The Rise of Ugandan Ultimate: from Seven Hills to Lignano Sabbiadoro

by | August 3, 2011, 7:00am 0

Kampala, Uganda is known as the city of Seven Hills. Like many cosmopolitan cities it supports a vibrant ultimate scene on the upswing. This August the Kampala-based Team Uganda will come to WCBU11 as the second African team to compete in international beach competition outside of the continent.

“It has always been my dream to see Uganda ultimate succeed,” Team Uganda captain and founder Alex “Queenie” Matovu, aka Papa, told me via Skype. “In 1995 we only had one disc so when the person with the disc didn’t show up we couldn’t play. But later on my sister brought back some discs from California and in 1999 Jordan from Rwanda moved to Kampala and joined me, Henry and James as locals playing with mostly Brits and Americans. But we wanted to get organized and get more local players so we did.”

“In 2000 we started Kampala Ultimate Frisbee club and then we started having tournaments. We had two tournaments that year and I remember a young lady named Sarah in the Peace Corps wanted to hold a tournament 60 km outside of Kampala to raise money,” Queenie explained.

Scenes from th Seven Hill tournament in Kampala.

“Most of us don’t have anything but looking back, it’s amazing how we started having tournaments to raise money for charities like Habitat for Humanity and several different orphanages,” he said. “We would be lucky enough to raise $100 and that would be great! It might seem little but a $100 can do a lot in this part of the world.”

“That year I told my teammates that our ambition was to one day play at Worlds,” he continued.

It’s been a long time, but that day may soon be at hand.

Once a month the Kampala Ultimate Frisbee club travels 35 km to Entebbe on Lake Victoria to practice and play ultimate on the sand. It’s paid off — despite being a grass team they outpaced teams of NGO workers, Western expatriates and fellow Africans en route to winning the 3rd annual FEAST III (Frisbee East Africa Sand Tournament) on Tiwi Beach in Mombassa, Kenya, this past April.

“This team is very athletic, fun and we are quick learners but it was great to see us actually win FEAST,” laughed Queenie.

It helps that the stigma of ultimate as a non-competitive “game” has faded amongst locals in Kampala and increased the team’s competitiveness.

“In the past 3-5 years I am getting players that approach ultimate looking to play,” explained Queenie. “Six, seven years ago no one here would say it’s a sport. But now with the number of clubs in Uganda and East Africa in general—Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda all have teams— there are now locals that have the interest, the skill and like the sport—its amazing!”

There are plenty of team sports to choose from in Uganda—soccer, rugby, cricket, basketball, volleyball and even baseball. Ultimate is still low on the list, but it may be rising. Part of ultimate’s appeal is its affordability and its non-contact rules which attract Africans not wanting to risk injury.

It’s come to the point where Kampala club team Makindye — once comprised of 70% foreigners — is now 90% local Ugandans. “In my job with the United Nations I’ve played ultimate in dozens of countries and the East African teams are the most local,” Queenie told me.

“It’s a great sport. You don’t need that much money or whatever to play,” said Queenie. “Within a few years you are going to see ultimate be big in Africa. Even if its ten years its going to be big, I can see that.”

Team Uganda

It helps that the African ultimate scene has Queenie helping to spread the word. Alex Matovu not only travels the world with the U.N. but he’s also keenly interested in the intersection of sports and lifestyle — perfect for ultimate. When not organizing practices, the upcoming Seven Hills Tournament this weekend or promoting ultimate in Uganda through the Uganda Ultimate Frisbee Association, Matovu’s initiative Activate Uganda helps promote and hold running, cycling and triathlon events across Uganda.

So what’s the catch? Currently the Ugandan team is stuck in visa purgatory.

The Italian Embassy insists that the team get approval from the Italian Olympic Committee and the Olympic Committee says it knows nothing about ultimate. This is what happens sometimes when a sport like ultimate doesn’t have enough political clout and a poorer nation seeks visas to travel to a wealthier neighbor.

“We are still trying to get sponsorship to afford to come to Italy. Right now EgyptAir is going to give us a discount of $400 for each ticket, but at the moment everything is on hold because of the visa. Even if we get sponsorship without the visa it will be useless,” he lamented.

We’ve seen this before: when the Filipino Boracay Beach Dragons came to Paganello in 2009 they had to wait until two weeks before the tournament before Italy would clear them. In 2006 with George Bush as president of the United States, the U.S. denied visas to the Venezuelan under-20 team, preventing them from coming to Junior Worlds.

However with the international ultimate community on board the expectation is that Uganda will be present in full force on the sands of Lignano Sabbiadoro. And that in itself will be a success for African ultimate.

“At WCBU11 We’re looking forward to improve our skills and our attitude towards the sport and learn more so we can continue to promote ultimate in Africa,” Queenie told me. “We have several residents of Uganda who come from Kenya and Rwanda and Tanzania and will take their ultimate experience back home to those places. It would be great to see ultimate continue to expand in East Africa.”

“That, and we want to team up with the ultimate frisbee family around the world!”

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