How Did We End Up Here?

by | November 16, 2017, 8:00am 1

The Flying Tigers against South Africa's Ghost. (Photo by Alex Queenie)

It’s hard to decide on a beginning to this story. It has many facets and to tell it properly each needs to be addressed and examined. It is a story about ultimate, yes, but it’s also a story about policy, politics, and power. It is a story of a fledgling ultimate program finding its wings, and it is a story about gender equity and compromise. It is a story about how a team rose to the top spot on a continent, but lost out on a chance to compete at the highest level.

It starts in 2012. The World Ultimate and Guts Championships are around the corner, and two South African teams are hard at work preparing for the challenge. A men’s team and a mixed team. Mixed might be the only form of ultimate played in South Africa, but – with a ratio of 5:2 – male faces heavily outnumber their female counterparts. South Africa does not even consider sending a women’s team to Worlds. Little thought is given to this fact, as the power dynamics in South African ultimate are heavily skewed towards the men.

These same power dynamics explain the vastly different team cultures that emerge in the two squads. The men’s team is the elite, the best South Africa has to offer. The mixed team is the leftovers – South Africa’s best female players condemned to second-class status, playing with the men who didn’t quite make the cut.

The results are predictable. In Japan, the men get steamrolled by the giants of world ultimate, notch up a few wins against the smaller national programs, and earn a finish in the lower-middle end of the standings[footnote number=1]13th out of 19, to be exact.[/footnote]. The mixed team does not fare so well. They finish in last place, losing all of their games in the process[footnote number=2]They did, however, win the Spirit Award in the mixed division – leaving WUGC 2012 with more silverware than the men.[/footnote].

Fast-forward to May of 2013. It is Mixed Nationals in South Africa. The first Open and Women’s Nationals will not be held for another year, so to South African ultimate players this is simply known as Nationals. Ghost Ultimate Club – powerhouse of the ultimate scene – continues their dominance, winning in the final over local rivals Chilli. While no strangers to victory, this win has special significance – it secures them a place in the World Ultimate Club Championships which will be held in Lecco the following year.

While Ghost goes on to win Nationals, another ultimate program is bringing in its best result yet. The University of Cape Town’s Flying Tigers finish third at Nationals. It is a young team that has just graduated three of its star players – two who had been key contributors to the South African men’s team’s campaign in Japan the previous year.

The Flying Tigers were not expected to do well. A number of players are playing in just their second season of competitive ultimate.  But these expectations belied an essential truth which would later be revealed – the Tigers were building something – a structure, a process, a set of norms and cultures that would allow the program to grow and flourish.

The Flying Tigers want to be the best team in the country, but being a university team has its limitations. Players graduate, turnover is rapid, but the journey to a championship spans years. A team that relies only on the strength of its players from year to year is bound to fall short, but a team that can develop a system to produce players of consistently high quality year after year will eventually find success.

The Flying Tigers at Nationals 2017 (Photo by Shane Elliot)

The Shift

With all the South African ultimate players gathered together at Nationals, another drama is unfolding. It is hard to undersell its importance. It will decide the trajectory of South African ultimate for the foreseeable future. A referendum has been scheduled; the teams will vote on a shift towards parity with the rest of the ultimate world – will mixed ultimate in South Africa shift to a ratio of 4:3/3:4 or keep the existing 5:2 ratio?

The debate is long and fierce. The community is divided. A shift will threaten the power structure which places men in the ascendancy, and so there is resistance. A great deal of it. Yet, narrowly, the vote passes; South Africa will make the shift towards parity with the rest of the ultimate-playing world over the coming years. Mixed has always been South Africa’s game, but it will finally be played as it should be.

And so, along comes 2014. Ghost Ultimate is training to take on the best club teams in the World. The squad which won Nationals the previous year was small – just 12 players deep – so they’ve opted to pick up some players from the other Cape Town-based teams. Among those players are six Flying Tigers. Their mission, apart from competing at Worlds, is to bring back valuable experience to share with the club. They are all leaders, or future leaders, of the team and they take their mission seriously.

There is no reason to delve too deeply into the muddy and rainy affair that was Lecco in 2014, but the experience gained by those players has a profound impact on the ethos of the Flying Tigers. The team is infused with confidence and purpose. Young and full of talent, spearheaded by players who have competed at the highest level, the Flying Tigers attend South Africa’s second largest tournament – Rocktober. They hope to improve on their previous result at the tournament, runners-up the year before.

They fall short once again. It is a bitter loss. Twice finalists, twice runners-up. They are chasing a goal that seems to be ever-so-slightly out of reach. But there is a ray of hope. The referendum of 2013’s impact is being felt at UCT. There are more women playing ultimate at the club, and their contribution is telling. Young and athletic; green, but confident.

Tigers on the World Stage

Jump forward again. It is 2015 and tryouts are being held for the South African U23 Team – a mixed team – the first team South Africa will ever send to an U23 ultimate championship. It has been a long road getting to this point, but there is finally enough ultimate being played at the university level to support this team. The future of South African ultimate looks bright.

The team is selected and the Flying Tigers feature prominently. Every player who is under 23 on the Flying Tigers makes the South African team. 14 of the 22-person squad are current Flying Tigers, and one is an alumnus of the team. Both captains come from the Flying Tigers.

The Flying Tigers at AAUCC 2017. (Photo by Alex Queenie)

The U23 team trains hard, relishing the opportunity to represent their country at the biggest stage, desperate to show the ultimate world just how much South Africa has to offer. When Worlds rolls around they are ready; seeded second-to-last with everything to prove. In their first game they take Japan to universe point and lose. The loss stings, but they now know they can compete. They lose to Australia and Canada, go on to beat Colombia, The Philippines, India, Ireland, and Chinese Taipei. This sets up a rematch with Japan. They win the rematch. It is the biggest win South Africa has ever managed at the global stage. One final game – a loss to Great Britain – and they secure 6th place overall.

The team returns home, jubilant. The result was as much a surprise to them as it was to the rest of the South African ultimate community. They did better than they could have hoped and their experience will surely send shockwaves throughout the ultimate scene. A new generation of ultimate players is coming into their own.

Champions At Last

2016 is a Worlds year and the composition of South African ultimate has changed dramatically since the last time South Africa competed at Worlds. While there are more women in ultimate in South Africa, power still resides largely in the hands of a core group of men – remnants of the ‘elite’ who competed in Japan. Without discussion, they declare South Africa will send a Men’s team and announce tryout dates. The attitude is clear: men’s ultimate is the height of competition, we must compete in that division to see how South Africa measures up[footnote number=3]Mixed and Women’s players the world over are familiar with this attitude, I’m sure.[/footnote].

A decision needs to be made: will South Africa take a mixed team or a women’s team to London in addition to the men’s team? It is, in truth, an easy decision. South Africa must send a women’s team to Worlds or risk, once again, condemning the best women ultimate players in South Africa to second-class status. And so the decision is made. Little thought is given to the fact that mixed ultimate is, by some margin, the most popular format of the game in South Africa. No thought is given to the fact that more teams compete at Mixed Nationals than compete at both Open and Women’s Nationals combined, and that there are no permanent men’s or women’s teams in the country.

No, the decisions about how best to develop the sport in our country and how best to gain exposure to the global ultimate scene are essentially held hostage by a group of men who so desperately want to play ultimate without the ‘hindrance’ of women[footnote number=4]I played for the South African men’s team at Worlds 2016. It is what precipitated my ever-increasing hiatus from ultimate. I perpetuated this problem – this vile attitude – with my complicity, and I have still not forgiven myself for it. I doubt I ever will.[/footnote].

And so South Africa competed – in the men’s division and the women’s division[footnote number=5]And the Men’s Masters division – the division we did best in. But that is a different story.[/footnote]. As with many things in South African ultimate, there is not a great deal of discussion about how this would impact the domestic ultimate scene. For that, we have to jump ahead once more. This time, to Rocktober 2016.

By the start of 2016, the Flying Tigers have graduated most of the people who had helped them reach third place at Nationals in 2013. Only a few players from that cohort remain, but the team has never been stronger. The focus on systems and structures within the club is paying dividends. While the men are strong, it is the women who are dominant. Those young athletes with so much promise have matured into superstars, giving the Flying Tigers a distinct edge over the competition. But it isn’t quite enough to win a National title; that objective still eludes the Tigers who finish second in 2016.

Rocktober 2016 is the breakout success for a team that has been on the cusp for so long. It is the culmination of everything that had gone before. One of those rare, glorious coalescences that every team strives for. The Flying Tigers hit their stride, and cruise to their first major tournament win. And with that, a switch flips.

The Flying Tigers had a taste of triumph, but the goal has always been to win a National championship. With a major win under their belt, the Flying Tigers rolled into 2017 with confidence. The team has not changed in terms of personnel, but they are a fundamentally different unit. Morale is high and they are playing with poise and aplomb. There is added incentive this year; teams go into Mixed Nationals knowing that a win would secure them a spot at Worlds in Cincinnati the next year. There is everything to play for, and the Flying Tigers want this more than anything.

Jubilation after catching the winning goal. Nationals 2017. (Photo by Shane Elliot)

Once again, the Flying Tigers prove to be untouchable. They play with the intensity of a team whose time had come. This is their moment, and they sense it. They race ahead and stay there. They have a point to prove, to themselves perhaps more than anyone else, and at the conclusion of the championships it is the Flying Tigers who catch the final goal. National champions, at last.

It was not a large squad that took home that Nationals title, and the team knew that to compete at Worlds they would need to pick up some more players. They had discussed this before competing at Nationals, and the consensus was that club alumni who had been influential in the growth and development of the program would be invited back to compete with the team in Cincinnati. A show of thanks for the years of effort they put into the club.

But before preparations for Worlds could begin in earnest, focus turns to the upcoming All Africa Ultimate Club Championships. South Africa would be represented by the Flying Tigers and Ghost; it is a chance to test themselves against the best teams on the continent – a tune-up for the global stage. The tournament is anything but smooth; a rocky start puts the Flying Tigers on the back foot, but they battle their way into the final where they meet local rivals, Ghost. The all-South African affair is a close battle, but the Tigers emerge victorious on universe point. They are aided in no small part by their decision to play 4 women on offence, something that is still seldom seen in South Africa and indeed the continent. National Champions, and now Continental Champions. It is perfect.

WFDF’s Gut Punch

And this brings us to the present and the gut-punch that followed the crowning of the new All Africa Champions. Another coalescence, but this one not as magical as the last. A coalescence of compromise in the face of power, and the desire to develop; of acquiescence and order.

When WFDF announced the bid allocation for Club Worlds in Cincinnati, the Flying Tigers were shocked to find that South Africa had not received a bid in the mixed division. Dazed and confused, the leadership reached out to the South African Flying Disc Association (SAFDA) for clarification. WFDF was contacted and they explained their decision. Since South Africa had sent a men’s and women’s team to WUGC the year before, they had been given a bid in those divisions. WFDF seemed surprised that South Africa even wanted a mixed bid.

Suddenly, the dream of competing at Worlds was crumbling. The Flying Tigers, the best club team on the continent, would not get a chance to compete against the world’s best. The decision not to send a mixed team to WUGC 2016 had hamstrung the chances of showing off the best of South African club ultimate. But it was the right decision in the circumstances. A deal had to be struck to ensure the continued growth and development of women’s ultimate. The insistence that a men’s team be sent to WUGC had made any notion of a mixed team going untenable, lest South Africa repeat the mistakes of the past. The further development of ultimate in South Africa was held ransom by that ‘elite’ core. The Flying Tigers are now paying that ransom.

What can be done at this stage? Alas, nothing. WFDF’s bid allocation rules are opaque in this regard[footnote number=6]E.5.4. And E.5.5 of the Addendum to the Rules of Ultimate together should guarantee that South Africa receives a mixed bid, but WFDF insists that this is not true because South Africa already received bids as a result of E.5.1. However, it is not explicitly stated in the rules that a bid allocation in E.5.1 and E.5.2. precludes nations from receiving bids as a result of E.5.4 and E.5.5. This preclusion is explicitly stated in E.5.3, however, which lends credence to the interpretation that South Africa should be given a mixed bid as a result of E.5.4.[/footnote]. WFDF explained that winning the Continental Club Championships is essentially meaningless, as is winning a National Championship. Furthermore, national governing organisations have no say in bid allocation unless they have not received any bids. South Africa could not, for instance, tell WFDF that open and women’s ultimate is something of an afterthought in South Africa, and insist that we play mixed. This is, of course, the truth, but what use is the truth in matters of politics.

The opacity of the bid allocation rules allows WFDF to make the final decision on who receives a bid, while hiding behind a veneer of legitimacy. This is perhaps best illustrated by the case of India – a developing ultimate nation in a strikingly similar position to South Africa. India sent teams to WUGC 2016 in the mixed, men’s, and women’s division. Yet, startlingly, and seemingly in total disregard for the bid allocation rules, India received only two bids to WUCC. Both in the mixed division. This scenario is simply impossible if the rules are correctly applied. It is abundantly clear that this was not the case[footnote number=7]It is clear that we, as an ultimate community, need to hold WFDF to a higher standard of transparency. Bid allocation was announced, with the rules for allocation attached. But close scrutiny shows that this was nothing more than a confidence trick, as the rules were not uniformly applied.[/footnote].

So here we are. It is a long story, with an unhappy ending. It has many moving parts, many actors, and many consequences. It tells something of the struggle to develop a competitive national ultimate program, and how the rifts in global power are perpetuated in the sport we all love. It tells a small piece of the story of gender dynamics in our sport and society at large – perhaps even leveling a call for greater introspection. It tells of frustration, desperation, perseverance, and heartbreak.

This is not the end for the Flying Tigers; history has shown that this is a team that knows how to struggle through adversity. But it is a wound. A wound to the trust they placed in the keepers of our sport. A wound to the future of ultimate in South Africa. And a wound to the dreams of a group of young people who wanted nothing more than to compete.

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