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Muggle Quidditch

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014

Words by Simon Farley
Illustration by Shijing Zhang

In his foreword to Kennilworthy Whisp’s Quidditch Through The Ages, Albus Dumbledore writes, “All that remains is for me… to beg Muggles not to try Quidditch at home; it is, of course, an entirely fictional sport and nobody really plays it.”

Clearly some people missed the memo, because ‘muggle quidditch’, as it’s known, is not in the least fictional. Thousands of people across the world play and enjoy it every day. For a brief moment in O-Week, I became one of them.

I head down to University Square for a come-and-try session run by the Melbourne Unicorns, our university’s very own quidditch team. Being singularly woeful at everything that requires hand-eye co- ordination and/or a basic level of aerobic fitness, I’m a little nervous, so I chat with three of the Unicorns themselves—Ethan, Nic, and Stephen.

Ethan remembers his first “proper” game. Initially, he thought it would be a pretty gentle bit of fun. Then he watched a game and thought, “holy shit, I’m going to die.” Quidditch is a contact sport, and, as Nic repeatedly reminds me, “there’s a lot of running.” This is not assuaging my fears.

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For those of you who are so curmudgeonly/contrarian/generally terrible as to have never read a Harry Potter novel or seen any of the films, first of all—shame on you. Secondly, let me explain Quidditch.

Quidditch is the premier sport of Magical Europe, if not the whole Wizarding World. The rules are, at first, impenetrable: the seven-a-side teams have four different positions (keeper, seeker, chaser, beater), utilising three different types of ball (snitch, quaffle, bludger). Matches can last for seconds, hours, even multiple days and weeks. Oh, and the players all ride flying broomsticks, competing fiercely high above the ground.

Muggle quidditch (note the lower-case ‘q’) differs in one key regard: there is no magic. It may be ‘the sport of warlocks’, but in our world the players are not wizards and witches. No one flies, the balls do not whizz around of their own accord, and injuries aren’t healed with the flick of a wand.

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Nic and Stephen are both Harry Potter fans, heavily involved in the Melbourne University Potter Heads club, affectionately known as MUPH. Ethan says that he’s more interested in quidditch as a sport in and of itself. Nic is quick to affirm this attitude. “It is based on Harry Potter but it’s sort of evolved its own identity… it’s a really solid sport with good gameplay.”

So the sporting elements appeal to them more than the escapist, wish-fulfilment angle?

“At first it’s like ‘oh I’m a wizard, I’m flying on a broom’,” Stephen concedes, “then after a while you start getting really serious about it.” This is not to say it doesn’t remain fun. Ethan carries on the point.

“A lot of people take it seriously, but not in a boring sense. Like, ‘Let’s all have fun but we are gonna play really hard to win’.”

Stephen agrees. “There [are] no very hardcore players in … the Victorian League. The [more] serious players don’t mind messing around a little bit, they can take a few jokes.”

It may feel legitimate or ‘serious’ enough to the players, but I wonder if they ever cop shit from uninitiated friends, or even strangers.

“You get two kinds of reaction,” Ethan tells me. “You get [deadpan, sardonic] ‘wait, what? you play quidditch? Seriously?’ And then there’s [hyper-enthusiastic] ‘holy shit that’s awesome!’” “Luckily most people fall into the latter category,” Nic says.

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The International Quidditch Association’s rulebook is now in its seventh edition—go find it online, because the rules of quidditch are many and obtuse, and I am in no way qualified to relate them all here.

This is what you need to know: there are three hoops at either end.

Chasers want to get the quaffle into a hoop.That’s worth ten points.Then the snitch (a person dressed in yellow, with a tennis ball in a sock velcroed to their rear) runs away from the pitch. The seekers want to get that tennis ball off the snitch. When the snitch (or rather, their ball) is caught, the game ends, and the successful seeker’s team gets thirty points.

Although players generally don’t specialise too much, Ethan, Nic, and Stephen each have a different favourite position. Nic likes playing keeper—the role is much like a soccer goalie, even in its aspect of organising the other players on the field or, as he describes it, “shouting at them”. Stephen prefers beating—the beater gets to throw bludgers (dodgeballs) at opposition players. Ethan is a chaser. This is the role that arguably requires the most physical activity, and as Ethan is the team’s fitness coach, perhaps that’s apposite. Nic describes Ethan—in his coaching capacity— as “a hard taskmaster”, and certainly there’s a detectable note of relish in Ethan’s voice when he tells me, “I make people run.”

The working rules are not identical to those outlined in the books, but they are similar—sometimes hilariously so. Most notably, players must hold a broom between their legs at all times, effectively rendering everybody one-handed.This might seem overly whimsical or frivolous, but without brooms, it simply wouldn’t be quidditch.

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My time has come. We play a three-on-three pick-up game—no contact, no snitches or seekers, not even keepers. Ethan decides to referee, and as soon as he says “Brooms up!”, all I feel is anxiety. People are everywhere and I’ve already forgotten which ones are on my team, let alone which ones can legally pummel me with dodgeballs. I run back and forth and in just a few minutes I am red in the face and blustering like a lecturer without a Powerpoint slideshow. The quaffle seems almost impossible to pick up with just one hand—a sweaty, slippery, dead fish of a hand at that. Ethan forgives my many minor rule violations. The worst part is that play is continuous. Each time I inevitably let the other team score a goal, I keep thinking we’re going to go back to the start—but no, everyone just keeps chasing and beating and I’m left standing in the middle of the pitch wondering when I last had this much fun.

Because, despite my bewilderment, despite my exhaustion, it is extremely enjoyable. You can see it on the players’ grinning faces. It’s all so positive. The one time I am hurt—and it’s a very minor bump indeed—the player responsible apologises sincerely and immediately.

After just ten minutes or so, we call it quits. I double over, almost ready to collapse on the ground right there and then. Michelle was the one fully-fledged Unicorn to have the misfortune to be put in my team. She asks me how I feel, and I wryly tell her I’m glad at least to find out that I’m just as terrible at quidditch as I am at any other sport. She tells me not to worry about it. She feels that in the sport “there’s not really that pressure to be good… because it’s quidditch.”

And it’s then I realise the true value of it. In quidditch, you can train hard, play competitively, and reap all the various rewards of this, but at the end of the day, unlike so many other players of so many other sports, everyone is realistic about what it is – just a fun, silly way to pass the time.

When I ask the Unicorns where they see muggle quidditch in ten years, they respond, without a moment’s thought and almost in unison, “Hopefully not on the ground!”

That lightness, that optimism and that willingness to have a laugh—this is what quidditch is about. It’s infectious, it’s addictive—it really is like magic.