Stretching sinew, teasing tendon

Steam rises from the huddled group of hooded athletes as they finish their pre-battle warm-up, stretching sinew, teasing tendon. Oblivious to the first frost of winter, they jig to the rhythm of a drum, chanting anthems, psyching themselves up for combat. Some don facial war paint, ugly scars of red across their cheeks. Others brandish sticks, yelling at their enemies.

At its nadir, the winter sun tinges the whitened playing fields with a cream-coloured hue. Overhead a migratory flock of Canadian geese pass overhead in a V-for-Victory flight pattern.

The two opposing teams face off at opposite ends of the field. Only 46 paces separate them. They kneel on the ground, in mock genuflection, waiting for the referee’s whistle.

When it does sound, the opposing warriors charge to the centre of the arena, torsos tangling, limbs locking at the halfway line.

Let the carnage begin.

With regularly broken bones, concussions, a strictly enforced training regimen, an official rulebook and a burgeoning fan base, don’t ever make the mistake of telling a Quidditch player that their game isn’t a real sport.

Sure, there’s the undeniable eccentricity of the players who wear university-coloured facepaint, fluorescent legwarmers and the occasional dressing gown to play the game that features in the Harry Potter books. But make no mistake – these are serious athletes who rankle at the suggestion that Quidditch isn’t a legitimate sport like hockey or football.

Not only are players from eight university teams gathered at Carleton University for the inaugural one-day Canadian Quidditch Cup, but next month over a hundred teams will converge upon New York City to compete in the fifth World Cup event. And this isn’t just a North American craze. Teams from as far away as Argentina, Finland and New Zealand will also be competing for the top honours.

Andrea Hill is the student responsible for founding the Carleton University Quidditch team.

“You do get a lot of ridicule for a sport like Quidditch,” Hill admits. “But I just tell them to just come and check out a game.”

Hill says that most people don’t realize it’s a full contact sport that requires a great deal of fitness, stamina and athleticism.

Hill is just 4 foot 10 and 120 pounds. It’s hard to imagine her squaring off with full-grown men.

“I’m often in a situation where I’m trying to take down a man who is twice my size,” says a laughing Hill. “Initially a lot of guys are reluctant to take down girls but they learn to do so pretty quickly when we start tackling them!”

Other Quidditch players at the event also bristle at the suggestion that it’s not a sport.

“Maybe if we moved Quidditch to an ice rink and were colliding into each other there, maybe then they’d call it a ‘sport’,” says Lucas Kitmmer, a Carleton University player.

University of Ottawa’s Suzannah Hamer, with her gold wig glistening like a disco ball in the sun, agrees.

“Quidditch is more of a sport than golf or darts is,” Hamer says. “We go on group runs several times a week, and we have regular agility drills.”

Arguably the ridicule that Quidditch players face is understandable. The game originates from a children’s book that is steeped in magic and make-believe, and is supposed to be played on broomsticks. The mental images do seem preposterous.

The reality does somewhat resembles the books, albeit on a smaller scale. Three glittered hoops line each goal line, anchored in cement bases at two metre intervals. Each hoop has a one-metre radius, and stands at a different height from its neighbour. Teams score 10 points each time they can throw the ‘quaffle’ – a partially deflated volleyball – throw one of the opposing team’s hoops.

But an unseasoned Quidditch spectator would be surprised by the brutality of the sport. In the opening exchanges of the first game of the cup a five-foot-something woman is bowled over by a 200 pound bearded gorilla. Concussions and sprained ankles are common, and a medic team is on standby. This explains why many players wear protective goggles and gum shields. Carleton makes all players sign waiver forms freeing the university of liability for death, injury, hypothermia, cold, flu, windburn and even frostbite.

And these players have undeniable skills. Try running with a four-foot broomstick clasped between your legs with one hand, gripping onto a ball with your other white-knuckled mitt, evading would-be tacklers. It doesn’t look easy, and I’m sure it isn’t.

Kittmer says he doesn’t expect Quidditch to ever become an Olympic event – he just wants it to have the same respect as other recreational sports.

He’s about to head centerfield where he’ll take position as the Carleton’s ‘snitch’. He’s wearing a yellow t-shirt, shades and a straw cowboy hat. As the ‘snitch’, he has to evade the other team’s ‘seekers’ for the game’s duration. He’s allowed to hide anywhere on campus as long as he returns to the field of play after 10 minutes.

Kittmer says a good snitch has to combine their good cardio with cunning.

“For one competition I tried covering myself in leaves and brush,” says Kittmer. ”But I found that camouflage doesn’t work well when you’re dressed from head to foot in yellow.”

The athlete tips his cowboy hat and prepares to leave for the start of the next bout against Ryerson University. A teammate heckles him for not wearing the uniform he’d been dared to.

He looks over his shoulder.

“It’s too cold for a golden leotard,” he says.