The bone-crushing thud of a body hitting the ground. The splintering sound of a broom breaking. I’m at my first Quidditch match and am discovering it’s not for the faint-hearted.
The sport, brought to life from J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume Harry Potter novel series, has quickly become a permanent fixture on many college campuses, including UCLA, which last weekend hosted the third annual Western Cup. Nineteen teams—including the Power Grangers, Dirigible Plums, Narwhals, and The Prisoners of Kickasskaban—faced off in a grueling two-day tournament that pitted their strength, speed, endurance, and hand-eye coordination—not to mention the ability to keep a broomstick between their legs at all times.
Quidditch, as Harry Potter fans know, is played flying atop broomsticks. While I saw no one soar through the air, experiencing the nascent and theatrical sport firsthand gives you the opportunity to see just how brutal, competitive, and unique it is—a combination of rugby, basketball, and dodgeball, mixed in a witch’s cauldron.
Despite misconceptions about “Muggle” (i.e., nonmagical types) or “Ground” Quidditch, it is not a sport for nerds. “It’s really competitive and it’s not a sissy sport,” said UCLA freshman Sarah Coleman, a beater—they play defense—on the Wizards of Westwood team. “There’s blood … It is full-contact, with no pads, and it’s more intense than rugby.” Many Quidditch players are serious athletes who, to borrow parlance from the books, look more like Cedric Diggory than, say, Neville Longbottom.
Keeper (goalie) and chaser (point-scorer) Zach Lewis, who towers over many of his teammates, is a former high-school basketball and baseball player, who joined the team because it seemed like a “great way to work out.” He stressed that it is a physical sport, that there is tackling. As for the broom? “It seemed strange at the beginning but you get over it quickly,” he said. “You just think, yeah, I’m holding a broom.”
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Still, even the players admit that there is a geeky element to the sport. “We are a bunch of nerds: we’re running around on broomsticks,” said UCLA sophomore Katelynn Kazane, a chaser. “You have to suspend some of your seriousness, [but] it’s one of the roughest sports I’ve ever played … It’s not just jocks or just a bunch of nerds who dress up and go to conventions. Some of us do, but some of us haven’t read the books and aren’t into videogames. It’s a combination of two worlds.”
Asher King Abramson, UCLA Quidditch president and beater, agreed. “A lot of teams start out as community Harry Potter clubs, run around with capes and wands,” he said. “But when you get to higher levels of competition, Quidditch becomes more of a sport and less of an extension of the Harry Potter universe.”
It’s also coed, and many of the women are only too happy to knock the wind out of their male adversaries. “For the first two weeks [of playing], the guys don’t want to tackle a girl: ‘I might break them or something,’ ” said Kazane. “When you knock a guy down, they say, ‘OK, we have to guard you.’ ”
The players on the field are part of a generation of young adults who grew up reading Rowling’s novels and who dreamed of one day taking to the sky in a Quidditch match. “It’s a childhood dream fulfilled,” said Coleman, who checked which schools had Quidditch teams when she was applying to college. “Something clicked,” Kazane said of the first time she played. “I don’t want to say it was magical, because that’s lame, but it was like falling in love.”
Yet, there is magic there. “Quidditch is a magical game that, by all rights, shouldn’t exist,” said Abramson. “We’ve managed to maintain the spirit of the game from the book and turn it into a physical experience that makes people chuckle, gasp, cringe, and, most importantly, want to get involved … It’s a balance of liberal-artsy craziness and all-out competition that you can’t find in any other activity on earth.”
In 2005, Middlebury College student Alexander Manshel—who would become the first Quidditch commissioner—devised a way to take Rowling’s creation and transform it into a physical sport. There are now more than 1000 Quidditch teams around the world recognized by the sport’s governing body, the International Quidditch Association.
Stripping away the spells and remembering the immutable laws of gravity, Manshel kept the basics of Rowling’s rules of Quidditch while creating a playable sport. In the books, Quidditch is a high-flying game in which the players zoom around a three-dimensional pitch on brooms, casting spells, pummeling each other with dodgeball-like bludgers, and trying to score goals by throwing a volleyball-like quaffle through three round goals. (And, oh, occasionally, the golden snitch—a flying spherical ball—will flutter into the proceedings, creating chaos.)
In Muggle Quidditch, players maneuver around a field with one hand on their broomsticks at all times. The match begins with all players on bended knee, their eyes closed (so as not to see the golden snitch—here embodied by a person dressed in yellow—leave the field of play), until the ref gives the order of “Brooms up!” Then, all hell breaks loose.
Watching it, it’s an exciting blur: the quaffle is forcefully hurled through goals (mounted hula-hoops); players are hit—hard—by fast-moving bludgers while others are tackled; a broom handle injures one male player in a very difficult to watch way. But despite the seeming chaos, it takes skill to make it through the crucible and score a goal. The proceedings are cloaked in a degree of whimsy: one ref wears a paper crown, and another is dressed in the robes of a Hogwarts professor; suited representatives from the IQA have feathers in their hats, while the snitch, on a break, dons a kilt.
UCLA freshman Brady Stanley, a musical-theater major dressed in head-to-toe gold, performed the role of one of the snitches at the Western Cup. A tennis ball in a sock was affixed to his lower back à la flag football, and he was given about a square mile of the campus to hide out in before returning to the field with the seeker in hot pursuit. Once there, he did everything he could to disrupt the game while the seeker tried to grab the snitch. (Capturing the golden snitch gives the winning team an extra 30 points and ends gameplay.)
“A good snitch is somebody who can run well, fight well, or both,” said Stanley. “But not only do they have to be able to defend themselves in some sort of physicalized form, but they have to be somewhat entertaining to the audience. We’re sort of the mascot and it turns into a game of ‘chase the mascot’ and eventually ‘tackle the mascot.’ ”
As for Rowling, she’s been rather quiet about Quidditch. Rowling’s publicist confirmed that the author is aware of the real-life existence of the sport, but said that the Harry Potter creator wouldn’t comment further.
“I’ve heard different things,” said James Luby, captain of UCLA’s B team, the Wizards of Westwood. “That she’s against it, that she’s happy about it. I would say that if I were to write a book and this were to happen, I would be pretty thrilled.”
Rowling should at least be happy that Quidditch, like her books, has a way of bringing people together in some very unexpected ways. More than 1,000 spectators attended the Western Cup and there was a sense of true diversity—gender, ethnicity, and body type—among both the crowd and the players themselves.
The UCLA team, who placed eighth overall in last year’s World Cup, made it all the way to the final match of the Western Cup, where, bruised and battered, they faced off with their crosstown rivals USC, but the Trojans ultimately flew away with the Western Cup title after a vicious match. “There was no question that we were fatigued in the finals,” said Abramson. “That being said, USC totally deserved their win. They matched up well with us and caught the snitch when it counted most. We'll be bringing over the Golden Remembrall—the Quidditch version of the UCLA-USC Victory Bell—soon.”
It’s part of the good sportsmanship that marks the game. “Winning isn’t everything,” said Kazane. “We could lose every game and still have a great time. OK, maybe not every game, but we’re going to have a great time no matter what.”
While it is an intense sport, the heart of the game is the magic and camaraderie that comes from being part of this unique experience. The goal at the end isn’t just to win, but to put your broom down and acknowledge, in Rowling’s words, “mischief managed,” something embodied in the unpredictability of the golden snitch.
“You can be as mischievous as you want,” said Stanley, “but the No. 1 rule of Quidditch is, ‘Don’t be a dick.’ ”