“Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally a feminist. But dude, I don’t get these feminazis who want equality in everything, even in sports. There’s a reason why men and women play most sports separately. There are men’s teams and women’s teams, because we are naturally stronger (read “better”) at sports, and to deny that, is just absurd,” a friend of this reporter made this statement a couple of weeks ago.
Cut to Saturday. The venue is a large, muddy football ground in Auroville and the sun is unkind. On the red grounds, there are about 40 young men and women training intensely. These players form Stall7, a Chennai club that plays one of 21st century’s fastest growing sports – Ultimate Frisbee.
Clad in blue and purple jerseys, the players are gearing up for a game that is very similar in form and intensity to American Football, a sport known for being brutal, tiring, and according to some, “meant for male players”. However, the delightful twist here is that both men and women can form a single team of Ultimate Frisbee.
Stall7 players training at Auroville
“That’s the beauty of this game. The international rule is that a team, which comprises 7 players must have 4 men and 3 women or vice versa. Stall7 and several other Frisbee clubs in India play mixed teams. In fact, most of India plays the game with mixed teams, although you can have variations of the game which are played either as all-men or all-women teams,” says GK Harsha, Stall7’s captain.
According to Harsha, several other countries such as the US, Japan and Canada encourage all-men or all-women Ultimate Frisbee, despite the international rule. Strangely, in India, a country where sexism and sports go hand-in-hand, Frisbee is only popular as a mixed-gendered sport and this fact is as baffling as it is exciting.
“Ultimate Frisbee is a game that originated 60 years ago in a college in the US. A non-contact sport, it was brought to India by young Indian men and women who studied in the US and returned to India. Popularizing the mixed version here, I would say is part intentional and part coincidental. It started off with some of us having only played in mixed teams in other countries. I played in a mixed team when I was in Colorado. A few of us who initially started in India thought playing mixed was a good thing as we enjoyed playing with women and they too had fun,” says Manukaran, 38 years old, one of the first players of Ultimate Frisbee in Chennai and now plays with Stall7.
According to Manu, when Stall7 started off in 2008, it had 6 men and 1 woman.
“The club was started by chance when some boys from Hindustan University found me and my friends playing in Besant Nagar beach. They asked if they could join and I told them that they had enough people to make a separate team. Their initial team was 8 for a sport that required 7 on the field. The club practiced on the Besant Nagar beach in the mornings. That was our turf and that’s where most of the Frisbee games in Chennai happened. At first we only had one woman on the team, but things changed gradually. In two years, they decided to make it 5-2. Then 4 years ago, they hit 4-3, which is the international standard. And last year, I joined them,” Manu says, laughing
Today, the club sees good participation of women with several of them having 8-10 years of experience playing the sport.
“I came to know about this sport through a college senior. Those days, we (the club) were so desperate for girls to join that all they had to say was ‘oh, Frisbee? Nice’ and before they knew it, they would be dragged to play the game. This is what happened to me,” says Zara, one of the oldest players in the club, with a chuckle.
With time, women Frisbee players from other parts of the country too began to join in. However, despite increasing female participation and the inherent equality in the game, many clubs ruin the spirit of Ultimate Frisbee by using women only for representation.
“I came from Ahmedabad to play for Stall7. The earlier club I played for used to ask women to just stand there and pass the disc, while the men played the game. They just used us as it was mandated by the international rules. They taught us what we were ‘supposed to know’. After I joined Stall7, I realized that’s not how the game is played. Women here throw the disc, sprint, fight to get verticals and break the mark. We play side-by-side, as equals on the field. We have also played several matches with 4 women and 3 men instead of the reverse,” says Richa, 23, who regularly participates in the club’s camps and practice sessions.
Explaining why isolating women on the field is actually counter-productive to the team, Manu says “When they do that, teams do not understand that they are at a disadvantage. If you have strong women in your team, you have 7 strong players, instead of 4 overworked men and 3 under-utilized women.”
Stall7, in an extra effort, also holds special training sessions in Tiki Taka, Nungambakkam, for women players.
“Initially, it was harder to get noticed on the field as there were so few women. Today, we have many experienced female players and we also have the women’s training session, which is supported by all the boys at Stall7,” says Sangamitra, another player from the club.
An Ultimate Player from the Auroville team practising with Stall7 players
Ultimate Frisbee – turning men into feminists
Besides the adrenaline rush that kicks in on playing the game, Ultimate Frisbee also makes room for breaking stereotypes, changing mindsets and reforming society as a whole.
“The game really helps in changing male-mindsets. I have seen a lot of men, who have never interacted with women in their lives, making comfortable conversation with them. I see men here treating women as equal players, instead of thinking they are some alien species that they need to get creepy with. Not knowing how to behave with the opposite sex in India arises out of a cultural problem, and the game definitely changes it to an extent,” says Manu.
However, bad apples do exist in every sport and Manu agrees to this.
“There are less than 5% of such cases in the games we have played. Instances such as catcalling and speaking crassly with women players are some of them. I would say that the culture of this game itself changes these bad apples or isolates them completely. Now, we even have married women playing the game. One of our players has a 5-year old, who hangs around in the grounds while his mum trains for the games,” says Manu.
Shattering the cricket/football mentality
Another form of power differential on the field, Manu says, is the entitlement that seeps into the mindsets of cricket and football players who join the sport.
“They naturally believe that they are better than the women, as they have always played with men. The segregating culture that has been practiced in these sports, make them believe that women can never be as good as men. With Ultimate Frisbee, there is no scope for such a mindset. The spirit of the game is really different from that and these players, who come from cricket and football backgrounds, eventually come around,” says Manu
Playing a sport with nil government support
In many ways, Ultimate Frisbee costs hardly anything when compared to cricket.
“The disc costs Rs 800, which is shared by 14 players. We don’t need protective gear as it is a non-contact sport and players only intercept or knock down the disc mid-air. There is no tackling at all. However, the game is still popular only in colleges and is yet to be recognized as a proper sport,” says Manu.
Last year, the game received Olympic recognition, marking a huge achievement for the Frisbee fraternity.
“We will get to play in the Olympics after 8 years (minimum time for a sport to get inducted post-recognition), now that the recognition has come through. Ours is one of the youngest Frisbee countries in the world, and yet, the growth is astounding. When we participated in the 2011 championships, we figured among the last of the 60 participants as we had never participated before. Today, there are 72 countries and we figure in the 30s in the world-ranking. Chennai itself has 8 of the top Frisbee clubs in India. That’s very impressive,” says Manu.
Noticing the growing popularity and talent arising from the India, the World Flying Disc Federation (the governing body for flying-disc sports), in 2017, asked for an Indian team to play at the Frisbee club championships held in the US this year.
Following the tournaments held in 2017, Stall7 was the club chosen to represent the country in the 2018 World Frisbee Championships in Cincinnati. However, this is still a distant dream as there is zero government aid – despite the large amounts of money pumped into the IPL – and the club has to cough up the funds.
Despite, these challenges, the group is still hopeful of making it to the championships set to take place in July.
The Stall7 team
“I believe this sport has immense potential to grow. And when it does, India has to have the place of honour among the Frisbee greats of the world. As a team, we are training our best for this and we hope that we will be able to test our hard work and represent the country in the upcoming championships,” Manu concludes.
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