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culture

Sporting Goods: Quidditch

Even Muggles can take part in this down-to-Earth version of a fictional game.

Sports coverage tends to focus on major league teams, but every day in Toronto people make fun (and sometimes wacky) activities an important part of their lives. Sporting Goods looks at some of these.

An officially approved broomstick from the International Quidditch Association.

It’s been a big year for Harry Potter: The final movie in the series came out (Hollywood’s most successful franchise ever). JK Rowling announced Pottermore—a website/interactive experience that promises to expand the magic of the original series (and also act as a platform to sell a bajillion of the previously unavailable e-books). And, finally, there’s Quidditch, the no-longer-fictional sport that has been, ahem, sweeping North America off its feet. For the uninitiated, Quidditch stems from the wizarding world of the Harry Potter books. It’s a sport where players fly around on broomsticks scoring points until the game-ending piece, called “the snitch,” is caught.

Now, when we were youngsters reading the books for the first time, it’s pretty reasonable that we considered Quidditch to be quite possibly the coolest sport ever. As a 12-year-old, we might have reasonably thought, “Hey, wouldn’t this make a cool video game?” But it takes a certain type of person with a certain type of mind to think, “Hey, wouldn’t this be a cool game to play in real life?”

One of the trickiest parts of Muggle Quidditch is trying to catch the ball with one hand, while holding the broomstick with the other.

Enter: Muggle Quidditch. That’s right, Harry. While you were wading around in your swimming pool of gold coins and bragging about your Nimbus 9000, the rest of the 99 per cent were stuck with boring non-flight sports like cricket or curling. Sure, we might have competitive pigeon racing but, physically and emotionally, a pigeon can only carry you so far.

But that was the past. The masses (or working class Weasleys, as it were) have now come together to reclaim the metaphorical skies. In the future, you will no longer see players using their brooms to sweep the steps of the so-called “wizardry of the upper class.” Instead, they will be proving that Quidditch as described in the Harry Potter books, with its physically impossible gameplay and broken rules, is actually a viable sport. At least, if the International Quidditch Association has its way.

With origins dating back to 2005, the IQA’s version of the game has undergone a number of changes in recent years. In its current incarnation, Quidditch is most similar to dodgeball or rugby. There’s no flight involved, but players instead run around holding the broom between their legs while trying to score points through one of the three hoops set up at both ends of the pitch. Most of the old Quidditch rules are intact, such as the annoying Beaters who throw Bludgers at unsuspecting Chasers (the ones who score the points) in hopes of slowing them down and/or knocking them off their broomsticks.

The inclusion of the human-Snitch is probably the most ingenious addition by the IQA. Dressed head to toe in yellow, this game-ending component is basically the personification of an internet troll. The Snitch will do anything it can to avoid getting caught (for the game ends if it is), and its role is intentionally provocative. Snitches have been known to perform aerobics in the field, ballroom dance with the other players, and even leave the game entirely to hang out at pubs.

A Ryerson Chaser pushes the quaffle through one of the hoops to score points for his team.

Recently, Torontoist had the opportunity to sit down with two of Toronto’s teams—Ryerson and U of T. When we arrived at the Ryerson quad, the team was in the middle of practice, still setting up the hoops. Suraj Singh, the team captain, explained how the game was just coming into its own at Ryerson; since it was a relatively new sport, they were still actively recruiting members. They did, however, play in last year’s World Cup in New York, with mixed results. “We didn’t come in dead last,” says Singh.

To prepare for this year’s tournament and the upcoming, first-ever Canadian Cup, Ryerson plays regularly against competing universities such as U of T and Carleton. Perhaps even moreso than other sports, these games and practices attract many bystanders mostly because it’s an extremely entertaining event to watch. There’s also the “is this real?” factor that many passersby experience upon witnessing the sport for the first time.

Players must be quick on their feet, as well as on their brooms, to avoid getting tackled (or bludgeoned) by other players.

Like the books, custom broomsticks are available—ones that are lighter and snap upon hitting the ground to avoid any unfortunate lower-body injuries. The IQA also keeps track of the current standings of all the officially registered teams. The astute may notice that the top Canadian team is McGill University (in 19th place as of this writing). McGill actually holds a deep connection with the origins of Quidditch in Toronto, as it was a player from the Montreal university who helped start up U of T’s team.

By the time we crossed the city to U of T’s pitch, the sky was darkening and the only thing keeping the grounds from total blackness were the floodlights from the adjacent football field. As the school’s team had just come off a very successful year, their tryouts saw a boom in popularity with nearly 30 people arriving to see what all the fuss was about. Arriving in the midst of these tryouts, we spoke with the team captain, Rachelle McCann.

The new members of the U of T Quidditch team stand together, raring to go.

Torontoist: What drew you to playing Quidditch?

Rachelle McCann: I think I have the weirdest story about playing Quidditch. I actually have never read Harry Potter. And I haven’t even seen all the movies. It’s shocking, and I’m the captain of the team.

You realize this is getting published?

I’m okay with that. I dunno, I really like doing weird things. McGill came down two years ago and they told us they were going to teach us how to play Quidditch. I heard about it, but I didn’t get to do it. The next year, one of my friends was going to try out and I decided, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that, that sounds really weird, running around on a broom.’ So I went out.

The people that come out to Quidditch, honestly they’re the friendliest, most fun people to hang around with. Even though I couldn’t share in their inside Harry Potter jokes, it was so much fun playing that it kept me coming back.

What would you say Quidditch is doing right that other sports aren’t doing?

We have the relaxed, friendly environment of intramural sports, but instead of dividing up people by colleges and different faculties, we bring them together as the University of Toronto. The other teams at U of T, they’re really varsity, really serious—so during the tryouts we told people that when you come on the Quidditch pitch, you leave behind what college you’re from, what faculty you’re from, what age you are, what year you’re in—you come to play Quidditch.

The Quidditch team prides itself on being very inclusive. We had tryouts—I want people to be committed to the team—but we really were only going to cut people if they were there to make fun of us. Surprisingly though, no one was there making fun of anyone, so we didn’t have to cut anybody.

The Canadian Cup is right around the corner. What is the team doing to prepare for that?

We have a lot of new people and a lot of people who haven’t played the sport before. In the early practices, I was trying to get them used to handling a ball with one hand while holding onto a broom. Also the basics of running with a broom between your legs, that can be pretty awkward at times. Now we’re getting into setting up plays—passing and communication, stuff like that.

Rachelle McCann breaks down the rules in the middle of the Quidditch pitch.

I noticed that McGill has been winning quite a lot. Is there a rivalry between the Toronto schools and McGill?

We’ve always looked at McGill as more of a parental figure—they came to teach us the game three years ago. We shared a bus with them going to New York’s World Cup last year. The one night we spent in New York, we slept on the floor of the old captain of McGill’s sister’s living room. We all fell asleep actually watching one of the Harry Potter movies after a long day of Quidditch—of getting beaten into the ground by all the crazy American teams.

They have nicknames for every player on their team so we took on that tradition too and gave ourselves nicknames. The most memorable nickname from McGill was a guy who ran around on a plunger—his nickname was “Plunger.” They don’t actually know his real name. I’m pretty sure he goes around naked in overalls and has a big curly moustache.

Are players allowed to use plungers instead of broomsticks?

Yeah, I think so. The rules say nothing that’s pointy or can spear someone. And it has to be a certain length. But, yeah, he played with it at the World Cup.

The first annual Quidditch Canadian Cup takes place at Carleton University on October 29.

Photos by Kyle Bachan/Torontoist.

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