The Origins of Water
is little documentation as to the origins of water polo. However, we do
know that the term "polo" is the English pronunciation of the Indian word
"pulu," meaning ball. Just as the ball game played on horseback became
known as "polo," the ball game played in water became known as "water polo,"
although there in no connection between the two sports.
game that evolved into modern water polo began as a form of rugby football
played in rivers and lakes with the object to "carry" the ball to the opponent's
side. By 1869, an Indian rubber ball began replacing the original ball
which was made from a pig's stomach. One year later, the London Swimming
Club developed rules for football to be played in swimming pools. The first
official game was played in the Crystal Palace Plunge in London.
early games were generally exhibitions of brute strength. Passing, punting
and dribbling were scarcely ever practiced. Each player considered it his
duty to score goals without regard to position. A goal was scored by placing
the ball, with two hands, on the top of the tank end. A favorite trick
of the players was to place the five- to nine-inch ball inside their swimming
suit and dive under the murky water, then appear again as near the goal
as possible. Should the player come up too near the goal, he was promptly
jumped on by the goalie, who was permitted to stand on the pool deck.
1880 in Scotland, the introduction of the Trudgeon stroke permitted rule
changes to make the game faster. The game moved from a rugby-style to a
soccer-style of play. The goal then became a cage of ten feet by three
feet and a goal could be scored by throwing the ball into this area. The
small ball was changed to a leather association football (soccer ball).
Players could only be tackled if they held the ball and players could only
touch the ball with one hand at a time. In the late 1880s, these Scottish
rules were generally adopted throughout Great Britain.
1888, the United States became the next country to play water polo when
John Robinson, an English swimming instructor, organized a team at the
Boston Athletic Association. Two years later, J.H. Smith and Arnold Heilban
started a team at the Sydenham Swimmers Club (later at the Metropole AC)
in Providence, Rhode Island. In the fall of 1890, the New York Athletic
Club (NYAC) introduced the game.
early American game was played in the "old" English style, but soon developed
its own, distinctly American characteristics. It was a game of close formations
and fierce scrimmages and was one of the roughest games ever played. The
ball would be taken underwater and held with two hands. Players grabbed
each other where they chose, becoming locked in wrestling grips and losing
interest in the whereabouts of the ball. It was a survival of the fittest.
In many underwater battles, men let go of one another only when one man
was no longer able to endure without air. Players often floated to the
surface or were pulled out of the water in need of resuscitation.
American pools were small, the water polo players continued to play according
to their rules even after learning the "new" English rules. L. de B. Handley
said, "There is no room for above water passing action."
first American championships took place on January 28, 1890 in Providence
where the Sydenham Swimming Club defeated the Boston Athletic Association,
2-1. By the turn of the century, the game was one of the more popular spectator
sports in America.
polo spread to Hungary in 1889, Belgium in 1890, Austria and Germany in
1894 and France in 1895. The game was included in the Olympic Games of
1900 as an exhibition at the Paris Games. Only club teams participated
and Great Britain defeated Belgium, 7-2, in the final game. A club from
France took third place.
the St. Louis Games of 1904, the United States was the only country to
participate. Germany showed an interest in entering, but declined after
discovering that the American-style of water polo was to be played instead
of the European or English-Scottish version of the game. In succeeding
year, the British continued to dominate European and Olympic play, winning
Olympic titles in 1908 in London, in Stockholm in 1912 and Antwerp in 1920.
1911, a decisive advance was made in the game when the Federacion International
de Natacion Amateur (FINA) made the English-Scottish rules obligatory for
all member nations.
is fair to state that not until the 1920 VII Olympiad in Antwerp, when
twelve nations competed, did the game really become popular and internationally
represented. Even then, the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians were not
permitted to participate due to their involvement in World War I.
in 1928, first Germany and then Hungary began a reign of dominance over
international water polo that lasted into the 1980s, when Yugoslavia, the
United States, the USSR, Italy and Spain all fielded extremely competitive
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