It is a gathering of the best ultimate players this country has to offer. And if many of the almost 2,000 competitors coming to Vancouver for the Canadian Ultimate Championships from August 12 to 18 have their way, one day an event like this will serve as a steppingstone to something considerably bigger: the Olympics.
Right now, the world championships every four years are as far as the flying-disc enthusiasts can go with their game.
However, there is a movement with some momentum pushing for the sport’s inclusion in a future Olympiad. It’s a long shot, to be sure, but it’s one the global ultimate community—including many in this country—is willing to take. The World Flying Disc Federation has already been recognized by the International Olympic Committee, which is a positive first step in what will likely be a lengthy journey.
“That was a big issue for us, to have the IOC make us one of their member federations,” Brian Gisel, the head of the local organizing committee for the 2013 nationals, tells the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to be in the Olympics the next time around. The biggest barrier is that the Olympics are being very conscious about total number of athletes, and being a team sport, that’s put a bit of a noose around ultimate. When they’re kicking out sports like baseball and softball, we’ve got a bit of a battle. But I would argue that ultimate is played seriously in many more countries than baseball or softball is.”
The ultimate played on fields at the University of British Columbia during the national championships will showcase the passion and enthusiasm of the sport’s best players. Top teams from across the country will be vying for titles in five divisions: open, women’s, mixed, masters, and junior.
Gisel says spectators attending the competition should pay special attention to the mixed division because he strongly believes that’s where the sport might stand its best chance of a serious look from the IOC.
“Being sensitive to the total number of athletes, we’d propose a mixed division would be the only division that would be put in,” he explains. “And from a promotional point of view, that would be quite interesting, having men and women playing alongside each other for a single medal. That is something that no other sport has even dreamed about doing.”
In a day and age when so many sports are dogged by doping scandals and the ethics of so many athletes are being called into question, ultimate stands alone at the other end of the fair-play spectrum, Gisel says. It’s a sport that doesn’t require a referee or any other type of on-field official.
“That was something that was previously seen as a detriment, but now people are starting to see it as a benefit,” he says of the self-refereed sport. “And we’ve had a lot of different sports organizations from around the world come out and watch with interest, and they’re almost always amazed that ultimate can be played at its highest levels without officials.”
Gisel, a long-time participant in the sport, organized and competed in the event the last time the nationals were held in this city, in 2004. But because of the growth of ultimate generally and this tournament specifically over the years, he has stepped away as a competitor this time to devote all his energy to ensuring the competition runs as smoothly as possible.
And Gisel is certain that anyone attending these nationals will be amazed by the action—the same types of thrills the world will see if ultimate ever gains the approval of the IOC.
“When you start getting to that highest level of athlete, the throws are crisper, the defence is better, people are running harder,” he says of the difference between the recreational ultimate played by more than 4,000 people in Vancouver and the highly competitive version of the sport that will be on display at UBC.
“It’s an exciting game and it’s a great spectator sport. It can hold its own with pretty much any sport. It’s a highlight-reel sport every game. It’s not one or two amazing things that happen in a game, it’s 10 or 20.”
And one of the things that have Gisel most excited about this year’s nationals is what’s at stake beyond bragging rights and places on podiums. The top three teams in each of the open, women’s, mixed, and masters divisions will earn berths in the World Ultimate Club Championships next year in Italy.
That means the gold-medal games in those divisions will determine national champions, while the bronze-medal games will provide plenty to play for as well.
“It’s exciting for us because we’re not just saying you have to win it all to move on to the world club championships,” he says. “Every team that medals will get that chance. We’re going to have some really hotly contested bronze-medal games at our event, for sure. Some years, the bronze-medal game is sort of forgotten about, but this year it’s going to have significant meaning.”
So, without question, the stakes will be high at this year’s nationals. The best of the best will be crowned Canadian champions and will earn the right to take their game to another level. And although the World Ultimate Club Championships are certainly something to shoot for, the competitors in town for this month’s tournament also hope they will one day have the chance to play for much more. There is no doubt that Olympic gold would be the ultimate glory.