Real world quidditch


October 29, 2013

I pull up to a lonely patch of grass nestled between Trinity College and the Swan River in East Perth, where two sets of strange-looking hoops mark the loose boundaries of a pitch.

Lengths of pipe, each roughly a metre long, and an assortment of balls are strewn about near an old sedan where six people in black and gold uniforms are gathered.

It’s a warm Sunday afternoon and James Hyder, 19, is instructing his team, the Perth Phoenixes, on the first drill in today’s training session. Breaking the huddle, the players grab a slightly deflated volleyball and split into teams of three. With one hand, each player supports a length of pipe wedged between their legs.

It all seems a bit goofy.

Then play begins. The teams hurtle up and down the pitch in a flurry of flailing arms and errant pipes. Players — both male and female — bump and tackle each other as they try to score by putting the ball through one of the hoops. There’s no malice in the contact – it’s just a side effect of the players’ enthusiasm. Each score sees a brief respite from the melee as the teams retreat to their defensive hoops before play resumes. Eventually, the drill’s furious pace forces Hyder to call for a break.

It’s hard to grasp that this frenzied sport has its roots in a children’s book about a boy wizard.

J.K. Rowling devised the sport, called quidditch, as the sport of choice for wizards in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – played on flying broomsticks, naturally.

In Rowling’s version of the game, quidditch teams have seven players: three chasers, two beaters, a keeper, and a seeker. The chasers put a red ball called a ‘quaffle’ through 50-foot high hoops to score 10 points. The keeper tries to stop them. Beaters use small bats to direct two bludgers — balls enchanted to knock out the closest player — away from teammates and toward opponents. The seekers have one job: to catch the snitch. The snitch is a small, golden ball with wings, released when the game starts. Each match only ends when the seekers catch the snitch.

Quidditch became one of the most loved features of Rowling’s world. But given none of us muggles — Rowling’s term for non-wizards ­— had flying brooms, snitches, or bludgers handy. The sport was restricted to her books and the movies on which they were based.

Enter ‘muggle quidditch’, the illegitimate offspring of Rowling’s fictional game and the mind of Xander Manshel – a former student at Middlebury College in the leafy US state of Vermont.

Manshel’s game is similar to Rowling’s, but with some changes to make it work in the real world. For instance, the brooms don’t fly, but players must hold a surrogate broom between their legs with one hand at all times. A volleyball serves as quaffle, slightly deflated so players can grip it with one hand. Dodgeballs serve as bludgers, players hit are out of play until they touch their home hoops. The snitch no longer has wings but is now a small ball in a sock tucked into the shorts of a snitch runner – the only person without a broom. The result is a unique contact sport with elements of dodgeball, rugby, basketball and soccer.

Since the first game in 2005, the sport has spread across the world, with 932 teams in the US alone. The sport also has a World Cup, which Middlebury College won every year before failing to qualify for World Cup VI held in Florida this year.

The Australian quidditch community began with the formation of seven teams in 2011. It has since become the largest quidditch community outside North America. Australia now has 22 teams, and more than 290 players have now played in official matches.

As the sport grows, one cause of debate is how firmly quidditch should align itself with the world of Harry Potter.

Hyder – who is president of the West Australian Quidditch Association – says the Harry Potter aspect attracts people who would otherwise dislike sport.

WAQA vice-president Eva Setiadi says there is a perception that quidditch is for nerds, which she says prevents people appreciating the athletic nature of the game.

The solution, she says, is to acknowledge Harry Potter as where quidditch originated, but set it apart as a real sport.

Hyder is confident that the Phoenixes, winners of the Midwinter Cup in 2012, will give the national quidditch championships – slated for November 30 to December 1 this year at the University of Western Sydney – a good shake.

“We’ve got a few secret weapons,” Hyder says.

One of the secret weapons is the team’s seeker, a former state-level cross-country runner.

“For us to have any chance, we need to keep it close and then get lucky with snitch catches most games,” Hyder says.

“It always comes down to the snitch.”

Despite the secret weapons, Hyder insists the team’s success will come from its depth, not the skills of any one player.

The team’s female contingent accounts for much of that depth. The sport requires at least two players of each gender on the pitch at all times. But watching Setiadi use her solid build and low centre of gravity to shake off defenders, simply bowling over those she can’t, it’s plain to see she’d be very competitive, gender ratio or not.

Hyder says men and women have their own strengths and must be used intelligently for a team to win.

He says that within the next five years the sport aims to have a team based at every Western Australian university.

For the moment though, Hyder’s focus is on winning the national title for the first time.

The training session at East Perth is witnessed only by the occasional passer by who stares at the players, puzzled, as if having taken a wrong turn into some strange, enchanted realm.

Who knows?

Perhaps they have.

Categories: Sport

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