The rise of Ultimate Frisbee as a team sport in China

“MuiTypography-root-134 MuiTypography-h1-139″>The rise of Ultimate Frisbee as a team sport in China

Soccer may be China’s national sport, but enthusiasm for frisbee — a quintessential American sport — is growing in China. Ultimate Frisbee is one of the few no-contact, mixed-gender sports in the country. And that may be one of the reasons that women, especially, are now flocking to it. 

The WorldJuly 27, 2022 · 2:00 PM EDT

Soccer may be China’s national sport, but enthusiasm for frisbee — a quintessential American sport — is soaring in China.

Courtesy of Amy Yan/Shanpo Frisbee Club

On a sweltering summer night in Shanghai, a group of more than 50 people chased after flying plastic discs under the bright lights of a soccer pitch.

Soccer may be China’s national sport, but enthusiasm for frisbee — a quintessential American sport — is soaring in China.

Wang Kai and his wife Amy Yan started the Shanpo Frisbee Club two years ago.

“COVID travel restrictions have made it harder for people to go traveling,” Wang said. “Frisbee is a great way to get exercise outdoors and make friends.”

This year, he said they’ve noticed a huge uptick in interest. When they started, the club had fewer than 500 people. Now there are more than 2,000. Wang leads trainings six nights a week at locations around Shanghai.

A woman practices Ultimate Frisbee at Shanpo Frisbee Club.

Credit:

Courtesy of Amy Yan/Shanpo Frisbee Club

At this night practice, a good half of the crew were rookies. For You Yifan, 22, it was her first time training with the club. She and her friend were still struggling to pass a frisbee between them.

“I was looking for a team sport,” she said. “I like basketball and soccer, but they aren’t as inclusive. Frisbee welcomes all genders. They’re really friendly here.”

Ultimate Frisbee is one of the few no-contact, mixed-gender sports in China. That may be one of the reasons that women, especially, are flocking to it now. 

Amy Yan, Wang Kai’s wife and the official photographer for the club, said social media like Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, have helped grow interest for the sport.

“Before they saw it on social media, most people didn’t realize frisbee was a sport,” she said. “They thought it was just something to play with your dog!”

Ultimate Frisbee has been growing in China since the early 2000s. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Amy Yan/Shanpo Frisbee Club

On Xiaohongshu, the Chinese version of Instagram, frisbee-related searches have jumped 17 times from last year.

Photos featuring young women in yoga pants playing frisbee and posing for the camera are popular. Many come with the tagline: “Put down your phone and pick up frisbee.” 

Hui Li, in her 40s, first experienced Ultimate Frisbee last year at a team-building event for work. She liked it so much she decided to keep going back.

“It’s really easy to get into frisbee,” she said. “You can see, there are men and women, people of every different age and physical level here. You can always find someone to practice with.”

It might be the current trend, but Ultimate Frisbee has been growing in China since the early 2000s.

When American Matt Sheehan spent time in China, he was one of a small number of Ultimate enthusiasts.

“Often one American in one city in, say, central China would kind of plant the seed of Ultimate there,” he said. “They would teach a few Chinese people and share the culture of the sport.”

Now Sheehan is a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. But back in 2015, he was known for co-founding an Ultimate team in Xi’an, a city in northern China. He also filmed a series of funny instructional videos in Mandarin, teaching Chinese people how to play frisbee. Now, he said, Ultimate Frisbee has finally made it.

“We've seen huge changes in terms of Chinese people themselves picking up the sport, taking on leadership and starting their own teams,” he said. “It’s a really beautiful process to watch.”

Sheehan said that aside from the sport itself, the chilled-out social vibe of Ultimate has had an impact on the Chinese friends he's made through the sport.

“It might sound kind of corny, but I have personally seen it radically change a lot of Chinese people’s lives,” he said. “It's just a chance for them to really express themselves and just live a little bit freer.”

Ultimate Frisbee is one of the few no-contact, mixed gender sports in China. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Amy Yan/Shanpo Frisbee Club

That culture of the sport is also appealing to more Chinese parents. At a weekend frisbee training, two 6-year-old twin girls were passing a frisbee back and forth on a field.

Their mom, Joy Wu, said she chose frisbee because the positive spirit of the game appealed to her.

“It teaches them to keep trying and never give up. Learning frisbee will help them be healthy and happy,” she said.

Even more Chinese people may soon get the chance to learn Ultimate Frisbee. In April, China’s Ministry of Education approved the flying disc as a part of its physical education curriculum. This month, the government announced it would establish a national Ultimate Frisbee league.

But not everyone is thrilled. On social media, some soccer players have complained that they have to compete with frisbee players for limited practice space.

But Ronny Gu, who was playing soccer on the pitch next to the Ultimate club, said the rivalry is exaggerated.

“This is a public space,” he said, “so whoever rents the field first should get access to it. But I hope when COVID is over, the frisbee players can practice somewhere else.”

If interest in Ultimate Frisbee continues to grow at this rate, soccer players might just have to get used to sharing.

Related: Mermaid diving is making a splash in China

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