Article reproduced courtesy of Associated Free Press and author Guy Newey.
FRISBEE TAKES OFF ACROSS ASIA
HONG KONG, Nov 27, 2007 (AFP) - Yuan Yuan and four of her teammates took a hard sleeper train 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometres) from the northern Chinese city of Tianjin to Hong Kong to spend a weekend chasing after a piece of plastic.
They joined more than 200 diplomats, bankers, students and accountants from across the Asia-Pacific region to play in the annual Hong Kong Pan-Asia Ultimate Tournament, a sport more commonly known as ultimate Frisbee.
The game, invented around 40 years ago by a group of students in New Jersey -- the founders were said to have named it as they did because they believed it was the "ultimate" sport -- has spread rapidly across Asia in the past decade.
Now it is showing signs of moving beyond the preserve of disc-chasing expats to become a genuinely popular sport among local residents.
China recently held its first national championships. The Philippine capital Manila runs a league with around 17 teams, including a squad of fishermen from Boracay who fly in every weekend to play. And Japan has what is believed to be the world's only semi-professional team.
"We have around 50 people playing in our team at university," Yuan said at last month's tournament.
"We got interested in the game and learnt it from a DVD first of all and then a Beijing player came to Tianjin and helped us some more. This is our first time to Hong Kong and everybody has been incredibly friendly."
The cost of the five players' journey from northern China to Hong Kong was paid for by international business software provider BEA, one of a growing number of sponsors who are taking an interest in the game.
Ultimate, which is often referred to simply as "disc" by aficionados, is a seven-a-side game played on a field the size of a football pitch.
Players are forbidden from running with the Frisbee and secure a point by catching the disc in the opposition endzone, as in American Football.
If the disc, which has a specific weight and dimensions, is grounded or intercepted, the opposing team attacks the other endzone. The game is played by men and women, often in mixed teams.
What really makes "ultimate" stand out from other sports is the absence of a referee.
Even in international competition, fouls are called by players and any disputes are decided by discussion, part of an abstract sense of fair play called "the spirit".
This emphasis on playing fairly and respecting opponents is at the centre of the game, has transferred well across cultures and is part of the attraction for local players.
"The sense of spirit -- and the partying -- definitely had an impact on the game's development in Manila," said Erik Waldie, a Canadian MBA student in Manila who moved to the Philippines to be with his girlfriend, who he met at an ultimate tournament. Ultimate couples are not unusual.
"Filipinos are a pretty jovial bunch and this fitted very well."
As well as Japan, the Philippines and Singapore have come closest to emulating the organised leagues that are found in many North American cities.
One of the Manila league's 17 teams comprises fishermen who picked up the game from tourists heading to the beach paradise of Boracay, south of the capital. Local hotels now sponsor them to travel to compete.
Tim Edwards, a Canadian diplomat based in Hong Kong and captain of the territory's team, says the sport has exploded since he first lived in the region 10 years ago, when only about four cities could be relied upon to send expat dominated teams to tournaments.
Competitions now take place almost every month in cities from Shanghai to Bangkok, and the Asian championships including teams from Australia and Japan will take place next month in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
"It is still a long way behind the north American scene, where you have enough players to differentiate between purely social players, league players and people who compete in international competitions," he said.
"But now you have the quality growing from grassroots players to back up the rotating expats who visit for the short term."
Edwards points to the success of the inaugural Chinese national championships earlier this year as the kind of initiative that needs to be encouraged for the game to take hold in China.
"Four of the eight teams were purely local, but every team had some local players," he said. "Many of them are based around sports universities, so they are great athletes, and if they learn the strategy and skills they could compete with the best."
Japan, however, remains the model for spreading ultimate across Asia.
The game took off there in the early 1980s and now has the world's only semi-professional team, the Buzz Bullets, whose players all work for the same company, which pays for them to travel across the world and compete, often successfully, against the best North American teams.