Keith Elliott at Large: The Ultimate experience of flying saucers: It is simple, fast and exhausting but it has an image problem. Can throwing a Frisbee be a serious sport?

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The Independent Online
BEFORE I went to the British Championships at Oxford, I was convinced that a holidaying German must have invented the game of Frisbee. Like its seaside cousins the Beach Ball and the Noisy Wooden Bat, it is ideal for those who like to demonstrate their physical prowess and drive to dementia more slothful sojourners.

Except that its true followers would never stoop to chasing the saucer-shaped disc across the sand. And far from being the holiday equivalent of football hooliganism, with the subtlety of a wet T-shirt competition, it is a highly athletic, tactical sport demanding peak fitness.

It isn't called Frisbee either.

'That's the name of a manufacturer,' Toby Green explained patiently. 'We don't even use that brand for competition. The sport is called Ultimate, because the people who started it thought that it was the ultimate game.'

A modest name like that gives you a clue to Ultimate's genesis. Back in 1967, a group of college students at Columbia High School, in New Jersey, invented a team game that combined American football and throwing an aerodynamic disc, but without the bone-crunching violence.

True, it still has some way to travel before it rivals the popularity of its parent, but next August in Colchester, more than 20 nations, including New Zealand, Venezuela and Japan, will contest the week-long World Ultimate Championships.

This is impressive growth for a sport with no money and no rules - though it may be forced to introduce a few to counter what the Japanese tried at the 1992 world championships. Ultimate, you see, demands tremendous fitness to cover the 120-yard playing area, with games lasting at least an hour and players running all the time. It is seven-a-side, though teams are usually drawn from a squad of about 15, who are substituted constantly (as in American football).

The Japanese, however, took it a stage further and turned up with four well-drilled teams of seven who were substituted after every point to keep them fresh. 'It wasn't quite in the spirit of the game,' the British team manager, Simon Moore, said drily.

It's very simple to play. The team with the disc pass it with the aim of scoring a point by catching it in the end zone. They lose possession if it hits the ground, is intercepted by an opponent or is not passed within 10 seconds. Zone defences and named plays are much in evidence, a reminder of its gridiron parentage. There is no offside, no time-wasting and physical contact is not allowed. 'The ideal player is someone who can handle (Ultimatespeak for throw), receive well and work in the end zone,' said Green, acting chairman of the British Ultimate Federation. It also helps if they are as tall as Shaquille O'Neal and as fast as a drug-enhanced Ben Johnson.

'It is terrific for getting fit,' Green said. 'And to play in tournaments, you have to be very fit indeed. In the European tournaments, you will play two or three times a day for a week, and a game can last for two hours.' Though teams can take a time-out, there are no official breaks. The game ends when a team has scored 20 points, or play has lasted for two hours, though truncated versions are often played to avoid killing all the participants.

Rob Phillips, of Sutton, south London, one of Britain's star players, confirms the high fitness that Ultimate demands. 'You have to do a lot of training to play this game at a high level,' he said. 'I run every day and do circuit training. I play most sports, but this is the fastest and hardest of the lot. In my book, it's the ultimate sport, easy to learn but very tactical at the higher levels.'

He's been playing since he was a junior and, like all the leading exponents, can throw the disc from one end zone to a player 100 yards away. But long-range plays are rarely seen in competition, where possession is nine-tenths of the lore. The other key tactic is using different throws to alter the disc's flight.

'Though beginners use the backhand, you have to learn the forehand and the overhead throws,' Green said. 'Sometimes we use the upside-down throw too. The overhead is very effective against a zonal defence because it comes in a banana-shaped curve and you can put it over the top of defenders. The different throws require different grips and different ways of catching.'

Hanging on to the disc is perhaps the most spectacular part of the game (and the thing that makes it such an attraction for seaside show-offs). Soaring leaps and sensational diving catches make Ultimate exciting to watch, though the British Championships last week drew only a handful of spectators and even next year's world event is unlikely to result in diversions around Colchester.

It should, however, result in a better British showing than in the 1990 world championships, when our lads were second from last. The squad of 30 (Graham Taylor take note) has been together all this year and practises weekly in the summer. 'We had a run of bad results so we put together a new management team, and it's had a terrific effect,' said Green, marketing manager for an Oxford publishing house. 'We were fourth in the European Championships this summer.'

Now Ultimate's problem is to get non-participants to take the sport as seriously. It doesn't help the sport's image when celebrities such as the England rugby international Gareth Chilcott describe it derisively as 'nan bread-throwing'.

'It's very hard,' Green admits. 'But when I was at university, I challenged our rugby team when they laughed at us and said anybody could play it. We ran them off the park.'

The British team is practising on Hampstead Heath in London this Sunday from 11am.

(Photograph omitted)