Who won this year’s IPL ‘fair play’ award? Chances are you don’t have a clue. ‘Fair play’, ‘spirit of the game’, ‘sportsmanship’ are largely hollow terms — administrative lip service paid to an ideal scoffed at by most players and fans of mainstream sports. Sandpaper manufacturers are said to be especially averse to it. The dominant sporting narratives of victor and vanquished, of tribal loyalties, of athletic competition as quasi-war allow little space for probity.
A fledgling sport is attempting to carve out that space.
Ultimate Frisbee was introduced to India by graduates returning from American universities in the late 1990s and has since taken root across the country with more than a hundred amateur clubs currently playing under the aegis of the Ultimate Players Association of India (UPAI) — the national governing body. At first glance, the rules of the game seem quaint. There are no referees, with the seven-member teams self-officiating calls and sorting out disagreements among themselves; even at the highest levels of the game. Imagine an India-Pakistan cricket match or a Manchester
United-Liverpool Premier League game without umpires or referees. Heads would roll. Literally.
“The underlying ethos behind ‘the spirit of the game’ is that every player competes hard but respects the opponent and self. While it is an ideology that seems counter to prevailing sporting culture, it’s that key aspect of our sport that has been identified by the International Olympic Committee when it recognised the sport in 2013,” says Manickam Narayanan, the current president of the UPAI.
The spirit of fair play, of conflict resolution and negotiation is part of the sport’s DNA; something which is inculcated in new recruits from the very beginning. ‘Spirit’ scores — calculated across various metrics like Rules Knowledge and Use, Fouls and Body Contact (which is not allowed), Fair-Mindedness, Positive Attitude and Self-Control are put up at the end of each tournament. Unlike in the IPL, they matter. Spirit winners consider it a matter of pride and are accorded the same respect as teams that rank highly in the competition.
This ethos has made Ultimate Frisbee a favourite among NGOs working with underprivileged children in a bid to assimilate them into wider society and empower them with life skills. Perhaps the most vital attribute of Ultimate in India is its emphasis on gender parity. Any team wishing to enrol in a UPAI-affiliated tournament must have a minimum of six girls and six boys in the squad, with at least three from each gender on the field at any given time. NGOs working in far-flung corners of the country - in the aridity of Rajasthan, the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh and the mountain ranges of Tamil Nadu and Assam - have adopted this culture. Boys and girls must play together. In a country steeped in patriarchy, these interactions are invaluable.
“Boys started helping their sisters in housework so that they [sisters] could also come to play,” says Chiai Uraguchi, who’s involved with One All — a Chennai-based NGO which uses Ultimate to “engage youth, develop empathy and bridge gender gaps”.
Three years ago, One All convinced teachers working with Adivasi children in remote areas around Gudalur in the Nilgiris to include Ultimate in the curriculum. A year later, a formal life-skills-based Ultimate programme was introduced. The impact has been palpable.
“Earlier the girls wouldn’t even sit or stand next to the boys but now the interactions are so much more confident and spontaneous,” according to Badichi, one of the Gudalur teachers.
Having role models helps. Selvi M grew up in Auroville, Tamil Nadu and endured a difficult childhood during which her parents divorced and her mother, a cook, had to take care of Selvi and her brother.
“My mom, brother and I faced a lot of troubles — we didn’t have a stable place to stay,” she reveals. Things improved when her mother married a Swiss national, a gardener, in Auroville. Having been introduced to Ultimate by one of her teachers in Class 12, today Selvi is a national player who is part of the Indian team headed to Shirahama, Japan for the 2019 Asia-Oceanic Beach Ultimate Championships from June 13-16. Her visit to Gudalur as part of an internship with One All was transformative.
“Selvi came from a difficult background but her parents are fully supportive of her because she plays for the national team. Everyone in and around her village is talking about her because she’s playing for India,” says Parvathi, another teacher from Gudalur. “Once parents see someone who comes from a similar background, it’s easy for them to relate and want the same for their daughters.”
Similar stories abound across India. The Action Northeast Trust (Ant) in Assam, Project KHEL in Lucknow, Kshamtalaya in Rajasthan, One All and Pudiyador in Tamil Nadu are but a few prominent NGOs partnering with UPAI to teach children about tolerance, inclusivity, gender and teamwork. For its part, UPAI wants to “enable our partner agencies to use the sport as a tool for their social work”, says Manickam. “We sincerely believe that playing the sport will help individuals become better citizens, healthy in body and mind.”
Ultimate faces significant challenges in this quest. It is yet to be recognised by the government, so funding comes largely from the players themselves — membership to the UPAI costs around Rs 300 a year – and corporate benefactors. The ministry of youth and sports affairs regulations mandate the existence of at least 20 affiliated state-level bodies before a sport is eligible for financial support and sporting infrastructure from the Sports Authority of India.
UPAI currently has 14, with three more in the works. The magic number of 20 will hopefully be breached in a few years. Until then, the sport will be bootstrapping its way to help create a fairer, more inclusive society. It must, for every little bit helps.
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