate Club Championship will be held in 2014 with over 160 clubs and 3,500 athletes expected. Our World Juniors Championship was held this August in Dublin, Ireland with nearly 1,000 boys and girls competing.

In addition to competitions held under the auspices of WFDF, Ultimate has also participated in the World Games since 2001. The World Games, first held in 1981, are an international multi- sport event, meant for sports that are not contested in the Olympic Games. The World Games are organised and governed by the International World Games Association (IWGA), under the patronage of the IOC. Some of the other sports that are currently held at the World Games are squash, netball, racquetball and water skiing. Several sports that were on the programme of the World Games eventually made it as Olympic sports (such as triathlon and rugby sevens) or have been Olympic sports in the past (like tug of war).

4. Organisation

Ultimate has been organised on an international basis since the formation of WFDF in 1985. Out of the over 75 countries in which Ultimate is played today, WFDF has 54 Member associations in Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania, and North and South America. Our Member associations reported that they had 97,925 members in our 2012 annual census, comprised of the top competitive athletes. Of the total, 34% are women, and 90% of such members are 35 years of age or younger. The most significant growth today is being seen out of Latin America and Eastern Europe, as well as with juniors in the USA.

WFDF is a member of SportAccord (one of 90 international sports federations) and the IWGA. It is also a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Agency code. WFDF submitted an application to the IOC in April 2012 for official “recognition” under the Olympic guidelines. There are currently 32 international sports federations that comprise the Association of IOC Recognised International Sports Federations (ARISF), sports that have official recognition but are not a part of the Olympic event programme yet. We believe we meet all criteria for approval and would hope to receive consideration by the end of the year.

5. Attractive Sport

Ultimate is a fast-paced game that is fun to watch. There are field- length hucks, diving defensive plays, hard man-to-man coverage, and intricate throws taking advantage of the characteristics of how the disc reacts to the wind. Ultimate is very much a “young” sport, with toned, fit, good-looking athletes. Unlike certain established sports that are much slower-paced and increasingly only appreciated by a greying audience, Ultimate is an up-and-coming sport which is well known by the younger generation and which meets today’s spectator expectations.

The sport was featured at the National Stadium in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and the finals drew nearly 50,000 spectators. We also have a beach variant of the sport, with the latest World Championship of Beach Ultimate held last summer in Lignano Sabbiadoro, Italy, drawing 1,200 athletes.

The road to the Olympics

In order to promote the Olympic Movement, the IOC can recognise any international non-governmental organisation that administers one or more sports at world level and encompassing organisations administering such sports at national level as an International Federation (IF).

How can a sport be recognised?

In order to be recognised, these organisations must apply the Olympic Movement Anti-Doping Code and conduct effective out-of- competition tests in accordance with the established rules. The statutes, practices and activities of the IF must also fit the guidelines established in the Olympic Charter.

WFDF applied for official ”recognition“ by the IOC earlier this year, with 54 member countries. The minimum number of countries for such recognition is 50. We see this as an important first step in the overall process, and would hope to have some response by the end of the year.

What are the criteria?

Any sport is eligible to become a medal sport as long as it can meet certain criteria:

1. The first step to becoming a recognised sport of the Summer Games requires being organised into an IF who can apply on behalf of the sport. Someone must fill in the application.

2. A sport must also be popular in many countries. Each federation must have male participants in at least 75 countries on four continents and female participants in at least 40 countries on three continents.

3. The potential Olympic sport must support ranked events. Any event which competes as an Olympic sport or competes within one of its disciplines will provide scores, timing or another method of measuring competitors. These measures will result in a ranking at the end of the event and will lead to the award of medals, ribbons, certificates or other non-monetary recognition of the rank earned.

4. The sport must hold competition events on a world level. To be included in the Olympic programme, an event must be recognised internationally in both participant numbers and geographically. An event is required to have featured at least twice in world or continental championships.

5. Physical not mechanical athletic performance is required. Sports, disciplines or events in which performance depends essentially on mechanical propulsion (e.g. Formula 1) are not acceptable.

Once the IOC votes to recognise a federation, the next step becomes a matter of lobbying. Organised and consistent lobbying is needed to help promote selection over other sports. This should be done without bribery, which is banned from Olympic sports promotional activity.

A prospective Olympic sport will sometimes make its first appearance as demonstration or non-medal winning sport before becoming an official Olympic sport. Demonstration sports were originally performed to expose any athletic activities that were unique to the host country at the Games, but now they are a useful part of the process used by new sports that want to become official sports. Since it is easier to get into the Olympics under the umbrella of an existing sport, some federations give up on the quest for solo recognition and allow themselves to become a discipline. This results in a loss of independence with the addition of the economic rewards of Olympic status.

There are three ways an activity can come into the Olympics:

• As a completely new sport and federation as described above

• As a new discipline that is a branch of an existing Olympic sport

• As a new event that is a competition within an existing discipline

Who decides which sports are accepted?

The admission or exclusion of any sport falls within the jurisdiction of the IOC Session of the IOC Executive Board. The IOC process requires seven years for a new sport to be added.

Unfortunately, Ultimate will not likely be in the Olympics for several more decades, at best. It is a matter of the numbers of participating countries (see criterion 3 above) and many other things, as described earlier.

Robert “Nob” Rauch, WFDF President