A New Dawn For African Ultimate

The path of three teams to WUCC.

Kisumu Frisbee Club goes over tactics.
Kisumu Frisbee Club goes over tactics. (Photo: Kisumu Frisbee Club)

Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2018 WFDF World Ultimate Club Championships is presented by VC Ultimate; all opinions are those of the authors. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at VC Ultimate!

Disclosure: The author hails from South Africa and will compete with the UCT Flying Tigers at WUCC.

In less than a week, 128 teams will converge on Cincinnati, Ohio, to compete in the largest tournament our sport has to offer. 128 teams from all over the world in what will likely be the highlight of their ultimate career. 128 teams, and somehow only three from Africa.

Despite featuring 54 unique countries and supporting over 1.2 billion people, ultimate has struggled to find its place on the continent. While ultimate remains a fringe sport on every continent, Africa is different. Even in countries with established disc cultures, ultimate has yet to hit the main stage because of the popularity of other sports. Football, cricket, rugby, basketball, and a host of other sports dominate the media and public interest. Interest may be a challenge, but, usually, accessibility is not. In Africa, it is.

Weak currencies, translation errors, and the cost of transport all contribute to the stunted growth of ultimate on the continent. Even just trying to ship discs into their nation can incur huge costs that players cannot afford.

Isolation is another huge problem. In many African countries, there is only one club team in the entire nation, and they have no one to test their skill against as they try to compete. Even at the second-ever All-African Ultimate Club Championships held last year, only 10 teams from seven countries managed to make it to Nairobi, Kenya, to compete. For many competitors, it was their first time outside of their home country. For some, it was their first time out of their city.

Despite those challenges, there are three teams traveling from Africa to compete at WUCC this year. So what makes these three teams outliers? How did they make it to Worlds despite the roadblocks along the way? This is their path to WUCC. This is the story of ultimate in Africa.

South Africa’s UCT Flying Tigers (Mixed)

The road was not easy for University of Cape Town to make it to Club Worlds. For a start, the team is entirely made up of current or recently graduated university students. In order to even qualify for WUCCs, this university team had to compete at South African Mixed Nationals, currently the largest tournament in Africa. Luckily, the university has had unprecedented success at the tournament over the years. “We’ve consistently been a title contender for the past six years,” said captain Jarid North.

Despite all their success, 2017 was the first year that UCT managed to actually win Mixed Nationals, earning them the title as the best team in South Africa and the right to the WUCC bid. That same year, UCT also went to the All-African Championships. There, they competed against nine other teams before defeating Ghost Ultimate, the South African team that went to WUCCs in Lecco in 2014, to win the tournament.

UCT had done everything possible to claim a spot at WUCC. Yet when bids were announced, South Africa had not qualified for a Mixed bid. The captains were especially hurt. “We had been expecting the bid for a while… It was devastating when we didn’t get it,” said North. “We tried reasoning, arguing, and figuring out other solutions to make our point.” After a little back-and-forth with WFDF, UCT was placed at the top of the waiting list, but this still was deflating for a team that was not only national champions but continental ones, too.

It was a long three weeks before UCT heard any official ruling from WFDF, but eventually, the team was awarded a bid. They were all set to go to Cincinnati. There was only one major roadblock in the way.

As mentioned previously, the Flying Tigers are a team of university students, which presents a unique problem: almost no one on the team is gainfully employed. “Our biggest hindrance for the team is definitely financials,” said North. “We lost a number of our initial Nationals winning team.”

WUCC is the most expensive tournament ever run by WFDF, and the costs meant that a number of players that won Mixed Nationals with the team could not compete. The national governing body, SAFDA, allowed the team to recruit a few out-of-team ringers, but the squad also wanted to keep the culture of the team intact.

“We ended up picking mainly from the talented pool of alumni from UCT who contributed to the club’s success in the past,” said North. “We then reached out to some players from the U24 team that was unable to make it to Worlds in Perth. The team is young, but we all want to play hard and have fun.”

Making enough money to get to Cincinnati wasn’t easy, but there was enough determination that a full 23 players managed to pull together the necessary money to compete. Now, the team is ready to represent South Africa in the mixed division and perhaps surprise a few teams with their speed and energy along the way.

Kenya’s Kisumu Frisbee Club (Mixed)

Kisumu’s rise in Kenyan ultimate is almost unprecedented by world standards. The club started as a laid-back weekly game by players who hardly knew the rules. But when Michael McGuirk arrived on the scene in 2013 and was willing to coach the team to prepare for competitive ultimate, the players immediately jumped at the chance to improve their skills. In less than a year, a number of players from this team make the trek to Uganda to play in their first international tournament. It wasn’t much longer after that, in early 2014, that Kisumu would win Kenyan Beach Nationals. The rest, as they say, is history.

Except, not really. Travel has always been an issue for the Kenyan squad, particularly internationally. Many of the players had never needed to go more than 20 kilometers outside of Kisumu before ultimate. Flying wasn’t even considered as a possibility. Even after earning a bid to Club Worlds, Kisumu still had a long road ahead of them. Passports had to be created, visas needed to be approved, and flights had to be booked. All of these cost funds that the team didn’t have.

“Without fundraising, it wouldn’t even be in the realm of possibility to go to Worlds,” McGuirk told the Cincinnati Enquirer for a profile the paper did on the team. “They are in a country where the currency is weak and they have relatively low salaries. They’re not destitute poor in Kenya, but compared to a U.S. dollar conversion, or even just a plane ticket to America, there was no way it could happen.”

But the African team was resilient and the international ultimate community was generous. Kisumu started a GoFundMe to try a raise $21,345 before the tournament, a daunting task to be sure. The team reached out to local news, international outlets, and shared their plight on social media every chance they could. Now, in the final week of the campaign, they are over 96% funded. It’s taken four months and more than 290 backers, but Kisumu is on the brink of competing in their first World Ultimate Club Championships.

South Africa’s Long Donkeys (Men’s)

The Long Donkeys have a storied history in South African ultimate. As one of the most successful ultimate clubs in the nation, the Pietermaritzburg squad has always had a target on their back. They play a very specific brand of ultimate and have a number of zone defenses that have kept them as perennial finalists for most of the past decade.

That’s not to say that they are without competition: teams like UCT, Chilli, and Ghost have always been right there with them, trading blows and keeping each other sharp. But while many of their opponents have seen recent success in the mixed division, the Long Donkeys absolutely dominated the competition at open and women’s Nationals, beating UCT 17-8 in the 2017 open final. Such a wide margin of victory left no question that they were the best men’s team in the nation, so when South Africa earned a bid in the men’s division at WUCCs, the Long Donkeys jumped at the chance to test themselves internationally.

There was still a catch, though. The teams that won open and women’s Nationals weren’t exactly a conventional organization. It happened to only feature a roster of 10 players. From the beginning, the team was under no illusions that those numbers would be enough for their Club Worlds campaign. While their shorter roster worked for a two-day tournament close to home, WUCCs would require a full week of ultimate, and a full roster to match that.

So with a little under a year to prepare, the Donkeys started putting together a full team that could play their brand of ultimate and compete with the team in Cincinnati. They pulled back in some players that were considering retiring and brought over a few more that had played with the team in previous years. Assembling the team had its own share of problems, affording the tournament was a sacrifice for some players, and the WFDF deadline meant that they didn’t have long to make up their mind.

But even with some players on the fence about coming, the bulk of the team was ready to go.

Now, just days away from WUCC, 19 proud Long Donkeys stand ready to take on the men’s division. The team won Nationals with only 10 players; perhaps doubling their numbers just means doubling their potential.

After Dawn Breaks

As of right now, Africa stands on the brink of breaking into the international ultimate scene. South Africa has participated in WFDF events for almost two decades, but the emergence of Kenya is promising. The AAUCC showed that there are African nations that have a genuine desire to play ultimate and grow the sport in their respective nations.

But this brings us back to the problem at large: as long as ultimate tournaments are held in locations where travel, food, and accommodation is comparatively expensive, the sport will never find a strong enough foothold on the continent. Teams from Africa cannot rely on crowdfunding for every tournament. Time and again we’ve seen campaigns struggle to reach their goals. There is a considerable amount of necessary infrastructure needed to host a tournament like WUCCs, but it excludes many African nations in turn. Flying anywhere in the world from central or southern Africa is at least a 10-hour flight, even to Europe. WUCC this year was closer to 22 hours. If we want more participation from African teams, we’ll have to find a way to decrease the cost of tournaments or subsidize their expenses.

It’s not all bad news, though. There is still hope on the horizon for Africa. There are many examples in ultimate of teams overcoming incredible odds to make it to international events. Indian ultimate has blossomed despite the challenges their teams have faced in the past. Even if access to World Championship events remain a problem, African ultimate will still grow, develop, and become an entity in and of itself. We might not more than a handful of African teams competing in international events for a while but they’ll still be playing, even if the eyes of the world are not on them.

It may not be next year, or even in this decade, but there will eventually be an international WFDF event held in Africa. All I can say is, when that time comes, look out world.

  1. Graham Gerhart

    Graham graduated from the University of Cape Town in South Africa after playing 4 years with the UCT Flying Tigers. He is both a women's and mixed division reporter for Ultiworld while working full time in San Diego. Follow him on twitter @JustGrahamG

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