Running around in a cape after a ball with a broomstick between your legs may sound silly. But try telling that to the hundreds invading New York this weekend to reenact Harry Potter's magical game of quidditch.
Wannabe wizards converged on the Big Apple from all over the United States for the fourth annual Quidditch World Cup.
AdvertisementEven if they couldn't fly, and even if the winged, golden "snitch" ball from the books was reincarnated as an earthbound student wearing yellow, competition was every bit as fierce as in the mega-selling J.K. Rowling series.
"We don't take it too seriously," deadpanned Zach Doleac, a 20-year-old student from Middlebury College in Vermont, as his team prepared to defend its three consecutive championship titles. "We might if we lose. But then we haven't lost yet."
On Sunday, after two days of games between 46 teams from colleges like Harvard, Yale and from as far away as Florida and Ohio, Middlebury kept their crown, defeating Tufts University in the final by 100 to 50.
But from the first moments of the tournament, it was clear no one had come just to dress up in odd costumes.
As in the books and movies, real world quidditch fields are circular. Players try to throw "quaffles" -- in this case volleyballs -- through three large hoops, while the "snitch" is chased for extra points.
The result is a game resembling something like rugby, volleyball, lacrosse, basketball, dodgeball, and none of the above: after all, it involves young adults pretending to fly on brooms.
Certainly one feature from the movies, the latest of which premiered in London last week, is perfectly replicated: mayhem.
Within an hour of the tournament's start, several players lay groaning on the grass, their broomsticks abandoned.
One man was taken off holding a bandage to his mouth and a woman, her face covered in blood after a collision, spent several minutes on her back undergoing treatment by an ambulance crew.
During a break, the founder of the International Quidditch Association, Alex Benepe, reflected on his surprising success. After all, the fantasy game is competing for attention on campuses against a collegiate sports machine that churns out near-pro-level teams in football, basketball and other standard games.
Dapper in top hat and pinstripe suit, Benepe says he helped invent the "muggle," or non-wizard, version of quidditch five years ago "on a lazy Sunday afternoon" when he was an art history student at Middlebury.
At that time, they didn't have enough brooms, capes, or even hoops. "We used trash cans," he said.
Now aged 23, Benepe runs the quidditch association as a fulltime job and is pondering how to manage a sport that, like an out-of-control spell, has taken on a life of its own.
As the growing injury list testifies, the main challenge is preserving the light-hearted aspects of quidditch amid an influx of serious athletes looking for contact sport.
Teams at present comprise all shapes and sizes and are fully co-ed. But the frequent confrontations between red-blooded hulks and rather bookish-looking opposite numbers seem unsustainable.
"The game's evolving, changing," Benepe said. "We have to keep a careful balance to keep it tongue-in-cheek and fun. Last year we had some more serious injuries, some broken bones. We sent a lot of messages this time saying, 'Guys, at the end of the day, it's a game.'"
Whatever precautions were urged, the magic potion of adrenaline worked wonders, even for those decked out as fictional child trainee wizards.
"Teams: brooms down, eyes closed," called the announcer at the start of each game, in the Harry Potter version of "ready, set." Then: "Brooms up!"
Then dust -- real dust, not magic -- rose from the ground as the next two teams ran desperately for the quaffle in the middle.