SAN JOSE -- The founder of San Jose State University's quidditch team has no doubts that in another decade or so, her beloved broom-riding, ball-chucking game that was ripped from the pages of boy-wizard fiction will be an Olympic event.
"Look at curling," said 26-year-old Emily Knight, taking a friendly poke at the other broom-based sport. "If that can be in the Olympics, why can't quidditch?"
Knight formed the Original Wizarding League of Spartan -- or OWLS -- in February 2010, making it the Bay Area's oldest quidditch team. This weekend, she joins 11 of her teammates who might not ever be on the Olympic team, but are in South Carolina along with 79 other crews to play in the sport's seventh World Cup bracket -- a first for a CSU team. It's an international event, with teams making their way from Canada and Australia to throw the quaffle, hurl the bludgers and attempt to seize the elusive and wily golden snitch.
Do what with the who now?
For those not in the know, muggles quidditch is a game born in 2005 at Middlebury College in Vermont, where students decided to recreate the high-flying, fast-paced sport from the Harry Potter books and movies. Some liberties had to be taken in quidditch's transition from fantasy land, as science has not been able to develop a flying human-carrying broom or the tiny sentient winged orb -- the snitch -- that needs to be caught to end the game.
But nonmagical humans -- "muggles," in Potter-speak -- can be a crafty lot, so quidditch was reimagined as a ground-based running game. Somewhat deflated volleyballs and dodgeballs work as the quaffle and bludgers, while the snitch is a yellow-garbed player who has a tennis ball in a tube sock hanging from the waist. And the essential brooms? Well, the "brooms" are usually yardlong lengths of plastic pipe that are ridden like a hobby-horse and don't go airborne unless there's been a particularly spectacular check in the full-contact coed game.
"(Plastic pipe) is durable and safe," said OWLS captain Kyle Campbell, 23. "We've played with wooden brooms, and they've broke."
Since its inception, quidditch has rapidly grown in popularity and now has more than 300 teams organized in the United States, most at colleges including Stanford and UC Berkeley. Those universities will be represented at the World Cup, along with a Mountain View-based community team called the Silicon Valley Skrewts. According to Logan Anbinder, a spokesman for the International Quidditch Association, all told 1,600 players and up to 4,000 spectators are expected to take part in a "festival atmosphere where the competitive and whimsical sides come together," including a performance by wizard-rock band Harry and the Potters.
Professional brooms will be available for purchase, including the industry-standard Shadow Chaser model from a company whose specialty is "fine handcrafted magic wands." Competition brooms may sound like a niche market, but they're not the only ones in the business -- a startup company is making fiberglass models with "an ergonomic saddle design, creating a comfortable yet snug fit along the sit bones and point-of-contact in pelvises of all genders."
"There are the Joe Thorntons of quidditch, and there are quidditch fantasy leagues," Campbell said.
At an unusual rainy-day indoor practice this week, seven men and five women of the OWLS squad went through the motions, from the initial kneeling eyes-down stance through the cry of "brooms up" and into action, jostling each other for balls and goals.
"I describe it as rugby combined with dodgeball, flag-football and hide-and-go-seek," said Elizabeth Barcelos, 28.
"It's similar to lacrosse, rugby, flag-football, wrestling and capture the flag," said Campbell, 23.
There are players with bad reputations and there are injuries. Quidditch players like to tell tales about wounds suffered on the field -- bloodied lips and noses, concussions, torn cartilage. There's reverent talk of a broom-impalement incident in Mountain View when a wooden stick broke and its sharp end was driven into a player's armpit.
And there's controversy. Some involved in the game want to detach it from Harry Potter, drop the magic connection and take it to a realm where it might be taken more seriously.
"We do want people to know that we're more than a Harry Potter fan club," Campbell said. "It's really a sport that defines our generation. It's coed and inclusive of any gender, and it's not just an easy little game, it's a physically demanding sport. People have these thoughts -- they think it's a nerd club, or its all about the movies, but it's so much more."
Anbinder of the quidditch association said he's watched that tension on his own team in the four years he's played. He got into it as a Potter fan but saw it slowly pick up in terms of skill and athleticism.
"What happens is you'll have a varsity athlete walking across campus see people playing, and it looks really cool, and they'll bring more people into it," he said. "There's an increasing intensity and skill level that's frustrating to some players."
He said that while the quidditch association caters to all players, "first and foremost we recognize it as a sport that has developed so far beyond Harry Potter, even people like myself see it."
But OWLS founder Knight said there's something special about quidditch that does have to do with the geek factor.
"You'll see people get into it who are really socially awkward, fan-fiction writing nerds, and they'll be at practice along with lacrosse players," she said. "It's a really diverse group."
Knight added that it's a "fun, family feeling" where players bond in their "love for a fictional world."
"I get it, I see why people would want to distance the sport from that," she said. "But that would be abandoning our roots."
The San Jose State University Owls will be playing in the World Cup competition Saturday, with pool games followed by playoffs Sunday. Results and streaming video can be seen at www.iqaworldcup.com.