Should ultimate be in the Olympics?

WFDF have been pursuing the Olympics for years now, targeting the 2028 LA games, but is joining the Olympics a good move for ultimate? As others have pointed out, joining the Olympics is only possible if we brush some of ultimate’s key values under the rug. But perhaps that trade-off is worth it, for the vindication of finally being at the big boys table, to show off our sport to the world and to provide once in a lifetime experiences to the athletes talented enough to represent their nations at the games.

The Olympics are an organisation that causes great harm. Kurt Streeter’s New York Times article highlights the major problems with how the games currently operate, most notably the sportswashing that takes place when authoritarian nations are hosts, the environmental impacts, the labour abuse and displacement of marginalised communities where the Olympics are held, and the silencing of athlete protests.

If ultimate became an Olympic sport, we would aid in the IOC’s effort to modernise the games and play a small part in fixing their problem with engaging a younger audience. Joining the Olympics would send a signal to people who may be interested in playing ultimate that we are willing to associate ourselves with, and contribute to, the harm that the Olympics causes.

Skateboarding (new to the 2020 Tokyo games) athlete Alexis Sablone representing Skater’s ‘individualistic spirit’ in a photo with her teammates (3rd picture). Alana Smith in the foreground became the first openly non-bianry athlete to compete in the Olympics.

Though it’s undeniable that the Olympics causes harm, the concept of the Olympics (a unifying global multi sport event) is not inherently harmful – the Olympics could be ‘fixed’. The IOC held a conversation with athletes about rethinking and relaxing the regulations of Article 50, giving athletes more opportunities for free expression whilst keeping protest off the podium and the field of play.

The impact to local communities could be mitigated by hosting the games in the same place every 4 years. There is a growing trend of nations pulling out of hosting the games because of the potential costs involved with erecting enormous facilities that may never be used after the games. The 2016 Rio games famously displaced locals, to build stadiums that were left in disrepair after the games.

The inside of the Rio aquatics facility, puddles of stagnant water are a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

A single Olympic park for all future games would also negate the problem of authoritarian nations hosting the Olympics to clean up their image.

The idea of decentralising the games has also been suggested, which some argue could lead to an even bigger global spectacle than the games as we know it.

It’s not impossible that some of the negative externalities associated with the Olympics could be addressed, and making a cleaner, fairer and more sustainable games is the direction the IOC say they’re going in. WFDF could choose to wait for the IOC to reform or they could try to get a seat at the table and drive the changes that ultimate players would like to see.

Whilst we criticise the current inadequacies of the Olympics, I think it’s also worth examining our methods of introducing the sport to new players and the public – two prominent avenues being college ultimate and the AUDL. How do we marry the presentation of ultimate via the AUDL with ultimate’s values of gender equity and self officiation, how does college ultimate marry with our value of the sport being accessible to people of all races and classes.

The ways the sport grows currently are deeply flawed, so maybe the Olympics – where we could broadcast a gender equitable, self officiated game with athletes from four continents – could help us showcase our values in a way other means fail to. It would be amiss to not mention the PUL and WUL who are killing it at upholding ultimate’s values – their challenge is to create an engaging product that globally affects the way the sport grows (easier said than done).

Another question worth considering is whether or not the sport is ready for the exposure the Olympics would bring? The vast majority of ultimate playing countries have very small communities with vastly underdeveloped ultimate infrastructures compared to more mainstream sports. Where would kids go to play if they became inspired by watching ultimate at the Olympics? For a sport where the minimal requirements are a disc and some space – the answer, for almost everyone, is nowhere. New Olympic sports tend to get increased interest immediately after the games, but this drops off after not too long, so if there isn’t a place for new ultimate players to try the sport during and immediately after the games then we would lose out on the huge growth opportunity.

The peaks are when these sports were televised during the Olympics in Tokyo. The peaks are huge but don’t seem to cause long term growth in searches.

Admittedly, this is a smaller concern for the US, who have by far the most developed ultimate infrastructure, one that could perhaps ride the wave of increased interest in playing the sport.

WFDF know that the Olympics is a high priority issue for their members – surveys in 2016 and 2019 have shown that about 80% of members wanted WFDF to pursue Olympic inclusion, with over 50% saying it should be a high or top priority. The Olympics causes harm in many ways, that’s undeniable, but that harm will be there with or without us. The WFDF being at the table does nothing but add another voice to the many federations that want to see the Olympics reform. We will bolster the Olympics in some small way if we were to be included in the 2028 games, but we would get so much in return – millions of new eyes on the sport, the legitimacy to persuade schools to put ultimate on the curriculum, and the most meaningful competition in the sports history.

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