The Pride of Iceland
Scenes from the Quidditch World Cup
Sunset on a Saturday in early November. The playing fields of Randall's Island, New York City. It's near the end of the first day of the surprisingly violent 2011 Quidditch World Cup, and we of the Outside Magazine Partially Icelandic Quidditch World Cup Team—OMPIQWCT for short—are ready to kick some Potter ass.
The 14 of us dominated our first competitors this morning and flew loop-the-loops around our second challengers this afternoon. Now, at one end of the vast spread of beautiful fields—what grass! what trees!—we’re warming up for our third match, which will determine whether we progress to the quarter-finals tomorrow. Behind us looms Icahn Stadium, where the finals will be played and where a Muggle named Usain Bolt once set a world record in the 100 meters.
Some 2,000 chipper, ethnically diverse, and not wholly fit competitors, mostly high school and college students, mill around the bleachers, the Porta-Potties, the team tent area. The line for the waffle cart stretches nearly to the East River. One infield retailer does a brisk business selling championship lapel pins, while another is on its way to liquidating the Quidditch players’ “broom of choice,” according to the brochure, a $55 handmade model dubbed the Shadow Chaser. Everywhere there are fans—dads wearing shirts that read PROUD PARENT OF A MCGILL QUIDDITCH PLAYER, alongside teens in capes and the crimson-and-gold scarves of Hogwarts. Only five years old, this grand tournathaddment of nonfantasy Quidditch will draw some 10,000 paying spectators. A Fox newscaster once called it “a cross between the Super Bowl and a medieval fair.”
“Look here,” hollers one of our offensive players, waving a hand as we trot around the field, catching and throwing inflatable balls.
At the edge of the field stand our opponents: undergrads from Rollins, a liberal-arts college in Winter Park, Florida. They have flown, or more likely ridden a bus, all the way from Florida to compete. And though they’re not even warming up yet, we watched their aggressive play earlier and want to be on point. We no longer feel awkward about how we threw together our team just a few weeks ago. Nor do we grumble that some of us are old enough to be Quid Kid parents, our average age being 30. Instead, we focus on game-winning strategy.
“Let’s monopolize the bludgers,” says our 39-year-old co-captain Josh.
“And then just let the chasers do their thing,” says our 28-year-old top scorer, Dan.
What are they talking about? I’m still not sure. In creating this real-world adaptation of the fantasy sport enjoyed by Harry and Ron and Hermione, numerous concessions to magic-quashing forces like gravity had to be made, and the result is best understood by those who score high on standardized tests. For example, the official rulebook contains illustrations of 22 different hand signals that a referee might make while blowing a whistle in any of four ways.
But here are the basics: Play happens on an egg-shaped, 50-yard-long pitch. Each team fields seven players, two of whom must be women, and all players have to wear team jerseys and colored sweatbands. Critically, everyone must at all times straddle a broom at least 46 inches long, to simulate flying.
The goal is to score as many points as possible in games that typically last around 45 minutes. Ten points are earned by offensive players (chasers) throwing a deflated volley-ball—called the quaffle—through one of the opposing team’s goals, which consist of three hula-hoops arranged vertically atop PVC-pipe stands. Thirty points are awarded, and the game ends, when a player grabs the snitch. At Hogwarts, the snitch hovers and darts of its own accord; here, it’s a tennis ball in a sock hung from the waistband of an unaffiliated volunteer called the snitch runner. The snitch runner is usually an off-season cross-country star and is not limited to the field. Five minutes after he or she is “released” at the start of the game, each team gets to send one unlucky member—the seeker—in pursuit, sometimes up trees.
The quaffle is moved downfield rugby style, with running and passing. Attacks are stopped when a defenseman, called a beater, beans a player with one of three gym balls (bludgers) or when an offensive chaser uses his free arm to tackle the opposing chaser and wrestle the quaffle free. A goalie—the keeper—guards his team’s hula-hoops, usually by swatting the quaffle out of the air with his hand.
Or so we thought. Ten minutes into our showdown with Rollins, we are frozen in a 10–10 tie, and their stocky, long-haired goalie isn’t even near his hoops. He keeps abandoning his post and trying to blitz the length of the field to score himself.
“Wrap him up, tackle him!” a teammate yells at me when the goalie takes off a third time. I try, but he barges past with the flailing arms and unblinking eyes of a proper Potter psycho. For reasons unknown, just shy of our goal the bastard chooses to ignore the hoops and instead clobbers my wife, Hrund, who isn’t even in the game.
I see the whole episode from just inches away, a dirty lock of his hair waving in my face as I sprint behind him. One moment she’s relaxing on the sideline, looking away, not even holding a broom. The next, this freak lowers his non-broom-carrying shoulder and blasts her in the sternum. The impact sends her flying through the dusky air, nearly completing a full back layout before landing on her head.
Silence. The sun disappears behind skyscrapers. “I’m OK,” Hrund declares, finding her feet.
But I’m not. “What the fuck’s your problem?” I scream at the goalie, behaving worse than I ever have in a lifetime of competitive sports. When he doesn’t respond, I shove my face inches from his, throwing my broom down like a hockey enforcer dropping his stick. “You need to fucking calm down!” I shout.
The irony only increases. After some discussion, the referee awards the goalie a yellow card, apparently based on some rule or precedent for unprovoked assault of a spectator. “We can’t give him a red card,” the ref explains, “because she wasn’t actually playing.”
Jolted to action, the OMPIQWCT goes on to score 110 mostly unanswered points, and we win 120–40. Sorry, nerds. But there’s a war on out here.
QUIDDITCH WAS INVENTED at Vermont’s Middlebury College in 2005, when a group of buddies—fans of J.K. Rowling, of course—got tired of playing bocce and decided to improvise something more exciting that involved brooms and bath-towel capes. They drew up a loose Quidditch rulebook and encouraged other students at tony schools to play.
In 2007, a reporter from USA Today covered "the first inter-collegiate Quidditch match." Never mind that this was just a scrimmage between the Middlebury guys and some of their high school friends at Vassar. Within months of the story’s appearance, the intramural sport had magically spread from campus to campus. With an organizing committee at its helm, it attracted more teams and volunteer administrators and fresh coverage every year—“a remarkable ascension,” declared Time magazine in 2010. The height of the mania quickly became the annual World Cup, held each fall and open to any teams registered with the Bedford Hills, New York–based International Quidditch Association.
Two months before the World Cup, this magazine’s editorial director asked if I was interested in recruiting a team. Why he asked me I wasn’t sure. I certainly wasn’t a Potterhead, as fans call themselves. I’d never bought a pewter wand, like my nephew, or a co-branded plush toy, like my niece. I’d never visited the Wizarding World theme park in Orlando, and I certainly hadn’t taken sides with Stephen King, who has maintained that the Harry Potter books will last “not just for the decade but for the ages.” For that matter, I hadn’t taken sides against Yale scholar Harold Bloom, who believed, conversely, that “Rowling’s mind is so governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing.” As to the world-shaping powers of Rowling, I was happily agnostic. I hadn’t read any of the books and fell asleep when the movies were screened on planes.
The more I Googled around, however, the more Quidditch piqued my interest. I imagined writing something snarky, maybe poking fun at how Quidditch started out as a decidedly preppy sport, heedless of Rowling’s Quidditch Through the Ages, which suggests the game be played on “deserted moorland far from Muggle habitations.” Or I’d lampoon its comical misfires: before settling on a tennis ball in a sock, for example, some teams had tried using a remote-controlled helicopter for the snitch.
As for the sport itself, it just seemed like a hoot. A bit of rough and tumble, not a terrible amount of running, harmless competitors. If I gathered some fit New Yorkers, we’d surely have a blast and maybe even win a few games. Injuries were the last thing on my mind.
A week after I contacted the International Quidditch Association, one of the founders—Alex Benepe, now 25 and commissioner of the IQA—e-mailed to say a spot had opened. I was bummed when he strongly suggested that we register as Division 2. Weren’t we—whoever we would turn out to be—all-star material? He assured me we’d have challenges enough, playing the likes of Syracuse, Duke, and other teams that had actually been practicing for a year. Also, he wanted to know, since we would be replacing a team of New Zealanders, was there any way we could field an international squad? I told him to register us as Iceland—Hrund’s homeland and one of the rare countries in the Northern Hemisphere not already represented—and we were off to the races.
Or not. We made a big recruitment push via e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook and through an announcement on Outside’s website, but we struggled to sign players.
“Come, win glory!” I said. No! came the replies.
“The more you tell me about this, the less interested I am,” said my brother-in-law. No one showed up to the open tryouts in Central Park two weeks later, which happened to take place during a freak snowstorm, and the OMPIQWCT’s only practice session, in Central Park a week before the World Cup, enticed just five strangers and acquaintances.
Our confidence grew nonetheless.
“They’re history majors and competitors in the Science Cup and stuff,” said Josh. “We’re big and old and intimidating.”
Bolstering the authority of this statement was the fact that Josh had once led an inexperienced team of New Yorkers to the finals of the World Elephant Polo Championships in Nepal, another competition of indeterminate ridiculousness. I immediately named him co-captain.
We practiced for about an hour—meaning we read and discussed how to play the complex game—and then retired for beers at an outdoor patio. “Are you guys some sort of team?” the waiter asked, noticing the brooms and Swiffer leaning against railings and chairs.
“Yeah,” we said, giving him a rough overview of Quidditch.
“Oh,” he replied. “I thought maybe you were a curling team.”
As if! Friends and strangers signed up and dropped out right up until the midnight roster-registration deadline, but ultimately the OMPIQWCT evolved into a tight squad of 14, including two people of Viking stock: my 31-year-old wife and her badminton teammate from childhood, a 29-year-old guy named Birgir, or Biggi. We were writers and animators, a grad student, a banker and a lawyer, a hip-hop musician, a consultant, a student, and a production coordinator for a menswear company. Half our team knew next to nothing about Harry Potter, and none had played Quidditch before.
We did turn out to be athletes, though, and pretty good ones. Dan had been voted the nation’s most valuable ultimate Frisbee player not long before. One of his disc teammates, 27-year-old Jack, was also a former juggler in a professional circus, and the other, 28-year-old Tim, was once captain of his high school wrestling team. Twenty-five-year-old Jen was a former cheerleading national champion. Hrund had been the women’s junior national champ in snowboarding and badminton in Iceland.
Things were shaping up to be fun. But there were portents of violence, like when I spoke to a longtime player who gave me strange-sounding advice that I relayed to the team.
“‘Hide your girls?’” Josh kept asking. “What does that even mean?”
TEAM OMPIQWCT CAME together for the first time less than an hour before our debut. Our collective state was, I’d say, a bit nervous. The three Frisbee boys—as we’d taken to calling Dan, Jack, and Tim—walked around to scout the competition. Twenty-four-year-old Russell, who works in animation and was our most eager player, brought a competition-level broom, while Josh fretted over the tall kitchen sweepers I’d picked up at the hardware store the night before.
“These are way too long,” he groused.
“But they’re lightweight,” I said.
He immediately set to work shortening one, bashing the metal handle end with a rock until it was a twisted mess. How were we to know that brooms were supplied?
Our thirtysomething hip-hopper, Thaddeus, had the toughest time, and not because he was tired from an album-release party a few hours before or had dressed for game day in designer jeans and $300 sneakers. After we donned the jerseys Outside had supplied—red T-shirts with a big Icelandic flag on the back—people began stopping by to say how much they loved Björk or to shyly ask someone to speak the language. One girl simply prostrated herself in front of us and then moved on without a word. Thaddeus nearly drowned in the white-boy dorkiness.
“This is absolutely the least gangster thing I have ever done,” he said. “The 16-year-old me would kick the shit out of the adult me for doing this.”
“Anyone who goes to Outdoor Icelandic, please come to Field 9,” an announcer interrupted, confusing us for a college. This was it, the moment when all our minutes of practice would be tested.
“Brooms down!” said the announcer.
Seven of us dropped a knee behind the seven wooden brooms lying on the baseline and closed our eyes, as instructed.
“The snitch is loose!” the announcer said, signaling that the man with the ball dangling from his shorts was running away from the field.
“Brooms up!” the announcer said.
Everyone opened their eyes and ran toward the center of the field, brooms wagging like dog tails, to grab the gym balls and volleyball that rested there.
For the first ten minutes, members of the OMPIQWCT ran around in pandemonium. We collided with each other, tripped and fell, and simply forgot to straddle the brooms like hobbyhorses.
“Icelander! Get on your broom,” the announcer barked. “It’s why we play. To fly.”
Soon, some of us were exhausted by the ceaseless back and forth and subbed out. But not the Frisbee boys. Dan had an almost omniscient field sense. Jack could throw a ball accurately while falling sideways. Our opponents, a short-legged group called CAMPS, swarmed toward Tim, but he covered 50 yards before they could traverse the narrow field.
Russell was also committed. He followed the snitch to the parking lot, lost him under some bleachers, and then ran back and snatched the sock near a bank of folding chairs. Some 20 minutes later, we had trounced CAMPS, 110–30.
A bloody cage fight it was not. CAMPS turned out to be made up mostly of high school kids from a youth ministry in Massachusetts—a fact I chose not to spread around.
Still, we had won our first game in a sport we hardly knew. The sun was shining and the river sparkling, and we, an endorphin-flush team of randoms, had achieved a certain esprit de corps.
“I’m really glad I came,” said Thaddeus.
“I think we can take this thing,” said Dan.
In our next game, against Miami University of Ohio—known for its synchronized-figure-skating program—our defense monopolized two of three bludgers while wrapping up their offense. And our forwards caught alley-oop passes, slam-dunked, and necromanced the quaffle. The announcer liked to point out that “the old-man team” often perpetrated various and sundry fouls. But when our offense picked up defensive bludgers, it was only out of confusion. We crushed: 150–90.
A fanboy ran up to one of our women. “You’re the best beater I’ve ever seen,” he said, and then ran away. Birgir led us in the Icelandic cheer he’d devised.
“Drepa, drepa, drekka blód!” we shouted, thinking then that “Kill, kill, drink blood” was the height of irony.
UNLIKE ROWLING'S fictional Department of Magical Games and Sports, which is said to list 700 potential fouls in a Quidditch game, the downloadable IQA rulebook runs to a mere 55 pages and is both simple and, in places, astoundingly complex. It includes straightforward sections like “The Mounted Broom,” plus many more-taxing chapters. A 15-volunteer IQA Rules Council oversees changes, and the codification evolves much faster than in, say, college football, where new rules appear only after long reviews. If a competitor chooses to study the latest edition of the rulebook, he can discern hints of the mayhem that can mar Quidditch at all levels.
“The physical contact rules contained within this book allow for rough play,” an early disclaimer reads. “Players are encouraged to ... have first aid equipment and people trained in first aid on hand during every game.”
But we didn’t study the rules that closely, the organizers never asked for our liability release waivers, and I didn’t catch a whiff of the terrifying stench of Quid Kid hostility until I ambled out into the parking lot at the south gate and ended up chatting with a tired ambulance driver who was having a smoke. He was one of 30 EMTs posted at the event.
“Easy duty,” I said.
“This is just the quiet before another storm,” he corrected. “I’ve had eight concussions, two people taken to the hospital, bloody noses, scrapes, twisted ankles. I stopped counting injuries after 10.”
My teammates weren’t as surprised by these stats as I expected. One recalled stopping a young female chaser just short of the goal, only to have the girl yell an extremely unprintable comment. Another teammate recalled watching a man in Division 1 lift a girl, spin her like the blades of a helicopter, and throw her to the dirt. The violence was not only pervasive but gender neutral. Hide your girls, indeed.
In Division 1, where teams were often hand-selected from college-wide tryouts, the savagery appeared coordinated, with flanks of rhino-like teammates blocking for Quidditch chasers who could pass as junior college running backs. Though illegal, many of their clotheslines to the neck and elbows to the face looked about as accidental as gravity.
Of course, I had almost gotten violent myself when Hrund was flattened. After my shameful display against Rollins, Frisbee Dan had tried to console me—“I would have done the same thing,” he said—but I had to take a walk to cool off.
All around, there was so much happy hoopla and strangeness on display! At one point, I ran into a preposterously muscular group of guys standing under a supersize American flag.
“Who are you?” I asked one of the bodybuilders.
“America’s Finest,” he said, removing his American-flag T-shirt to display his shield-like abs.
“Where are you from?”
“But I mean, what unites you as a team? Do you all go to the same school?”
“How are you doing?”
“Oh and three.”
I couldn’t believe it. “But you’re the fittest team here!”
“It’s really complicated,” one of their girls said. “And we have temper issues.”
In the team tent area, life was more amiable. All sorts of cute circles had formed: stretching circles, jumping-jack circles, teammates-napping-heads-on-bellies circles. One of Quidditch’s founders strode around in top hat and cane, an entourage trotting dutifully behind. I kept an eye out for the IQA group streaming live stats and the professional PR woman and the résumé-building undergrads—the “HR coordinator,” the “executive board members,” the “regional directors,” the “outreach director,” the editor of the Quidditch magazine The Monthly Seer. On the main stage, a Quidditch-themed folk duo—was it Harry and the Potters? the Whomping Willows? Snidget?—attempted the fizzy back-and-forth I had come to expect.
He: “Our Huff and Puff song is the best one.”
She: “Yeah, it’s the greatest!”
I couldn’t believe that a crowd was actually listening to this, lapping up the allusions to Potter characters and settings and plotlines.
And that’s when I got it. I was an old man. I’d completely missed the Potter craze, unlike so many competitors on Randall’s Island, who had actually come of age in the midst of it. They, with their “knobbly knees,” had hit puberty with Half-Blood Prince. The boys had begun to show some patchy stubble just like Harry did in Deathly Hallows. Maybe the girls dared to trade hoodies for their first lipstick-red dresses after seeing Hermione pull it off. Or maybe not. Whatever the case, a new book or movie had appeared roughly once a year for the past decade, and because these kids were the same age as Harry and Ron and Hermione, developments in the books had mirrored changes in their lives. Harry Potter was in their guts, in their loins. This was their sport. And so sometimes, sure, they had to gang-tackle or lance people in the kidneys. In the real-world Quidditch World Cup, that’s just what it took to conquer evil.
THE NEXT DAY, at 10:20 a.m., we squared off against the team from Johns Hopkins, the not quite Ivy League school in Baltimore, in our last game of pool play. We felt super-psyched but immediately realized that we were in for a new kind of trouble: nagging.
“We’ve noticed them off their brooms—will you watch them?” one of their captains asked the referee.
“Yeah, we’ve seen ’em,” their gangly co-captain said. “They’re not on their brooms.”
True, we were still struggling with the basics of “flying,” but it also must be noted that I was wearing sunscreen on my face and worn-out tennis shoes on my feet, while the gangly co-captain had on steel-cage lacrosse goggles, a mouth guard, and cleats, and had rubbed blue war paint under her eyes.
Sure enough, the announcer shouted “Brooms up!” and the ref started handing out yellow cards—mostly to us. I got one for tackling from behind. Tim earned one for tackling with both hands. Two of our goals and one impressive snitch grab were dismissed for murky reasons. All of these were prompted by whines from the Hopkins co-captain.
“Are you refereeing this match or are they?” Birgir asked the ref at one point.
Not that Hopkins lacked muscle. They had some of the most aggressive women in all of Potterdom, and halfway through the game their snitch got aggro, too, slamming Russell to the pitch. Our biggest Quidditch fan, our tireless snitch-chasing seeker, found himself on the receiving end of a WWF-style takedown. The paramedics arrived and diagnosed a dislocated shoulder.
Unknown to us, the body slam had actually torn Russell’s biceps off his shoulder. At the time, his grunts and teeth grinding simply served as a call to arms, a reminder that nothing unites a Quidditch team or a nation like a common enemy. We forced an 80–70 win in front of a packed bleachers.
Our first real fans howled. Online, friends of the International Quidditch Association posted comments like “They beat Hopkins!” and “They totally dominated” and “Icies are hardcore.” Jack riled up the crowd further by throwing a standing backflip.
Two and a half hours later, at 4:45 p.m., we faced off against Hopkins again. The finals bracket seeded us third, behind Purdue and Illinois State, but in an inexcusably amateur scheduling mistake, organizers pitted us against Hopkins in the quarterfinals, our first single-elimination round.
At the beginning of the grudge match, the packed stands creaked under the weight of our newfound supporters. Many teams had lost and taken the school bus home by now; only half the fields remained in use. Goth-looking vendors were selling Deathly Hallows necklaces, but it was the hulking, shiny structure of Icahn Stadium that beckoned.
I WISH I COULD SAY more, but I have little recollection of the two hours or so surrounding the game. According to my teammates, early on a slippery Hopkins chaser fumbled the quaffle near our goal, he and I lunged for it, and his broom walloped me in the back of the head. Another injury that surprised no one.
“Eric has a concussion and we walk to the paramedics,” wrote Hrund, who picked up my notebook. “There is a girl with a broken wrist.”
“We win the 2nd game against Hopkins by 20 points, after having grabbed the snitch four times,” she continued. “The first three times were disqualified for Frisbee Tim being too aggressive/physical on the snitch. The fourth time was supposedly too aggressive as well but the snitch didn’t want to be thrown to the ground anymore. He was a small, mildly injured kid with glasses and a uniform covered in dirt by the fourth grab.”
Hrund escorted me from the medical tent to the north end of the fields at 7 p.m., where OMPIQWCT was battling Rochester Institute of Technology, the engineering university in upstate New York, in the semifinals. Emerging from the fog of my concussion, I saw the sport as if for the first time.
“I know we’re on Randall’s Island and playing Quidditch and stuff,” I said, “but this is just insane.”
In a cold breeze, under bright halide lights, the OMPIQWCT was shouting and running plays, steamrolling and posting up. The Frisbee boys were stiff-arming anyone who got in their way, and our beaters were throwing elbows to guard their bludgers. Two of our players substituted for each other because (1) we no longer had any other subs, thanks to the injuries and unavoidable commitments that had siphoned off six of our players; and (2) the guys’ hands had been stepped on so much that they were having difficulty gripping the balls for more than a few minutes. Frisbee Jack, for example, attempted a diving tackle and missed, and an RIT girl stomped her cleated foot on his throwing hand. He yelped in pain. Seeing him roll over and clutch his throbbing paw, the girl pointed at him and yelled to the ref: “Off his broom!”
Some 30 minutes in, Frisbee Tim spied the snitch and dropped into a scary, hands-forward grappler’s crouch. But an RIT player, so small as to go almost unnoticed, sneaked up and made off with the sock. RIT won, 90–70.
Hrund, Russell (in a sling), and I cheered the sweat-drenched OMPIQWCT as they dragged their exhausted selves off the pitch. Later that night, in Icahn Stadium, Purdue would go on to take home the championship vodka-bottle-spray-painted-gold-to-look-like-a-trophy trophy that went to the winner of Division 2.
I was sad to have lost in the semis but more than satisfied with third place and happy to return to my very non-magical life without any permanent injuries.
“Rugby is dangerous enough when you don’t have a broom stuck between your legs,” said Birgir, and we nodded in agreement.
Toasting over multiple rounds of drinks a week later, the OMPIQWCT was regaled with the story of Russell’s visit to the Randall’s Island hospital. Normally, the place admits drug abusers and the homeless and overflow from Harlem Hospital, he said, but during the Quidditch World Cup he and other young schoolkids were hobbling up and down the hallways with brooms. His doctor finally had to ask what the hell was going on.
“Did you tell him it was a curling competition?” someone asked.
Later, everyone e-mailed me their thoughts about the weekend, and most echoed Josh, who wrote: “I wish I could say it wasn’t actually fun, and that I didn’t want to win, but that would be a lie.”
Russell was the exception. It took three months before orthopedic surgeons reattached his biceps to his shoulder, using five titanium pins, and he still hasn’t regained full use of his right arm. “But I don’t have any regrets,” he wrote. “I’d go brooms up with you guys anytime.” He plans to frame his cut-up jersey and hang it in his apartment, above the Shadow Chaser broom we all signed.