“I feel bad for other sports,” Benepe continued. “I think that one day, all these sports with their all-male and all-female teams and their one lonely ball are going to wake up and see that this sport is about to take over the world.”
And quidditch—a game based on the fictional sport from J.K. Rowling’s monumental Harry Potter books, adapted to fit the limitations of mere Muggles—may be on pace to do just that.
Founded at Vermont’s Middlebury College in 2005, quidditch has become the sport of choice for a diverse crowd of college students. I even started a team here at Columbia in 2012, but my efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Though the idea of publicly prancing around with a broom between one’s legs at first only appealed to overimaginative Potter fanatics, more and more young adults—many of whom don’t know a werewolf from a Wrackspurt—are devoting their lives and livelihoods to the enchanting sport of quidditch.
Those who doubt that a fictional game involving bludgers, quaffles, snitches, and broomsticks could succeed in the real world need look no further than the most recent Quidditch World Cup in Kissimmee, Fla. The two-day event took place this past April and featured nearly 80 teams—1,600 total athletes—from across the globe. With more than 160 teams competing for those 80 spots, regional championships were held in Rhode Island, Ohio, California, Texas, France, and Australia in order to winnow the competition.
The literary origin of the game has, of course, determined its form to a degree—bludgers are thrown to temporarily knock opponents out of play, a quaffle is tossed through one of three hoops, and the capture of the snitch ends the match. But over the course of eight short years, the sport has come to look more like—well, a sport.
While you’ll still find jersey numbers such as 999, pi, and infinity, capes are no longer allowed on the pitch. Hula hoops have been replaced with sturdy PVC-pipe constructions for goal hoops. The 108-page IQA rule book is already in its seventh edition, and anyone looking for advanced quidditch statistics or strategies can consult a variety of online experts.
Of course, there are still more skeptics than believers when it comes to the legitimacy of quidditch as a sport. Logan Anbinder, a 2012 University of Maryland graduate and the IQA’s current marketing director, has experienced his fair share of incredulity from friends.
“The best thing to do as a means of changing people’s attitudes is to get them to see a match,” he insists. “They realize, when they see the tackling and the overall feats of athleticism, that it’s actually a real sport. It may sometimes look silly, but it’s also super intense.”
The mix of people drawn into the world of quidditch has certainly shifted as well, and the quidditch community has consistently expanded since the sport’s inception. On the pitch, quidditch is a melting pot of whimsical and physical play; off the pitch, it is a similarly exhilarating mix of different interests, backgrounds, and genders.
Commissioner Benepe, who runs the nonprofit International Quidditch Association alongside Chief Operating Officer Alicia Radford and Membership and Finance Director Katie Stack, explains that he has always been drawn to a sport that seeks to bring people together. “That aspect made a lasting impression on me and inspired me to keep sharing the sport with others,” he says.
Inception & Early Growth
It began in the usual way: a group of bright-eyed college first-years, a small liberal arts college, and a dull Sunday afternoon.
The first non-magical—Muggle—quidditch game, organized by Middlebury student Xander Manshel, was played on the school’s Vermont campus in October 2005. “Xander was always coming up with inventive ways to entertain himself and his friends,” Benepe explains. “During a lunchtime discussion about the coolest fictional sports, he suggested we try playing quidditch.”
Benepe, who also graduated from Middlebury, had his doubts at first: He couldn’t even recall the particulars of how quidditch was played in the books, and he never imagined that it could possibly work outside the books. But if there’s one lesson J.K. Rowling, the sport’s godmother, has always pressed, it’s that imagination is a powerful force indeed.
Using his residence hall’s budget, Manshel purchased a menagerie of ad hoc quidditch “equipment” and borrowed brooms from the university’s broomball club. Around 30 students showed up for the first game.
Benepe played seeker, a position that allowed him to leave the boundary of the quidditch pitch and trot around campus on his broomstick to search for the golden snitch. He reveled in the perplexed looks he received from passersby.“I got bitten by the quidditch bug really hard in my first game,” he remembers fondly. “It was so exciting—so freeing—to play this game that represented a serious athletic endeavor but was also, at the same time, extremely goofy.”
In 2007, Middlebury squared off against Vassar College in the very first Quidditch World Cup. Soon after, a spring break trip led by Middlebury students planted the seeds of quidditch on college campuses along the East Coast, and the game began to garner media attention from the world at large. In 2010, the World Cup made its way from Middlebury to Manhattan as the popularity of “Muggle quidditch” continued to grow.
New York also hosted the 2011 World Cup, which took place on Randall’s Island on a frosty day in mid-November. Evidence of the sport’s steady progression were on display at World Cup V: Social media volunteers tapped away on official IQA iPads to live-tweet matches, and the championship game took place at the historic Icahn Stadium—a notable upgrade from college campus lawns. But the World Cup was still a place of quirkiness: During a break between tournament games, a massive America versus Canada dodgeball game broke out—because, well, why not?
Growing the Game
“Brooms down ... eyes closed...”
Seven players each from Middlebury and the University of Florida crouched in front of their respective goal hoops, eyes obediently glued shut. The crowd amassed at Icahn Stadium for the championship match of World Cup V let out an escalating roar.
“The snitch is loose!”
Nobody moved a muscle, save for the snitch runner—a “neutral” athlete dressed entirely in yellow, complete with a Velcro-ed sock, containing the snitch, attached to the waistband of his shorts. With an impish wink, the snitch runner sprinted away from the pitch.
Those two words sent players from each side of the pitch hurtling toward the balls lined up in the middle. For one heart-stopping second, it looked as if the athletes were going to collide in a cosmic boom of quidditch-fueled passion—but at the last moment, a Florida chaser swept up the quaffle and barreled toward Middlebury’s hoops. Two opposing beaters engaged in a mini-game of dodgeball, while the beater with the extra bludger looked for enemy chasers to knock out of play.
The game wasn’t always this structured. When Anbinder showed up to his first quidditch practice at the University of Maryland, the team used backpacks as symbolic goal hoops and brooms from a local convenience store. Now, Maryland boasts a competitive squad, runs a team website, and even produce a monthly newsletter. Similar stories have cropped up across nearly every college campus with a quidditch program as players strive for acceptance among university administrators and fellow students alike.
The hard work is finally paying off. After the University of Texas at Austin defeated UCLA in a thrilling World Cup final victory this past year, UT illuminated the main building on campus to commemorate the victory—an honor also given to recognize Big 12 Conference championships.
As quidditch becomes a more physically rigorous, serious sport, it continues to incorporate elements of role-play as a means of preserving the spirit of the game in its “original” form.
The snitch runner, in particular, exemplifies the murky boundary between the realm of athletics and that of the creative arts. His or her sole purpose is to evade capture by both teams’ seekers—and this can be done by going almost anywhere and doing almost anything. Snitch runners have been known to hop on subways, perform feats of acrobatics, and whip out spray cans of Silly String. Ryan Scura, a snitch runner at the second Quidditch World Cup, will go down in quidditch history as the snitch who climbed out a third-story window of a dormitory on Middlebury’s campus and promptly scaled the building. (Please note, aspiring snitch runners, that this particular evasion tactic is now illegal according to section 8.3.8.C of the rule book.)
Word of Muggle quidditch may have originally spread through Harry Potter fan-sites, but Anbinder, a lifelong Potterphile who has read the books “probably a billion times,” notes that being a Harry Potter fan isn’t a prerequisite anymore. “We’re seeing people playing the sport at the highest and lowest levels who haven’t read the books at all,” he says.
According to Anbinder, quidditch has taken on a life of its own—but it’s going to be impossible to separate it entirely from its source. And that’s a good thing. “The broom itself is still a fundamental part of the sport,” he assures me, “and that’s not changing anytime soon. You can only play a sport where you run around with a broom between your legs so seriously.”
“Having said that,” he clarifies, “you can play it pretty seriously—and people do. The top teams have three or four practices a week, plus conditioning sessions.”
Title 9 ¾
In the wizarding world, not much is made of the fact that Quidditch is a coed sport. In the Muggle realm, however, this aspect of the game garners more attention.
The branch of the IQA responsible for promoting gender equality and inclusivity is cleverly referred to as “Title 9 ¾”—a combination of the train station platform that leads to Hogwarts (Platform 9 ¾) and the U.S. law established in 1972 to prohibit discrimination based on sex in areas such as sports (Title IX).
Yet the issue of equality for female athletes is far from being resolved. Though women have been allowed to compete at the Olympic level since 1900, the 2012 Olympics marked the first time that they competed alongside men in every single sport. In other words, it took more than a century for full equality of opportunity to establish itself on the international stage.
Even though professional women’s sports leagues do exist, they receive a microscopic amount of media attention and commercial sponsorship compared to their male counterparts. Meanwhile, men who do not conform to the heteronormative machismo culture of professional athletics are frequently marginalized as well. To be fair, several organizations—among them Athlete Ally, founded by Columbia’s wrestling coach, Hudson Taylor—have taken up the fight to abolish sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in sports.
But while other sports have struggled to incorporate gender sensitivity into a rigid, already established culture, the International Quidditch Association made gender equality a core value upon which the sport was founded. As the IQA rule book stipulates, “Each team must have at least two players in play who identify with a different gender than at least two other players.” Commissioner Benepe explains that “Title 9 ¾ is particularly progressive in the sports world because it focuses on personal conceptions of gender, and not biological sex.”
As such, Title 9 ¾ is even more idealistic than Title IX; one could say that the added ¾ represents the way in which quidditch leapfrogs over the implicitly separate-but-equal nature of Title IX, pushing the envelope even further.
“What appeals to people about quidditch is that the community is so connected in a way that not many other communities are. The coed nature helps with that because you definitely get more of a diverse community than you would if you just had all male players or all female players,” Anbinder says.
It is this spirit of inclusiveness—so integral to the sport of quidditch—that differentiates it from its counterparts. Benepe fondly recounts a moment from a previous World Cup: “A boy around seven years old came up to me and said, ‘One day, I’m going to go to Middlebury College and play, too!’” He smiles at the memory. “That’s when I realized that quidditch can become more than just an amusing college activity—it has the potential to develop globally and improve people’s lives.”
In a sweetly nostalgic twist, children such as this young boy might grow up playing quidditch in much the same way that our generation grew up reading about it.
But however far it progresses, quidditch will always represent an archetypal product of Generation Y. Members of Gen Y, born between roughly 1980 and 2000, came of age during the era of boy-bands, AOL Instant Messenger, and, of course, a modest literary phenomenon called Harry Potter. It is specifically our generation’s proclivity for nostalgia that has kept the momentum going for a franchise that, for all intents and purposes, had reached the end of its track.“Quidditch grew just as the book series and movie series were winding down,” Anbinder explains. In other words, “I open at the close”—Albus Dumbledore’s lasting message to the boy wizard, fittingly engraved on a Golden Snitch—contains an unintentional but no less meaningful allusion to the opportunities presented by the book series even after its canonical conclusion. Still the overarching question remains: Why the continued obsession?
Gen Y’s fixation with prolonging J.K. Rowling’s story prompted New York Times reporter David Browne to declare that “Harry Potter is their Peter Pan.” Neil Howe, author of several books on the nostalgia-stricken Gen Y, points to 9/11 as the ultimate turning point for our generation. (Even the Harry Potter books themselves became progressively darker at the turn of the new millennium.)
The events and aftermath of 9/11, affected Gen Y-ers in an interesting way: Because the loss of innocence experienced that day compelled us to grow up more quickly, we derive comfort from hearkening back to the more innocent-minded days of our youth—by, paradoxically, refusing to grow up. Hence the Peter Pan epithet.
But Generation Y is not solely concerned with the wistful days of yesteryear—we are also at the forefront of the rapidly advancing social landscape of the here and now, and the fruition of quidditch epitomizes many of these societal changes.
The gender-neutral language incorporated into the foundation of the game is intentionally geared at promoting acceptance of all genders. Plus, Lindsay Garten, a 2013 Barnard College graduate and a writer on the IQA’s editorial staff, identifies the developing world of social media as key to the exponential growth of the popularity of quidditch and the IQA. Social media sites—in addition to established Harry Potter fan-sites—helped promote the game in its infancy and have since helped keep it on the scene.
The Columbia Roarcruxes
“Qui veut jouer au quidditch?” queries the University of Ottawa ad plastered on bus stops across several Canadian provinces. “Who wants to play quidditch?”
This is a question that more and more universities are posing to their prospective students—and in a growing number of cases, the replies come back overwhelmingly in the affirmative.
When Anbinder was a campus tour guide at Maryland, he frequently slipped in quidditch plugs during his presentations. But Anbinder believes there’s room for further expansion of the game.
“It’s definitely gratifying to see that people are looking for schools with quidditch teams,” he allows. “But if you have to look, it means that quidditch isn’t yet at every school, which is one of our ultimate goals.”
One school sorely lacking in the quidditch department is our very own Columbia, where the position of “quidditch club founder” is starting to eerily resemble the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in the Potter books—that is, no one keeps it for long.
Aviva Hamavid, who graduated from Barnard in 2012, and I were the latest to occupy this post. Before that, briefly, it was 2013 Barnard graduate Chloe Gogo.
As Benepe puts it, it’s nearly impossible to shake the “quidditch bug” after your first experience. As a result, I spent the summer after the DeWitt Clinton Park Quidditch World Cup scavenging for fellow quidditch aficionados at Columbia. Hamavid had the same idea, and a chat with Benepe led her to me.
In September 2011, Hamavid and I staged an unofficial quidditch practice on the slim, un-gated lawn in front of Butler in order to promote our fledgling club. Given that, at any point during the school year, the majority of the student body is heading in and out of Butler, we figured this would be a convenient location for maximum exposure.
We made flyers, updated our Facebook statuses, coerced our friends into supporting us, and then borrowed two blue bins in order to schlep official IQA equipment from the 107th Street Manhattan Mini Storage up to campus. We rolled a duffle bag bursting with broomsticks and six deconstructed quidditch hoops up Broadway and—after checking our egos at the Columbia gates—right onto College Walk.
The practice was mildly successful; we did manage to garner some interest from fellow students, and we even got a pickup game going. (For those keeping score at home, Team Butler crushed Team Low.) We were also, a little while later, featured on Bwog, and came up with a kick-ass team name: “The Columbia Roarcruxes.”
But the irony of having dozens of students plow right by—perhaps after pausing for a microsecond in order to Instagram this bizarre phenomenon—and walk straight into the library because “I have so much work to do!” was not lost on me. And as the semester wore on, those of us who were trying to spearhead the quidditch-at-Columbia movement found ourselves feeling the heat as well. I had a full course load, a part-time internship, ice hockey club practices and games, and Jewish-holiday restrictions. Hamavid was focused on graduating early, finishing her senior thesis, and acting as president of the Flute Choir while also performing in the Marching Band and Klezmer Band, working in a lab, and working an extra job with a professor.
Given the average Columbia student’s absurdly busy schedule, it became increasingly difficult to organize weekly practice times. The weather was as fickle as ever, and more than a fair few practices were canceled due to rain. With a dearth of practices and no discernible presence on campus, the enthusiasm soon fizzled out.
Space, of course, was one of the biggest issues—but it is not one faced by Columbia alone. City schools such as Emerson College in Boston and NYU have also experienced difficulties finding practice fields. Garten, who played at Maryland before transferring to Barnard, notes that the Maryland team practices in a very central part of campus, and it is impossible for anyone walking by not to take notice.
Unfortunately, the only space that would qualify as a “very central part of campus” would be South Lawn—but this is off-limits to organized sports thanks to the urban-centric notion that the foreign specimen known as “grass” is mainly for show.
Nowadays, however, NYU and Emerson both boast thriving quidditch programs. So, why has the sport persistently failed at Columbia? Hamavid points to a number of factors, all of which, taken together, spelled disaster for the Roarcrux cubs.
“There were just too many hurdles,” Hamavid notes. “We had to deal with a lack of practice space, unreliability of people coming, and general lack of time. If any one of those weren’t true, it might have worked. If we had a slightly larger core group of people who wanted it to happen, we could have done it. If the few of us who were doing it had even a little time to invest in making it work, we could have done it. But all of those factors added together made it rough.”
However, as a wise wizard once professed, “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” Columbia is fertile ground for a sport like quidditch, and Benepe—an Upper West Side resident himself—is holding out hope that, like the mythical phoenix, quidditch at Columbia will rise again.
He explains that the enthusiasm of the NYU team in particular propelled it past the challenges imparted on the students by their school’s location. “They would walk miles, carrying quidditch hoops, just to go play. They’re head over heels in love with the sport and in love with their team, and that passion has allowed them to overcome the vast logistical challenges. I have to hand it to them: They were scrappy and determined and really built an amazing program.”
Real and Ideal
As Benepe and his staff prepare for the 2014 World Cup in South Carolina, he takes a moment to reflect on the astounding growth of quidditch both on and off the pitch. “Every time I show up to a tournament, I can’t believe how far we’ve come,” Benepe says. “I think, ‘Wow. This sport is real. What we’ve been doing all this time is actually, physically real.’”
The IQA values its players as complex individuals, not as cookie-cutter representations of particular social and gender categories. “Male” and “female” aren’t looked upon as confining categories of gender, and one doesn’t have to fit snugly on one side of the “athlete”-“book nerd” divide, either, in order to engage in the sport.
Garten relates the story of a friend who was considering transferring from her school, but ended up staying after she joined the quidditch team. “She finally felt that she fit in,” Garten says.
Anbinder elaborates on the uniquely close-knit quidditch culture. “After a game, players go through a line of hugs rather than a line of handshakes, and that speaks volumes about the level of friendship in the community. You can be tackling someone and trying to steal the quaffle on the pitch, and afterwards you’ll be talking and hanging out and watching other matches together.” Just like magic.