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Why athletes brave pooh-poohing to play the 'ultimate' sport

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When a team of Bostonians brought home a world championship this summer, the city yawned. There were no photographers, no brass bands, no autograph seekers. The only people at the airport, recalls one player, were a few friends and customs agents.

It is the price of being a superstar in the little-known sport of Ultimate Frisbee.

The world-champion Rude Boys have grown used to paying the dues of obscurity. They patiently answer strangers' questions about whether the sport uses dogs. (It does not.) They endure those who pooh-pooh the serious training required. And, one player laments, they often give up their social lives to play the game.

There is something engrossing about this sport.

Grown men hurtle downfield at full tilt. They dive, they jump, to catch a spinning plastic disk before it hits the ground (see photos, Pages 32 and 33). In quieter moments, the players yearn for recognition - which is not too surprising, even for a team led by a studio photographer and staffed by a biochemist, two naval architects, a cabinetmaker, and 12 other young men, mostly in their mid-20s.

This year, Ultimate players have taken the first step toward the limelight by accepting a large corporate sponsor. But it was an agonizing decision. If the sport becomes as popular as football and basketball, players ask, does it risk losing something of its spirit and its fun?

Others may rightly ask how it could possibly become popular.

It would be difficult, says sports historian Ronald Smith, but Ultimate could take hold if it lost its oddball image and became recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association or the Olympics. Historically, says the Penn State professor, the key to a sport's success has been the importance of its sponsors.

Football caught on, Professor Smith points out, mainly because an early form of the game was played by Harvard. Basketball took off because it was backed by the YMCA and the public school system. Ultimate has ''the right mixture of things to make it a (popular) sport,'' Smith says. ''It's a lot more fun to play than football, for most people.''

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