Countdown To Beijing: Water Polo

Water polo to some may seem like a simple sport. From a television viewer’s perspective, it just seems as if players toss around a ball in a swimming pool and try to score on an opposing team. But the sport actually requires more skill than arm strength, accuracy and plain old swimming techniques.

A History Worth Diving Into

In the late 19th century, water polo first began as a form of rugby played in rivers and lakes in England and Scotland. Known as “water rugby”, the game was soon called “water polo”, based on the English pronunciation of “pulu”, the Balti word for ball. Like most sports when they were first created, there weren’t a lot of rules for water polo back then. For example, wrestling and holding players underwater to get the ball were allowed.

But the game was soon modernized. By the 1880s, water polo evolved into a fast-paced game that was played with a soccer-sized ball. Instead of sticking people underwater to get the ball, swimming, passing and scoring techniques were emphasized. To help create a set of rules for the sport, the London Water Polo League was founded in 1888.

The establishment of rules then took water polo to the next level. The first English championships were played in the same year the league was founded. In 1890, the first international water polo game took place, with Scotland defeating England by a score of 4-0. Leading up to the 20th century, the game started to develop and become popular in Europe. Countries like Germany, Austria, France, Hungary and Italy started to compete using British rules.

The North Americans played by a different set of rules. In the United States, the game was characterized by rough play, holding and diving underwater. The ball they used was also different as it was soft, partially-inflated and could be gripped tightly and carried underwater. Because of the different style of play and rules, European teams did not compete in the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis.

However, the United States decided soon enough that their rules and regulations needed to be changed. By 1914, most US teams agreed to conform to international rules. With everyone abiding by the same format, an international water polo committee was formed in 1929. Consisting of representatives from Great Britain and the International Amateur Swimming Federation (FINA), rules were developed for international matches. Since then, FINA has been the international governing body for the sport.

Splashing About The Basic Skills

The game of water polo is fairly simple to play. Situated in a swimming pool, two teams of seven players play a match. A game starts with two teams of seven players lined up on their own goal line. When the referee blows their whistle, both teams sprint to the midpoint of the playing field and try to recover the ball.

The offensive team then passes the ball around to each other, looking for an opening to score. On defense, the players try to regain possession of the ball by attempting to knock it away or steal it. They usually commit a foul only if the offensive team has a chance to score on the goalie.

To help the sport branch off from its primitive ways, certain techniques and skills were created. Not only did they add a sense of elegance to the sport, but they also made it more competitive.

The obvious main skill is swimming. Since water polo is a team sport, it requires players to swim around based on strategies. Athletes must be able to swim end-to-end of a 30-meter pool at a constant pace, without touching the sides or bottom.

Some of the popular swimming techniques include:

- The front crawl which allows players to swim with their head out of water so they can observe the playing field at all times.

- The arm stroke which is used in a shorter and quicker manner to protect the ball.

- The backstroke which is used by defenders to track advancing attackers and by the goalie to track where the ball is. The water polo backstroke is different from the ordinary swimming technique as players sit in an almost upright position.

Water polo athletes must also have exceptional ball-handling skills. Players are only allowed to touch the ball with one hand at a time, so they have to be able to throw or catch with either hand. There are two basic passes in water polo: the dry pass and the wet pass. The dry pass is when the ball is thrown to a teammate in the air while a wet pass is deliberately thrown into the water.

Along with passing, there are also a few different shooting techniques. Outside water shots (power, lob or skip shots) can test a goalie’s skill and either overpower them or confuse them. Inside water shots are useful as the player doesn’t have to stop swimming to do them. Some popular inside water shots include the pop shot, the screw shot and the spring shot.

Players must also be able to tread water. Since they cannot touch the bottom of the pool, athletes must be able to use the “egg-beatering” and scissor kick techniques. By constantly moving their legs underwater, these techniques allow water polo players to maintain a constant position above water. Goalies must also be able to jump out of the water so they can hold their position when they’re anticipating a shot.

Dipping Into Water Polo Equipment

Since the action takes place in a swimming pool, not a lot of equipment is used. Items required in water polo include the following:

Balls: A water polo ball is constructed out of waterproof material which allows it to float on water. It also has a unique texture that prevents it from slipping out of players hands. The size varies for men’s and women’s games.

Caps: Along with identifying players, water polo caps are used to protect their heads. The home team wears light-coloured caps and the away team wears dark-coloured caps. Goalies wear red caps that have the number “1”.

Swimwear: Since you need to move freely in the water, male water polo players wear swimming briefs instead of shorts. Female players wear a one-piece swimsuit.

Goals: One goal for either side is required to play a water polo match. They can either be placed the side of the pool or in the pool using floaters.

Swimming Into The Olympics

Water polo has been a part of the Summer Olympics since the second games in 1900. However, women’s water polo wasn’t introduced until the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games after a series of protests.

Some of the best teams include Hungary, Italy and Great Britain. Since the first tournament in Paris, Hungary has been the most dominant, winning eight gold medals, three silver medals and three bronze medals. The country’s success can be attributed to one of their famed players, Dezso Gyarmati. Gyarmati led Hungary to the podium in five Olympic games: 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964. Another successful player was Terry Schroeder, who led the U.S. to silver medals in 1984 and 1988.

Hoping to repeat as gold medalists this year will be Hungary in the men’s tournament and Italy in the women’s tournament.


If you’re interested in hearing more about other Summer Olympic sports, then stay tuned. Articles on the history and development of interesting sports will be posted every weekend up until the actual Olympics!

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Jul 16, 2008
by Anonymous

Some of the best teams

Some of the best teams include Hungary, Italy and Great Britain.

That may have been the case in the beginnings of water polo, but today best teams are Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro.