The Gold Standard

Published in The Link 36.22 on March 1 2016

Real live quidditch is just like the game in the Harry Potter books—sort of.

People fly, but it’s not magic. There are brooms, but they’re sticks held between players’ legs. Yes, seekers relentlessly pursue the Golden Snitch, but in this game, the Snitch fights back.

This past weekend, the Quidditch Canada Eastern Regional Championships took place at Soccerplex Catalogna in Lachine. The event was part of the tournament circuit that culminates at nationals in April.

“It still follows the school calendar,” said Clare Hutchinson, Communications Director for Quidditch Canada—the governing body of the sport in the country. The circuit follows the school year because quidditch play started at McGill in 2008.

Of the 14 teams at this weekend’s tournament all but one were from universities—Valhalla, Canada’s first community team of eastern Toronto, was the exception. The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees won this year’s championship over Université de Montréal.

Don’t think that its academic roots mean quidditch isn’t a real sport. It’s played full contact, and the athleticism required to pass and throw with one hand while holding a broom is, uh—well you try it. There’s mandatory equipment, several referees per game, and the aforementioned governing body.

Plus, it’s a blast to watch, complete with dodgeball throwing, broom-holding and scrummy pile-ons. It all gets cranked up at the 18-minute mark, when the Snitch enters play.

In J.K. Rowling’s quidditch, the Golden Snitch is basically the key to a win. Of all the rules, the Snitch keeps things simple: catch it, and you end the game and earn your team a bonus of 150 points. This is usually enough to grant the win to the team which has captured the Snitch—unless the opponents have a brutal lead.

In real-life quidditch, catching the Snitch isn’t so simple, because the Snitch is a person—always dressed in yellow, always determined to make the task as difficult as possible. When the human Snitch is caught, the game is done, and the catching team gets 30 points.

For example, take the performance of Cory Smithson, a Snitch from Valhalla. His quidditch name is Mr. TTC, and as the Snitch, he wore yellow pyjama pants with tight shiny golden shorts, and a dangling yellow tail that sort of looks like elongated testicles velcroed to his bum. The Snitch tail is what the players known as seekers have to grab to win.

Mr. TTC goes in 18 minutes into the game, as Snitches do. In the rules, there’s one minute for Snitches to chill on the pitch before the seekers come on.

Mr. TTC lies down on the sidelines, doing the “paint me like one of your French girls” pose from Titanic.

The seekers enter, and he’s up and running. They chase him, honing in. He stops and turns as the Gee-Gees’s seeker ploughs into him. The Snitch sidesteps and the seeker rolls forward and around, but Mr.TTC is off and running, pursued by the other seeker from Royal City, one of University of Guelph’s quidditch teams.

TTC wheels again, but the seekers have disappeared into the scrum of the game. Players are running back and forth and he cranes over them to see—nothing.

It goes on. Push. Dodge. Run. Stand. Look. Eventually, in what feels like ages but was actually just two minutes, the Gee-Gees’s seeker gets his mark with a diving roll, and the game is over.

“It’s good to see their face when they catch it,” Smithson says. “You see the relief and joy. Obviously on my part I lost, but seeing that they got what they were going for is cool.”

For his part, Smithson was a huge fan of the Harry Potter books, but not all Snitches join the game that way, and bring their own sense of style to gameplay.

Bunny, whose real name is Matthew Bunn, studies at University of Ottawa and joined because he didn’t want to run competitively anymore—that, and quidditch seemed fun.

“[As a Snitch] your best friends out there are your team beaters, ‘cause they’re the ones who are going to be keeping the seekers off you,” he said.

Duchess, from McGill’s Snitch team, is the only one with a Snitch Mother, or coach. Her actual name is Grace Kudlack, and watching her play is like watching a toreador at work, flourishes and all.

She’s wearing a bright yellow skirt and a yellow shirt and golden face paint. She lets the bigger players charge her, and then deftly dodges them while pushing them down.

“It’s a lot of dancing around because I’m not strong enough to wrestle with a lot of seekers,” she says. “I also do fencing, so it’s very similar in knowing how far away people can be.”

The appeal for her is the fact that when she’s on, she’s on for good. There’s no subbing, no break for a Snitch.

“It’s just a lot of fun. I get to be a lot sillier than people do,” she says.

Silliness holds a broad appeal among Snitches at the event. Martial arts and running backgrounds are extremely common too. But Snitching—and quidditch—is changing.

There used to be “off pitch” Snitching, more similar to the books, where the Snitch is always in play, but isn’t always on the field. It was eliminated to make the rules simpler, and to balance game play—games can’t end in the first five minutes anymore.

Brendan “Two-Face” Gordon, whose face is half-painted in gold, and wears the requisite absurd yellow, is a Snitch for McGill. He has played every position in the game, but didn’t really do any sports in high school. Quidditch drew him in as a fan and a “fantasy nerd.”

He doesn’t see the rule changes ending here, with introduction of the 18-minute-mark entrance of Snitches, the on-pitch Snitching, or the elimination of some odder rules (Bunny told how he once rode a scooter for a whole game).

“I think it’s a shame that seeking and Snitching are being pushed out of the sport,” Two-Face says. “Now, seekers are a glorified way of getting 30 points at the end of the game. You might as well just make it a rugby-soccer hybrid.”

It raises an important question about the soul of the sport. How much, if any, loyalty does it owe to J.K. Rowling’s vision?

“Why not remove the brooms?” Two-Face asks. “They just obstruct players from throwing and catching. It’s not a thing I’m looking forward to.”

But now, quidditch is played internationally. Quidditch Canada is making efforts to spread to demographics outside of universities—according to Hutchinson—that may not be familiar with the game’s fantasy roots. The appeal is proven to exist separate from the books, since so many of the players don’t count themselves as fans, after all.

Hutchinson doesn’t even mention the books as one of the appeals.

“It’s a challenge, athletically,” she says. “It’s also great socially; you’re all in this new sport together. The other really great thing that I love about it is that it’s one of the few gender-integrated full-contact sports. It’s great to have that space.”