Olympic Special Feature: Is Ultimate Frisbee Worthy of Olympic Status?

To mark the beginning of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Hanna Kim, an accomplished Ultimate Frisbee player, offers a brief history of “Ultimate” and an analysis of whether her chosen game could gain Olympic status.


The Olympic games will bring together the best athletes from across the globe and showcase the world’s favorite sports.  However, noticeably absent from the mix is the ultimate sport.  It’s the sport that you might have played in college, the sport that your daughter enjoys playing in gym class and the one that you notice being played when you drive by your local park after work.  It’s not the activity that you pursue with your dog in your backyard or that leisurely pastime on the beach.  It’s Ultimate Frisbee.


Despite the athleticism, stamina, skill and coordination required to play Ultimate Frisbee, or “Ultimate” as the players call it, many neither respect nor consider Ultimate a sport.  Although official recognition as an Olympic sport would likely elevate its perception by the general public from what many currently consider a “hippie sport” to a more mainstream sport, the criteria necessary for Ultimate to meet in order to qualify for the Olympic Games is arduous.  Still, due to Ultimate’s quick rise in popularity, I foresee that Ultimate will become a recognized Olympic sport one day in the near future.


Brief History

Ultimate was born in 1968 in Maplewood, New Jersey by a group of innovative Columbia High School students.  One of those student was Joel Silver, now a major Hollywood movie producer who has produced titles such as Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and the Matrix series.  The first official rules of the game were subsequently recorded in 1970, and the game has spread quickly ever since.  Currently, Ultimate is played by more than 824,000 people in the United States, and is played in more than 42 countries.  Here in the United States, there are teams at middle schools, high schools, colleges (the college championship this year were broadcasted on CBS College Sports), as well as teams that play at the club, summer league, intramural, and national levels.  In total, there are 181 leagues in the United States and 77 internationally. 


Basic Rules

The game of Ultimate is best described as a fusion of the non-stop movement and athletic endurance of soccer and the transitions and quick turnovers of basketball, with the aerial passing skills of football.  The field is similar to a football field, and seven play on each team at one time.  The objective of the game is to score a point in the opponent’s endzone by catching a pass.  Games are usually played to 15 points with half-time after 8 points, and last about one and a half hours. 


Although similar to traditional sports in many respects, the self-officiating among players and its intricate rules make Ultimate unique.  At the start of each point each team lines up at their respective endzones, and the team on defense throws off the Frisbee to the offensive team.  On offense, players pass the Frisbee to one another and the defense attempts to intercept the Frisbee or to cause a drop by the other team.  Whenever a player has possession of the Frisbee, a defender “stalls” that player, counting steadily to ten.  If the thrower does not get rid of the Frisbee within those ten seconds, it is considered a turnover.  Players may not run while in possession of the Frisbee, but may pivot and pass to any of his or her teammates on the field.  Ultimate’s most distinctive feature, however, is the concept of the “Spirit of the Game,” a tradition of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the players rather than referees.


Olympic Sport Recognition Criteria

Any sport is eligible to become a medal sport as long as it can be scored and meets certain criteria.  A prospective Olympic sport should be recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for several years and must also reach certain standards of activity, competition and membership around the world before passing through a provisional status for about two years.  Further, the organizer for an Olympic Game must propose the IOC to insert one or more new sports into the program.  Prospective Olympic sports often first appear as demonstration or non-medal sports before becoming full-fledged Olympic sports. 


Many sports are not included in the Olympic program but are “recognized” by the IOC.  A sport is added to the list of recognized Olympic sports if the IOC determines that it is widely practiced around the world.  That is, the number of countries that compete in a given sport is the indicator of the sport’s prevalence.  Accordingly, the sport must be widely practiced in at least 75 countries on four continents for men’s summer sports, 40 countries on three continents for women’s summer sports, and 25 countries on three continents for winter sports.  Because of these demanding prerequisites, even highly popular sports in the United States, such as lacrosse and American football, are unlikely to become Olympic sports any time soon.


Once recognized, a sport may be added to the Olympic program in future Games as result of a recommendation of the IOC Olympic Program Commission, followed by a voting of the IOC membership. Usually, the sport appeared as a demonstration sport or event of similar status before being officially promoted.  Recognized sports that are not part of the competition schedule for an Olympic Games usually become part of the schedule of the World Games.


Organized and governed by the International World Games Association (IWGA), under the IOC, the World Games are an international event meant for sports that are not contested in the Olympic Games.  Past participants of the World Games include triathlon, which eventually made it as an Olympic sport, and tug of war, which was an Olympic sport previously.  Participation in past World Games is a criteria used to select new Olympic sports.  However, the IOC’s current position to limit the Olympic Games to 10,500 participants makes it less likely that many of the World Games sports will be elevated to the Olympic sports.


Ultimate is Olympic-Worthy

For many years, the Ultimate Players Association (UPA), the governing organization for Ultimate in the United States, and the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) have been working together to achieve the best presentation of Ultimate.  In 2001, a major milestone occurred when Ultimate was included in the World Games for the first time as a full medal sport.  However, before it can be eligible to be in the Olympic Games, Ultimate must experience a tremendous increase in its popularity on an international level.  I remain optimistic that the addicting game of Ultimate will spread far and wide enough so that it can be recognized as an Olympic sport one day in the near future.  If Silver was able to create movies with so much international appeal, I believe the sport he created has promise to reach similar success. 


Hanna Kim is a 2L at the University of Connecticut School of Law and has been an avid Ultimate player for over a decade.  In 1998, she represented the United States at the WFDF Championships in Germany and brought home the gold medal in the Junior Women’s division.  Hanna can be reached at [email protected].


  1. Frank Costello says:

    Hi Hanna-

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  6. Kevin says:

    Ultimate frisbee doesn’t have to be in the Olympics to be really significant. It is, however, on the verge of exploding to be mainstream.

  7. anita says:

    Oh same here i only get to play ultimate Frisbee during my gym class, I love this sport so so much! But there are times when i wish i could play it more and more not just for a class. To me… its the same as any other sport. Love this blog! .. hopefully it will come faster :D


  1. [...] who have contributed to Connecticut Sports Law as guest bloggers.  Ben Berger, Jarett Warner, Hanna Kim, Gary Solomon, Marilee Corr, Rob Romano, Tim Cedrone, and Dan Canavan - thank you for your fine [...]

  2. [...] I did find this interesting article about frisbee trying to become an Olympic or recognized sport: Olympic Special Feature: Is Ultimate Frisbee Worthy of Olympic Status? CONNECTICUT SPORTS LAW Now to stand on my soapbox and state my opinion. I am not a fan of cheer. I will never be a fan of [...]

  3. [...] For more of Hanna’s Ultimate Frisbee coverage, see the post Olympic Special Feature: Is Ultimate Frisbee Worthy of Olympic Status? [...]

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