The World's Most Progressive Sport Isn't the One You'd Expect

How one alternative sport is helping further gender equality, in athletics and beyond.
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coed quidditch

A college quidditch match in Vancouver, 2014. (Photo: Sergei Bachlakov/Shutterstock)

When the first quidditch match was played in 2005, one of the athletes, lacking a broomstick, opted to straddle a lamp instead. A month later, seven teams participated in the first intramural quidditch tournament. Now, a decade since that first match,the sport is overseen by the International Quidditch Association, a global governing body, and is played in more than 20 countries.

Quidditch (the IQA prefers a lowercase spelling, so as to differentiate the “muggle” version from the game depicted in Harry Potter) is routinely cited as the fastest-growing sport across American college campuses, while international exhibitions, such as the tournament hosted during the 2012 Summer Olympics, continue to pull in more fans and athletes. Last year, at the Global Games—the quidditch world cup—America defeated six other nations to win the gold; other leagues have sprouted up in China and South America, particularly Peru and Brazil, as quidditch becomes ever-more popular worldwide.

In other words, the sport is growing. It’s a cocktail of strategy, speed, and brute physicality in equal measure, and is governed by more than 700 rules. And while the game has evolved and continues to gain footholds in new communities and countries, it’s managed to maintain its inclusive ideals—among them, an emphasis on gender equality. Quidditch remains the only organized full-contact, co-ed sport in the world.

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In 1972, Congress passed Title IX with the intention of bringing parity to sport funding and participation. Quidditch has implemented its own ruling, Title 9 ¾, which states that "each team must have at least two players in play who identify with a different gender than at least two other players.” The language of the sport isn't restricted to those who identify within the gender binary.

“We did our very best to embrace the idea of the spectrum,” says Harrison Homel, the IQA's executive director, speaking in an interview from Moscow, Russia. “It’s by no means married to one gender.”

The co-ed influence came straight from the books. “At Hogwarts the men and women play together and you don't even think about it. That was something that the founders aspired to and translated into the real world,” Homel says. The rulebook states that “the gender that a player identifies with is considered to be that player’s gender, which may or may not be the same as that person’s sex.” There are regional variants to the rules, but the one thing that stays consistent (the sport’s rulebook is currently in its ninth version) is the gender inclusivity.

A study published last year in the Journal of Sport Management examined the impact of quidditch on participants’ attitudes toward the opposite gender. The findings revealed that the co-ed structure of the sport led to a positive experience for both women and men, boosting the value participants’ place on equality. Both men and women reported stereotype reduction, and women reported higher levels of self-confidence and pride. The study also found that, despite the shifts in attitude, some measure of prejudice toward female athletes was still exhibited among their male counterparts.

Controversy surrounded the Northeast U.S. Quidditch Regionals in November 2014, when an organization from Vermont, the Montpelier Marauders, fielded a team that appeared to be made up entirely of men, though each player claimed a different gender identity—including “doughnut,” “walrus,” “reddish-green,” and “panache.” The Marauders won the game, and their opponents, the Portland Possums, filed a complaint with the IQA afterwards, stating that “while the Marauders did, it would seem, satisfy the gender rule as written, they used the rule to gain an unfair advantage.”*

For his part, Homel says there has been a heartening lack of attempts to game the system. “In situations where that has occurred, or there's been a suspicion of that occurring, it is almost immediately felled down by the masses,” he says. “People take this seriously. A lot of people describe it as family, or home.”

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The game’s relative infancy—it’s a young sport, run mostly by young people—also gives it an advantage. “You can only be so traditional if you’re prepared to hop on a broomstick and run around all day on a football pitch,” Homel says. “A lot of other organizations come at this with decades of deeply instilled tradition and they’re being run by people that have been around for a very long time and are resistant to change.”

The youth factor also helps attract new athletes, some of whom may not feel comfortable in a more traditional sports setting. “What we find is that you tell someone about quidditch, you describe the sport to them, and either they get it right away and they're interested or they laugh at you. I’ve been laughed at many, many times but when you show someone the game and they realize what it actually is, and they see the athleticism of the people on the field, no one is walking away from that without taking it seriously,” Homel says.

The initial wave of players were college athletes, but participation rates are increasing among younger athletes, particularly at the high school level. A second study of quidditch found that, as an alternative sport, it fostered the same types of leadership skills, social gains, self-confidence, and pride found in more mainstream activities.

In a time of shrinking budgets and increased burnout, alternative sports offer needed change. Quidditch challenges the traditional norms of gender in the context of athletics, and the sport’s relevance reaches beyond the playing field. It has become a platform to effect change, especially as interest in it continues to grow, both domestically and internationally, and as it moves away from its whimsical, pop culture roots into a more authentic athletic experience.

“I think not only is this the direction that our society is going, but there's kind of a moral imperative to this that I hope continues,” Homel says, referring to gender inclusivity. “I hope we're on the crest of the wave. It's playing out in other places in society and I think it's only a matter of time until it comes into sports.”

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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