Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the Hale-Bopp comet … no, it’s a “flying disc,” more colloquially known as a “Frisbee.” These days, more and more discs are being sighted hovering over French territory: this fast-growing sport now counts over 180,000 players nationwide. No one is prouder of this fact than the Fédération Flying Disc France, which celebrates its auspicious 20th anniversary this year. Created in 1977 to promote disc-related sports and structure disc competitions, the federation now boasts 24 official clubs, 30 teams and more than 450 licensed players in France. With more than 40 nations registered with the World Flying Disc Federation, “Frisbee” could be one of the most popular sports on the planet by 2000.
More complex than just throwing around a “Frisbee” on the beach, disc games are revered for the aerodynamics and smooth play of the disc and the streamlined coordination and graceful movements of its players. Disc-related sports include “DDC” or Double Disc Court, played with two teams and two discs; “Guts,” a scary game where discs are thrown at full force at opposing players; “Discathlon,” a cross-country obstacle course; and “Disc Golf,” using baskets instead of holes. The most popular disc sport and the embodiment of the spirit of disc-related games is the fittingly named “Ultimate.”
One of the oldest Ultimate clubs in France is “Les Invalides,” which takes its name from its beloved home field, the majestic Esplanade des Invalides. Founded in 1989 by a group of American students, today’s “invalids” are in fact ranked No.2 in the country. Les Invalides took first prize in the 1991 national championships at Créteil, and have competed in the French finals for five consecutive years. Perhaps the most international club in France, its roster includes players from France, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan, Canada and the States.
Hungarian-American team member Bart Edes started playing Ultimate seriously while working in Budapest in 1992. “I like the culture and the people. Overriding everything is the sense of fair play and good spirit. It’s non-contact — you’re not pushing people around but you’re pushing yourself, and it’s extremely graceful when it’s played well.” Ultimate is open to both men and women. French national Peggy Lemerrer, Les Invalides’ youngest player and the only woman on the team, tried swimming until her trainer told her about Ultimate. “Now that I’ve found it, I can’t leave it,” she says with a laugh. Lemerrer, who played on the official French woman’s team, “Les Gaulloises,” notes, “The women’s game is different in that you focus more on rapidity than on strength.”
Most often identified with tie-dye hippie culture in the States, disc culture for Les Invalides is slightly different. Edes comments, “Our team is more white-collar; people show up in suits and ties and then change. Les Invalides’ laid-back spirit is probably what attract foreigners to our team.” Club president Raoul de Vaucelles is a descendant of French Norman aristocracy, but he drinks beer and dives for discs just like the rest of the team. Common love of Ultimate can even lead to love and marriage, as husband and wife team members Valerie and Bjorgulv Aakra prove.
Ultimate is played with two teams of seven players and one 175 gram disc, the official competition model being manufactured by the US-based Disc Craft Company. On a large rectangular field with two end zones, players pass the disc to one another to score goals. They cannot run with the disc or block one another. Games have two halves and end at 21 points or after two hours of play. The sport is similar to rugby or football in field dimensions, but more like basketball in its speed, the non-contact movement of players, and the concept of the “pivot foot”. Ian MacLean, trainer for Les Invalides, Ultimate team, explains, “The three key moves in Ultimate are the ‘forehand,’ ‘side arm’ and ‘overhead,’or ‘upside down’ move.” Dedicated players will “lay out,” extending themselves horizontally to intercept a pass. Though traditionally an outdoor sport, Ultimate is also played in France on indoor courts from December to February, then moves outdoors from March to June.
A very democratic game, Ultimate is self-officiated — no referee is used. Since 1988, the French federation has been promoting disc-related sports in schools across the country. De Vaucelles who is also secretary of the federation, says,”What really attracts the sports teachers is the spirit of the game, the fact that you don’t have a referee. You must have self-control, respect the rules of the game as well as your opponent.” Every Ultimate tournament awards a prize for “Spirit of the Game” to the team with the best sportsmanship and sense of fair play. Matches typically end with a circular pow wow gathering where both teams lock arms in camaraderie, discussing the game just played and applauding one another’s performance on the field.
The history of the “Frisbee” craze dates back to the 1950s, when the Frisbee Pie Company in Connecticut was whisking out 80,000 delicious pies per day. On US campuses, inventive university students began demonstrating their finesse at throwing the empty pie tins while yelling “Frisbee!” In 1955, W. Morrison, an enterprising former student, developed the first plastic flying disc. “WHAM’O,” the toy manufacturer that had previously masterminded the Hoola Hoop, later bought the rights and registered the trademark “Frisbee.” Legend has it that “Frisbee” culture reached French soil when an American student, a “goodwill missionary of Frisbee,” who had surreptitiously packed a disc in his suitcase, brought it out and started throwing.
There are cultural differences between playing Ultimate in France and in the States. Playing in France is more formalized, as players must organize in the form of a club, have officers, and be licensed, insured and registered. Teams must also have club status to reserve field space. For the amateur disc player who wants to “flick the old wrist,” work on different throws and just get out and some fun, the grassy public fields of the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes are a good bet. Spectators can catch Les Invalides at practice on the Esplanade des Invalides on Wednesdays at 7pm.
Ultimate has become a way of life for Invalides player Gary Griffith. The game traveled with him from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, all the way to Australia, Central America, Europe and Japan. “When you go to a foreign land and you only know the name of a team, you automatically fit in with 15 people who have the same interest. These are my friends in Paris.”
Fédération Flying Disc France, 1, av François Mauriac, Maison des Associations, 94000 Créteil, tel: 01.48.28.33.98. The federation also organizes disc clinics. For info about Les Invalides, contact Scott Edwards, captain, tel: 01.45.24.75.53 (business hours), or Bart Edes, tel: 01.47.42.48.83, (e-mail email@example.com). Les Invalides is recruiting new players.