History of Water Polo

What is Water Polo?

Water polo is a team water sport involving six players, and ball, and a goalkeeper. The game is usually played in a designated area of a swimming pool, but can also be played in lakes and streams. The object of water polo is to score goals. Water polo players swim and tread water while passing the ball and defending their teammates, with the aim of moving the ball into the net defended by a goalie. The team with the most scored goals wins. The game is divided into four periods of varying lengths depending on the level of play, with short breaks in between. The home team wears numbered blue caps, the visiting team white numbered caps, and the goalies wear red caps.

Water polo is enjoyed by youth and adults around the world. The sport is played prominently in Western Europe, but is also popular in many central and southeastern European countries such as Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Barcelona, and others. Many countries have their own water polo organizations. FINA's Water Polo World League controls tournaments internationally, with championships held annually.

Water Polo's Beginnings

Ball sports have always provided fun and exercise. Water polo is just another cool way to have a ball - no pun intended! The game can be played in pools, lakes and streams. Water polo literally means "water ball". Polo comes from the Indian "pulu" which means "ball". In its objective, water polo is similar to Rugby, American football, and soccer. The aim is simply to move the ball to the opponent's side and score a goal.

The original water polo ball was made from a pig's stomach. By the late 1860s, an Indian rubber ball began to take the place of its swine-skinned predecessor, and a year later the London Swimming Club wrote some basic rules for football played in swimming pools.

The history of water polo dates to late nineteenth century Scotland, and its invention is the work of swim instructor William Wilson. Water polo quickly became a popular pastime in Scotland and Britain, and was one of the first team sports introduced at the international modern Olympics.

The first game in the history of water polo is said to have been played "along the banks of the River Dee" in Aberdeen, Scotland. Wilson developed groundbreaking water sport techniques, and came up with "aquatic football" which was a mix of various ball sports to be played while treading water. The sport gained widespread popularity in Britain, and around 1885 a British amateur swimming organization recognized water polo as a sport.

The Development of Water Polo

London was home to the first official water polo game played at the Crystal Palace Plunge. Like early Rugby and other ball games of the day, there were few rules, with the one object being to score a goal using any means possible! Plunging underwater with the ball and popping up near the goal was a popular strategy. But swimmer beware, lest he be pounced upon by the goalkeeper jumping from the deck above. There were no nets. Goals were scored by a player placing the ball on the deck using both hands.

Scotland in 1880 added new rules and moves to speed things up, and make water polo more challenging. The game began to be played less like Rugby now, and more like soccer. Water polo added a cage-style goal, into which a leather soccer ball had to land in order to score points.

Water Polo Ball

The evolution of water polo brought its ball from one made of the skin of swine, to one made of Indian rubber, to a heavy, water-logged soccer ball which began to be used in 1912. And eventually to the more modern version of a polo ball with a cotton bladder, and red rubber fabric casing developed by an American polo player in 1936. The water polo ball became yellow in 1948 for better visibility. In 1956, the ball became an official piece of polo equipment.

When the game gained popularity in Britain, the London Water Polo League was formed to deal with changing rules, and lay the foundation for it becoming a team sport. The US caught the water polo bug. In the late 1880s US teams were formed on the east coast, and American players pulled all the stops. The old English version of the game was about to get a bloody makeover. The New World's fast and furious version added new formations and scrimmages, often amounting to brutal fights and near drownings!

January of 1890 saw the first American polo championships held in Providence, R.I. The Boston Athletic Association was beaten by the Sydenhaum Swimming Club, 2-1. By century's end, mens water polo had become one of the most popular spectator sports in the US. After which, the game spread to other parts of Europe and was exhibited in the Paris Olympic Games of 1900. St. Louis would host the 1904 games. But when the rest of the water polo world heard that the game was to be played the American way, the US water polo team had no contenders!

Britain dominated international Olympics water polo competitions thereafter. 1911 marked a turning point in water polo history when all member nations, including the US, had to abide by a uniform set of rules. Twelve countries competed at the 1920 Games in Antwerp. An international water polo committee was formed in 1929 to deal with worldwide competitions, and was comprised of American representatives and members of the International Swimming Federation, or FINA, which has remained the sport's governing body ever since.

From 1928 on, Hungary became the leading polo contender. In 1980, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Italy, Spain, the US and others rose to the top of the game.

Water Polo Today

The sport of water polo is enjoyed worldwide by young and old alike. Water polo organizations believe that the success of the sport at the international level depends on youth participation. For that reason, many schools in the US and abroad now include water polo in their extra-curricular activities. USA Water Polo is making efforts to make more youth water polo programs available in the US. For more information, check out www.usawaterpolo.org.

Water Polo Trivia

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