Yesterday I hinted at why playing sports yourself differs from watching sports, especially the big ones.
Why not promote interactions through the big sports, like basketball, soccer, Olympics, and so on?
First, I don’t discourage them, but I would point out their size, scale, and corporate and government backing make everyday human interaction more difficult. All the profit available makes them easy pickings for rent-seeking government bureaucrats and corporations. As it stood for our little Ultimate tournament, the government charged us an amount for using the fields that would have been hefty in the U.S.
Watching sports doesn’t promote interaction like playing them. Ultimate, while played around the world, remains a relatively small sport with a very tight community. Since the media don’t cover it much (despite its superiority to nearly every other team sport on any meaningful measure of a sport, at least in my opinion, except having been around for a long time), nearly everyone involved with the sport plays or once played.
As a result, promoting ultimate promotes direct interaction. Promoting soccer or baseball will inevitably involve FIFA or the NFL, which will involve a lot of money, and therefore governments, and get games into stadiums where the ratio of players to non-players will decrease.
I can’t speak about ping pong in China in the 70s, but in the U.S. it remains a fun, family game. We may know some high-level competition exists, but most of us don’t care. So when we read then about Chinese players touring the country, we probably thought “Wow, that’s something I never would have thought of” and read more about it — as opposed to something like “I bet they’re spying on us.” I suspect the Chinese would have thought, regarding our players touring there, something like “We’re the best so we know we’ll beat them, but I wonder what will come of it,” but what do I know?
Another thing about Ultimate is that it requires almost no equipment. You need a disc and a field. You can use cleats but you don’t have to. The game explicitly uses no referees so you don’t need extra personnel. You don’t need goalposts. You don’t even need to line the fields. You can just put eight cones at the end zone corners. If you don’t have cones, a pile of clothes will do, as I’ve used in many games.
Also, the tightness and global enthusiasm of the Ultimate community helps a lot. I would bet most players who have played competitively are no more than two degrees of separation from any other player in their country, meaning nearly everyone has at least one mutual friend in their country. And that at least one player in each country would know a player in at least two dozen other countries.
So the community is tight and global. No one is in it for the money, since so far there hardly is any. People are in it for the fun of the game.
Finally and, in my opinion, most importantly, Ultimate highly values the spirit of the game, to the point of it being the first rule in the book:
From the rule book’s preface:
The integrity of Ultimate depends on each player’s responsibility to uphold the Spirit of the Game, and this responsibility should remain paramount.
The first rule in the book, coming only after the game’s description
Spirit of the Game: Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate unsportsmanlike conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting opposing players, dangerous aggression, belligerent intimidation, intentional infractions, or otherwin-at-all-costsbehavior are contrary to the spirit of the game and must be avoided by all players.
As a result, everyone who plays learns to respect each other, not to call bogus fouls, and not to try to get away with cheating. Players who violate this community norm get shunned, even by their own teammates who might nominally benefit from winning a point here or there. This spirit infuses all competition and would infuse any games in North Korea.
I’m not writing this post to extol Ultimate’s values. I’m writing this series extol the values of playing sports in general to promote understanding and cooperation and thaw distrust among nations and cultures like North Korea’s. Ultimate just happens to rank highly.
I’m sure other team sports exist that require so little equipment and provide so much activity and interaction, but I can’t think of them now. Volleyball could work. Many non-team sports could do. I don’t think ping pong would work as well today with North Korea, though, of course, having worked once means a lot.
If you love your sport other than ultimate or ping pong, give it a shot too.
EDIT: just after posting, I realized today is the New York City Marathon, which I believe is the most attended sporting event in the world. I suspect a marathon would work great too.