The whistle of a bludger flying just an inch away from your ear, a chase after the opponent several dozen meters above the ground and, finally, there it is on the horizon – small, glistening and extremely valuable – the golden snitch. You make a dash for it, outstripping the seeker from the opposing team. You catch the small ball, ending the game. Your team has just scored 150 points and won an important game. This is what it looked like in the magical world of Harry Potter. And what does it look like among the muggles? I had the opportunity to find out myself last weekend, during an open training session of one of Polish quidditch teams – Warsaw Mermaids, whose members include four students of the Warsaw University of Technology.
The training sessions are organized two times a week, in the evenings. One session lasts around 3 hours and it is always held outdoors, even in winter. The players meet in the Pole Mokotowskie park or on an illuminated public sports field. The warm-up begins. A-skips, B-skips, stretching, push-ups – it is important to warm up the whole body. Quidditch is not a children’s game, it is a heavy physical effort, so you need to take care of your muscles and joints. A gulp of water and we move on to the next stage – seeker practice, followed by “beater games”, which enable the players to get the hang of throwing and dodging bludgers.
“Then we play a game of 40 minutes or so, which is divided into two parts. During the first, tactical part, we often interrupt the game to discuss our mistakes and the attack strategy,” says Michał Glinka, a fourth-year student from the Faculty of Electronics and Information Technology of the Warsaw University of Technology. “Then we play a real game, with all the rules. At the end, we do some stretching exercises.”
How the game made its way to the muggle world
In 2005, Xander Manshel and Alex Benepe, two students from Middlebury College in the USA, came up with an ingenious idea – they decided to transfer quidditch, a game from the Harry Potter books, to the muggle world. The popularity of the new sport increased year by year. Five years later, the International Quidditch Association was founded to oversee the rules of the game and international tournaments. Today, quidditch is played all over the world.
“A volleyball serves as the quaffle,” Michał explains. “It is the ball used by the keeper and the three chasers in each team. They are running around the pitch, passing the ball among themselves. By throwing the quaffle through a hoop, from either side, the team scores 10 points, just like in J.K. Rowling’s books. Red dodgeballs are used as bludgers. There are three bludgers and four beaters on the pitch, two in each team. The beaters try to prevent the chasers from scoring goals. If a player is hit with a bludger, they are knocked out: they must remove the broom from between their legs, run back to their team’s hoops and touch them. Only then can they get back on the broom and re-join the game. A keeper who defends the hoops in their team’s keeper zone cannot be knocked out.”
Playing quidditch is a considerable physical effort. The sport combines elements of rugby, dodgeball and handball. The competitors must wear mouthguards and they are not allowed to grow their nails long. Playing with glasses on is not recommended, either. The beaters, chasers, keepers and seekers are separate positions. Physical contact is only allowed between players of the same position. Touching opponents is allowed under certain rules, for example physical contact other than pushes and body blocks can be initiated only against an opponent with the ball. In such a situation, a player may catch, bump into or even knock over the opponent. A game for “real men”? Far from it! Quidditch is a co-ed sport – a team of 7 may have a maximum of 4 players of one gender.
“At 17 minutes, the golden snitch goes on the field, and one minute later the seekers (one in each team) join the game,” Michał Glinka explains. “The snitch runner wears golden shorts with a Velcro-attached tennis ball placed in a sock. The task of the seekers is to detach the snitch from the shorts. It is not easy, as they are subject to the same rules as the other players: they must keep a broomstick between their legs and if they are knocked out by a beater, they need to return to their team’s goals to resume play.”
The snitch runner does not have a broom and may do anything to defend him- or herself against the seekers: push them away, grab their broomsticks or even knock them over. It is a fierce struggle. Catching the snitch ends the game, and the team of the seeker who managed to do this scores 30 points.
A WUT student flying on a broom?
Michał Glinka, who studies at the Faculty of Electronics and Information Technology, finds a couple of hours twice a week to train with his team, despite the busy class schedule. He says he did not join Warsaw Mermaids because of fascination with the magical world described in the Harry Potter books or a desire to fly on a broom. He had always been interested in sports and he was encouraged to try quidditch by a friend.
“My friend took part in a Harry Potter convention, where a team played a showpiece match,” he recollects. “It was then that I first heard that people play quidditch in real life. I decided to give it a try and I got hooked.”
There are around 8 quidditch teams in Poland, including the Warsaw Mermaids group, which has been active since 2014. The team has won the last Polish championship. It also took part in the European Cup in Belgium and although it did not advance to the final, it did win its first international victory with a Milan team and came back to Poland with valuable experience.
Demanding sport or just a fun game?
The game has been going on for a couple of minutes. I can see players leaving and entering the pitch from time to time. Some want to drink water, others need to catch their breath after a violent foul. One of the female players, also a student of the Warsaw University of Technology, says that you can’t get a credit for university PE classes by playing quidditch. A pity – many people would jump at such an opportunity, as most team members are students of Warsaw universities.
At last, seventeen minutes into the game, the golden snitch enters the pitch. The seekers are already waiting on the sideline. They are given a cue and they dash onto the pitch in pursuit of the snitch. This is not an easy task. Michał told me that fight against the golden snitch was hard, but I didn’t think it was that hard. The two players try to outsmart him and detach the ball from the shorts. In this game, the snitch runner is a strong boy, and his opponents are a considerably lower guy and a girl. The girl, however, does not give up and it is her that the snitch has most problems with. Looking at their struggle, I remember the words of Michał, who said that the snitch runner is allowed to do pretty much anything: he is jerking the players’ brooms from between their legs, pushing them, holding their hands tight and knocking them to the ground. Eventually, he is defeated by one of the seekers, who gets hold of the sock with the tennis ball.
It is 6 pm. The training in the Pole Mokotowskie park attracts the attention of passers-by. They ask what we are doing here, why the contestants are playing with sticks between their legs.
“People usually just watch us as we train,” Michał laughs. “But sometimes we succeed in encouraging an onlooker to join in the game.”