Beach ultimate disc-sport, a five-on-five game played with a flying plastic disc, could eventually become an Olympic sport. For now, it's a little-known subculture for its enthusiasts to cherish.
It's frisbee season! Of course, it's nearly always frisbee season - if you happen to be an enthusiast of the sport and you know where to go to find it.
Viareggio, a beach resort town on the west coast of Tuscany in northern Italy, is a favorite holiday spot for northern Italian families. But every September, after the town's tourism high-season is over, more than 200 frisbee-hucking athletes gather on a sandy beach nearby to take part in a major event on their subculture calendar: A tournament called Burla Beach Cup.
Beach ultimate frisbee - often called "beach ulti" by aficionados - is the beach version of a team sport more often played on grass. The beach version is played five-on-five, on grass it's seven-on-seven.
Fair play comes first
The game involves a great deal of running, sophisticated field tactics, and high-precision disc throwing and catching skills. And it has a very special feature: No referees. Fouls are called on a peer-pressure-regulated honor system.
Fair play and friendly competition are at the heart of the "spirit of the game," an ethic the ulti community nurtures carefully. Teams rank each other on their spirit after every game, and at the end of every tournament a spirit prize is given to the team voted as exemplifying the best blend of fun, friendliness and competitive ferocity.
Viva la Playa!
Ulti involves enormous physical exertion, so beach ulti games are generally followed by a collective sweaty rush into the waves to cool off. The swimming is one reason why some players prefer beach ulti to grass-field ulti; another is that running on sand is easier on the joints. And beach ulti subculture is a bit easier-going.
"The beach ulti scene is like the grass-field ulti scene was 20 years ago," Burla veteran Volker Lehmann told DW. "The community is still small enough that you see old friends; the spirit is competitive but not over-serious, the emphasis is on fun… I just love it."
Lehmann, a tall, laid-back 48-year-old software professional from southern Germany, was at Burla with Quattro Stazioni, a long-established German club team that comes together three or four times a year to play beach ulti tournaments - including Burla.
A lifestyle, not just a game
Lehmann has been part of Europe's ulti community since the 1990s. For him, the sport isn't a mere hobby, it's a lifestyle - "the main focus of my life apart from work." He travels to 15 beach ulti tournaments each year all over Europe, plus a few grass-field tournaments.
"I like beach tournaments best," Lehmann said. "There's something about playing a tournament on a beach that reminds everyone that we're here to have a good time."
Lehmann's deep commitment to the sport isn't unusual in the ulti community. There's a solid core of several hundred players in Europe for whom playing ulti is a major life focus - and there are many thousands of such players in North America, where the sport has its origins.
This past May, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially recognized the international governing body for disc-sports, the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF).
Volker Bernardi, a sports lawyer and the WFDF's executive director since 2011 told DW that this was "a crucial milestone for the development of disc-sports."
IOC recognition means disc-sport organizations will soon be able to apply for government funding. In addition to ultimate and beach ultimate, the WFDF also represents several other disc-sports, including freestyle, double disc court, and disc golf.
IOC recognition also opens the door to ulti becoming an Olympic sport - eventually.
"Ulti in the Olympics? That'll be after our time," Volker Lehmann said. "Whatever changes it brings, it won't happen for another 10 years or so, and we'll be retired by then."
DW reporter Nils Zimmermann is a beach ulti player. In Viareggio, he played for the Quattro Stazioni team, which came in third out of 16 teams at Burla Beach Cup.