Disc World

Chennai’s Ultimate Frisbee players navigate one of India’s only mixed-gender sports

Ultimate Frisbee is used to teach children about gender equality and resolving conflict. karen dias
31 December, 2018

“Let me introduce you to everyone before we start practising,” Hariharan K, a tall, lanky 24-year-old, said to me. It was a September night at Chennai’s Besant Nagar beach. We were next to a brightly lit Ferris wheel. A generator for an ice gola stall whirred loudly. A few steps away from it, a large group of boys and girls were huddled close together, watching YouTube videos. Hariharan, the captain of the Fly Wild Ultimate Frisbee team, gathered them in a circle.

There were around twenty-five players, 12 of whom were girls. They gather thrice a week to practise under the floodlights on the beach. Each session is preceded by a warm-up, sprint and other games. While I watched a practice game, an argument broke out between one girl and a male team member about a foul move. The game came to a standstill, but they were both smiling, and ended the argument with a high-five.

Ultimate Frisbee is one of the only mixed-gender sports in the country. Matches are played between teams of seven players each—either four men and three women, or vice versa. Hariharan recalled that when he started playing six years previously, the boys in his team used to tease the girls, but that this dynamic changed over time because it was mandatory for each team to have at least eight female players in its roster. “We would like more girls to play but the late evening practice sessions on the beach and the out-of-state travel required to participate in tournaments is a deterrent for many girls because their families object,” he said. “Many girls come to play out of curiosity but then have to work or go to college and give it up.”

Hariharan lives in Urur Olcott Kuppam, a fishing village at the northern end of Besant Nagar beach, a few hundred metres from where the team plays. Most of the team’s members, including Hariharan, are from low-income families in the village, with parents who depend on fishing for their livelihoods or work in low-paid jobs as cleaners, drivers and daily-wage workers.

Two of the best players in the Fly Wild team, Hariharan said, were 18-year-old Monika Shankar and her 15-year-old sister, Deepika. Monika told me that she has travelled to several states across India to play. She was the youngest player in the Indian team at the 2016 World Ultimate and Guts Championship—the premier tournament for national teams organised by the World Flying Disc Federation, the sport’s governing body—in London.

Monika recalled that she first saw people playing Ultimate on the beach five years ago, and was taken aback by both the sport and the fact that boys and girls were playing in the same team. “They looked very happy while playing and the boys seemed to be treating the girls with respect!” She returned home and began playing with her sister, using steel plates.

Monika said that her mother was proud of their achievements. “Most mothers in Urur Kuppam support their kids. When some of my relatives visit, they comment on why I’m wearing shorts or staying out late and talking to boys, but my mother steps in and takes my side.”

Ultimate is a self-refereed sport and has a code of conduct called the “Spirit of the Game,” under which any disagreements or disputes during a game have to be solved amicably, through dialogue. According to Monika, Fly Wild members also follow another set of self-imposed rules: “My team is very caring and disciplined, they tell us to focus on our studies and then on play. We all have to study or work to be able to play Frisbee. If we don’t go to school, we won’t be taken on the team.” The second rule is that everyone must carry their own bottle of water.

Dooming Kuppam, a fishing village a few kilometres north of Urur Olcott Kuppam, comprises a maze of small, colourful homes lined up along a major road running parallel to the beach. When I visited in September, a group of fisherwomen were engaged in a lively discussion in front of a low-income housing colony, while a group of teenage boys sat around a discarded sofa looking at their smartphones. A group of children were chasing after a Frisbee on a narrow stretch of the beach. I was told that children between the ages of seven and 16 gathered there every day, and were mentored by older youth who came from across Chennai to teach the younger ones, facilitate the game and help to resolve disagreements.

“We use the three main guidelines of Ultimate—mixed gender, self-referee and no body contact—to train the kids to be able to become confident, resilient and happy individuals,” Chiai Uraguchi, a 38-year-old social worker, told me. “Through these three things, we talk to them about gender equality, how to deal with conflict and resolution, how to respect your team members and how to measure your reactions to various feelings.”

Having spent several years working with non-governmental organisations in Chennai, Uraguchi started her own NGO, called One All, in 2016. Its main aim was to use Ultimate Frisbee as a way to work with youth in underrepresented communities and to use the sport to talk about education, gender equality, sexuality and identity. When we met late one evening on the beach after she had finished a practice session with her team, Airborne, she said that her organisation began work in Dooming Kuppam two years ago.

Uraguchi got off to a rocky start. She initially managed to gather 15 boys to play, but very few girls. “The boys used to tease the girls or stare at them while playing,” she said. “Girls felt excluded in the beginning and didn’t want to play with the boys.” They had separate teams for boys and girls until some of the boys approached her and suggested playing as a mixed team. She added that today, 20 percent of the players in Dooming Kuppam are girls.

On 8 and 9 September, approximately eighty Ultimate players gathered at Besant Nagar beach to compete in selection trials for a team to represent India at the WFDF Asia-Oceanic Beach Ultimate Championships in Japan next June. The results were announced at the end of the try-outs, and a majority of the players selected belonged to Fly Wild, Hariharan told me. Monika and Deepika made it to the next round—the only two girls from the Fly Wild team to do so.

Hariharan, Monika, Deepika and I met on the beach on the evening of 10 September. Although the team trains three days a week, whoever is free makes it a point to come to the beach every evening—to chat, catch up, throw a Frisbee around. The conversation turned to the gender disparity in the teams. “I have tried to bring my girl friends to play Frisbee, but some of their parents don’t allow them to play or they live too far away from where we practice and cannot travel here alone,” Deepika said. Gayathri, a 21-year-old female player on the Fly Wild team who also works as a facilitator at One All, said that her parents did not object to her playing because her brother was already an active Ultimate player. “He was the one who introduced me to the game. At the time, Fly Wild needed female players, so he started teaching me and I joined the team. I know everyone on the team now, so I trust them.”

Monika recalled that before she took up playing, her family prevented her from interacting with boys around her. “There was a time when my sister attacked a boy because he came to talk to her. We can say what’s on our mind now because boys and girls are equal on the team. I’ve seen some girls transformed after playing this game. This game brought us respect, we don’t have to just sit at home and cook. If we cook, boys should cook too.”