Bolivia is a country where modern development and historic culture collide. Nearly two thirds of the population identify as indigenous. Walking the streets of La Paz, a bustling modern city tucked in a valley in the central Andes Mountains, the indigenous influence is obvious. Many people still don traditional dress and sell local foods along the streets.
The fundamental pillar of the indigenous Andean communities’ culture is con vivir bien or living well, together. The idea of con vivir bien has recently been adopted by the Bolivian national government as the basis for their social justice policies. For the Quechua and Aymara speaking communities of the Andes the spirit of con vivir bien goes much deeper than just social justice. Simply put, con vivir bien can be broken down into eating well, sleeping well, doing good and loving well. It’s the spirit behind the communal nature of life and the strength of communities in rural Bolivia.
That strength has been lost in the cities of Bolivia. Some Bolivians, though, are reconnecting with these roots through ultimate. The concept of Spirit of the Game builds communities similar to indigenous Andean communities. Within ultimate the idea that “highly competitive play is encouraged but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors” is reflective of the way that communities organize themselves. No one person is ever more important than the group well being, which is how the new ultimate teams are striving to organize themselves.
Ultimate arrived in La Paz four years ago from Colombia, but the growth of the sport has been slow in the soccer-obsessed country. In La Paz the challenges of growing the sport are augmented by the lack of field space. Almost all fields, called canchas here, a Quechua word for the open center of villages that hosted markets as well as sporting events, are cement fields designed for soccer or basketball. The few that are turf or grass are in high demand and are expensive to rent. La Paz has almost no parks or open green spaces to throw in, much less play a full game of ultimate.
Despite these challenges ultimate has grown in the country to include 4 club teams in La Paz. These squads are all working to create the communities within their teams and the sport that make ultimate unique. Young Bolivian professionals are attracted to the welcoming spirit as well as the structure and direction the sport provides. For young Bolivians outside of school and work there are few organizations in which to get involved in. Many opt to frequent bars and clubs after university or work. Ultimate though, provides an alternative to constant partying given the discipline needed to be an athlete in La Paz at an elevation of about 12,000 feet.
When I first arrived at a practice of the Illimani Condors, one of the oldest club teams in La Paz, I was fresh off of a four day stay in the Ca’alla village on the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca. In this small Aymaran village, I learned what con vivir bien looks like in practice by helping my host family plant fava beans, fish for trout and herd their sheep. In the village every family shares their harvest and land. Land can not be owned by anyone person or family but rather is divided and administered by the rotating council of leaders among all of the families in the village.
What struck me the most was the way that every decision in the village was made for the well being of the village. What I didn’t realize though, until sometime in the middle of my first scrimmage with the Condors, was how similar the culture in the village had felt to playing ultimate with a truly spirited team. In the village every single person has a role to play and works together for the well being of the community. This is not unlike on the field when all 7 players and the sideline work together to win a game. The same idea applies in the village when everyone works together with the goal though, not just to score points, but rather to live well, together.
Inspired by this spirit and a desire to grow the ultimate community in La Paz a small group of dedicated Bolivians are working to create a national foundation and meet the requirements to be included in the World Flying Disc Federation. This fall, the first ever hat tournament hosted in Bolivia attracted more than 50 participants for an entire day of spirited play. Plans are also in the works to organize the first-ever ultimate tournament and youth clinic in La Paz at the end of this year.
As ultimate expands at the club level in La Paz the community grows, too. The same ideals that haves strengthened indigenous communities across the region for hundreds of years are now strengthening the ultimate community in La Paz. Though ultimate is new in Bolivia the ideas of con vivir bien and Spirit of the Game are not, which bodes well for the growth of the sport here in the heart of the Andes.