Playing The Ultimate Game -- `Ultimate Frisbee' Tests Ability And Spirit

Associated Press newswoman Kathryn Crawford is a beginning player of the game she writes about in this story and plays in the Seattle Fall League.

The only dogs involved in the game of "ultimate" are the ones lining the playing field, gazing after the humans running and catching that familiar flying disc.

Ultimate, thought up two decades ago by a couple of teen-agers in a New Jersey parking lot, is a rapidly growing sport in this country and around the world.

With its roots in hippie, free-love culture, ultimate is self-governed and has no need for uniformed referees. The 14 players on the field - seven to a side - make their own calls, adhering with an almost religious reverence to the "spirit" of the game.

The sport has been growing in leaps and bounds from its unassuming origins on the Columbia High School parking lot in Maplewood, N.J. in 1968, where a handful of high school kids began throwing around the popular toy.

They made up some rules borrowed from basketball, football and soccer, named the game "ultimate" and passed it on to neighboring high schools, according to the Ultimate Players Association, the sport's governing body based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The idea is to throw the disc from player to player down the 70-yard field and score by catching it in the 25-yard end zone. No tackling or traveling is permitted, although the defense may intercept and block throws.

Columbia High graduates introduced the game at their respective colleges, and by 1975 about 25 university teams were competing in intercollegiate championships.

Played as far afield as Botswana, Venezuela, Iceland and New York City, over 36 countries now have ultimate organizations. In fact, Japan, Norway, Finland and Sweden subsidize the sport, and Japan even pays U.S. ultimate players to coach young Japanese teams, according to Cindy Fisher, managing director of the UPA.

Some 7,700 people belong to the UPA, but an estimated 35,000 others play more informally in the United States and another 5,000 around the world, Fisher said.

With no referees or umpires acting as babysitters, players are responsible for their own conduct, from national- and international-level tournaments to casual week-end pickup games.

As a result, honesty and good sportsmanship rule the game.

"Like many fast moving sports, ultimate is fiercely aggressive and the requirement to cooperate while competing makes ultimate a test of individual character as well as athletic ability - the ultimate human game," the UPA report for 1992 stated.

If a player feels he or she has been fouled, play stops in its tracks, no matter how egregious the call. And in fact, if the play becomes very unpleasant, a "spirit of the game" violation can be called, and play stops as the team captains discuss what to do about it, amid boos and hassling from spectators and team members alike.

"You play with a conscience," said Mike King, 31, a Seattle player with four years experience. "You play by the rules, because if you don't, bad things happen. You have to do what's in your conscience."

As a result, dirty players don't seem drawn to ultimate.

"I don't think other sports promote so much closeness," said Jim O'Donnell, a 33-year-old Seattle player who has played for the last 16 years.

"Ultimate attracts free-thinkers and non-conformists - the idea of referees goes against the basic principles of the game," said Evan Shopper, 26, of Seattle, who has played for the last eight years.

However, the lack of disinterested refs can sour the sport for many players.

"With ultimate, everyone thinks they know best how the sport should be played," said Shopper. "And the sport tends to attract strong personalities, which tend to get in the way of each other on the field.

"And the fact that regular people run things, rather than coaches, leads them to choose to play with their friends rather than with better players," said Shopper, who was cut from his team this fall.

However, because of its good-natured spirit, ultimate is accessible to the slow and clumsy who never thought of themselves as athletes, and to the athletically gifted tired of bloodying competition.

"The game attracts people across the board, not just jocks," said Jeff Jorgenson, a 39-year-old player who helped found the first Seattle ultimate team in 1978.

Jorgenson, now coaching coed children's ultimate, described parents' astonishment when their quiet, nerdy children begin throwing a disc, and the pride and self-esteem the game engendered.

The amount of skill involved in the game - the beautiful arcing throws and the quick precision passes, the wiliness of the cuts as players try to lose their defenders and the doggedness of the defense - levels the playing field for men and women.

"It is really a genderless game because ultimate possesses such an element of finesse," Jorgenson said. "Women can utilize that finesse because the game is not physically aggressive or intimidating."

At a recent co-ed tournament here, teams from all over the Northwest and British Columbia each played some nine games - lasting about two hours each - over a weekend.

"It's fun," said Cathleen Denton, 29, whose team, the "Mostess Ho-Hos" of Portland won the Potlatch tournament. "But it's especially fun when it's over - kind of like climbing a mountain."