History of water polo
It isn’t clear how polo began, but considering that when it first came to be described to the public, during the 19th century, an inflated pig’s bladder was traditionally used for a ball, we can guess that the sport had its roots in a less civilized past.
By the mid 19th century, when the first rules of the game were drawn out by William Wilson, water polo was highly popular throughout Great Britain, where it was played in rivers and lakes by teams of men following rules similar to those of rugby. Advertising pamphlets for SE England seaside resorts were sometimes including water polo as one of the attractions, with a pool and Indian rubber ball provided by the establishment.
An Indian link could be drawn by considering the name of the game, “polo” being the English pronunciation of the Northern Indian (Balti language) word for “ball” — “pulu.” However, this doesn’t necessarily imply a colonial origin, since the “regular” horseback polo was already played by the British at the time, and a sport being baptized in relation to what might be seen as a distinct version of it is not out of the ordinary.
However, there’s little resemblance between the two “polos” other than the name (at least to the contemporary mind). Early water polo had the most in common with rugby, enough in fact as to be seen as an aquatic variety of it.
The ball wasn’t as much meant to be passed between tactically placed team members but carried to the goal line through a veritable gauntlet mounted by the other side. Wrestling the ball out of an opponent’s hands was an integral part of the mechanics of early polo. A common tactic was to stealthily bypass the opposition by swimming underwater, in which case, grabbing and holding the carrier until he was starved of oxygen and let go of the ball was allowed.
There were no netted gates, and scoring was done by contacting the ball, held in both hands, to the opposite team’s end of the pool. The keeper usually patrolled the goal line from land, jumping upon any of the opposite team members who threatened to score points. A similar move was also available to regular players, who could stand on the shoulders of two teammates to leap towards the goal line.
Injuries were not unusual and unconscious players had to be often dragged from the pool. Unsurprisingly, the sport offered some great spectacle, with American championship games, held in such places as Madison Square Garden or the (famous at the time) Boston Mechanic’s Hall attracting crowds more than 14,000 by the end of the 1890s.
In Europe, a new set of regulations was passed by the 1880s. These aimed to put an emphasis on the technical aspect of the sport rather than on athleticism and brute strength. A goal net was introduced, and points could be scored by throwing the ball. Moves reminiscent of wrestling and holding other players were forbidden.
The new Scottish rules were adopted by Hungary in 1889, Austria and Germany in 1894, France in 1895 and Belgium in 1900. The same year, water polo became the first team sport to be played at the Olympic Games, with Britain dominating the first four editions. The Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA) adopted the new rules for all international events in 1911, but these were slow to take off in the United States. As an interesting anecdote, teams from the New York Athletic Club and the Chicago Athletic Association chose to fight instead of play in the 1912 US semi-finals game.
This and other such events caused the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to cut funding for water polo until 1914 when US clubs finally gave in and adopted the international rules.
It was to be 100 years after polo first featured at the Olympics for women to be allowed to play. This happened at the Sydney Games in 2000, and Australia’s team took home the gold (or kept home the gold, if you will). The US came in second, and Russia’s team was awarded the bronze. The first women’s water polo world cup was held in 1979. By this time, water polo evolved into something more reminiscent to soccer, with an emphasis on passes and swimming speed.
Even with the new rules, the game still offered occasional violent moments, as was the case with the 1956 match between Hungary and the USSR. This was held in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and both teams were expectedly on edge. Brawls ensued, and the game had to be held off, with the Hungarians being declared the victors by 4 nill.
Hungary is the country with the best track record when it comes to water polo, with the most Olympic victories and some of the most famous players. Dezso Gyarmati won five Olympic medals from 1948 to 1964, three of which gold, one silver, and one bronze. Equally remarkable is Oliver Halassy who won 2 gold medals and 1 silver between 1928 and 1936, while having one of his legs amputated during childhood.
The United States is the only non-European country to win Olympic medals in water polo, with gold in 1904 granted to the New York Athletic Club team, two silvers in 1984 and 1988 and bronzes in 1924, 1932 and 1972. Water polo became a collegiate sport in 1970 for men and 2000 for women.