Can Ultimate Frisbee Bridge the Gap Among Cultures?

In this troubled world, there are many ways to solve contentious international issues: summit negotiations, economic interdependency, strategic alliances and … frisbees? To hear Dr. David Barkan tell it, the path to peace runs right through the end zone of an Ultimate Frisbee field.

For the uninitiated, Ultimate Frisbee is a simple game: two teams, one frisbee, lots of running. The game combines the cardiovascular demands of soccer and the athleticism of basketball with the impeccable teamwork and coordination of football.

A competitive player for years, Barkan traveled the globe playing Ultimate. His team even won the World Championships in 1995. “I was always impressed by how the sport changed the people around me for good,” he says. “And I started thinking about how we could translate some of those great values into life off the field.”

In 2008, Barkan started an organization called Ultimate Peace (UP), whose goal is to bring together kids from Israel and the Palestinian territories and teach them to play this fast-paced, high-energy game, which places a premium on cooperation. Despite the underlying factional tensions in Israel and the West Bank, it’s entirely possible to live an isolated life there. Many Israeli Jews have never met a Palestinian; many Arabs living inside Israel have never ventured outside of their ethnically homogenous neighborhoods.

Ultimate Peace girls hugging - Rachael Cerrotti ||

Rachael Cerrotti ||

Kids Who Play Together, Stay Together

One aspect that separates Ultimate from other sports is the absence of a referee. Participants “self-officiate” and resolve their disputes on the field. If a frisbee skims the ground a split second before you catch it and nobody sees, it’s only your own honor that demands you turn the disc over to the other team. Players are only allowed to hold the disc for 10 seconds, and it’s up to the defender to fairly count off the time. All disputes are resolved by those on the field. If you want to play, you have to figure out how to get along.

Spinning Out of Control in a Good Way

On the Ultimate field, everybody works towards the same goal. Ultimate Peace started fast and has been growing quickly. The first camp brought 120 kids together for a one-day event. Now, a little over four years later, more than 300 kids are involved in the program year-round, and Ultimate Peace runs week-long camps both for new players and young leaders in training.

“We didn’t realize what kind of success we were going to have,” Barkan says. Today, UP draws kids from 14 different communities, including the West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Jericho, among others.

In addition to the kids, top coaches and players from around the world flock to Ultimate Peace’s camp to join in the fun and friendship. Unlike Israelis — both Arab and Jewish— international coaches are allowed to travel inside the West Bank and help spread UP’s five values: mutual respect, integrity, fun, non-violence and friendship. This year, Barkan is even putting together a multi-ethnic Middle Eastern team to travel to the World Games in Cali, Columbia. Traveling abroad means that, perhaps for the first time in their young lives, the kids will be physically standing on equal ground, working together wholly outside the context of the political disputes back home.

Ultimate Peace is working hard to expand to other countries. Nearly every week, Barkan gets a request from far-flung locales where kids want to start up an Ultimate league. Fortunately, as Barkan says, “all it takes is a piece of plastic” and you’ve got an instant, healthy way to keep 30 kids occupied. As part of what they call their “Catalyst Program," Ultimate Peace collects Frisbees at major tournaments and sends the used discs to places like India, Tanzania, and Burma to work their magic. 

Letting It Fly in the Real World

Throwing a Frisbee is all well and good, but what really matters is how people step outside of the Ultimate context and expand on the skills and attitudes they’ve acquired. Barkan relayed a story about an Arab Israeli girl who invited a couple of new Jewish friends to visit her in her hometown of Tamra.

Prior to frisbee camp, she’d never met a Jew or even an American; for their part, the Israeli kids had only ever driven right past the Arab city without stopping. And yet, because of frisbee, a Jewish mother drove her kids to Tamra, had coffee with an Arab mother, and they left their kids alone to play. Maybe the two women talked about how much their kids loved playing Ultimate, or maybe they didn’t even share a common language, but their kids brought them together. And hopefully these kids will never relinquish the bonds they built on the field. 

On her Facebook page, the Arab girl from Tamra was ecstatic about the visit. “It’s my 4th year since UP is part of my life” she wrote. “And as the years pass I become a new person who knows now how to understand things I didn’t find explanations for before … That is because I started to see UP values wherever I look, and I wish I saw life before the way I do now.” 

While there’s no single panacea for the ills of the world, Ultimate Peace is operating on the principle that people who learn to play together as kids will know how to work together as adults. All it takes is an open mind, a sense of teamwork, and the round piece of plastic that spins it all together.