1968, a group of high school students invented a game that would eventually entice thousands of players. The game, known as "Ultimate," was played with a plastic disc or "frisbee," and was an inventive cross between football and soccer. Emphasizing "Spirit of the Game," a philosophy that invokes good sportsmanship and self-refereeing and rejects win-at-all-cost attitudes in favor of fun, Ultimate became known as an anti-establishment sport that welcomed pot-smokers and hippies as well as more serious athletes.
Relying on participant observation, interviews with players, and an analysis of primary sources and newspaper articles, this study looks at the ways in which players and promoters of Ultimate have linked the sport to the culture and politics of the Sixties and Seventies, laying claim to a "countercultural" ethos—effectively "spinning" the sport's narrative to position Ultimate as an alternative to mainstream sport. Yet, a tremendous influx of youth players over the past decade has made Ultimate an increasingly popular, competitive, and "mainstream" sport. As Ultimate teeters on the brink of mainstream acceptance, players, organizers, and journalists remain uncertain of the sport's future and confused about its past. In addition, between the rhetoric that surrounds the sport and the real experience of its players there are fissures and gaps.
This study examines the extent to which Ultimate actually arose out of the "counterculture," whether the sport can truly offer a viable alternative to mainstream sport, how women and players of color have functioned within the culture of Ultimate, and whether the sport offers players space in which to critique mainstream sport and negotiate constructions of race, gender, and class. In addition, this study attempts to ascertain the impact of increasing publicity, professionalization, and popularity on this grassroots sport. Ultimate provides a case study of the ways in which tensions are expressed and negotiated as alternative sports become mainstream.
A study of Ultimate reveals significant ways in which rhetoric departs from reality, suggesting that while Ultimate may provide a space in which to negotiate and reflect on the problems inherent in mainstream sport, it has not fully escaped them.