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Water polo, the rugby of water sports

Image credit: Swimming World Magazine
Image credit: Swimming World Magazine
Image credit: Swimming World Magazine

Serbia took the gold medal in the men’s water polo at the 2016 Olympic Games yesterday, defeating Croatia with ten points to eight in a close, hard-fought game. Fighting for the bronze medal, Italy pipped Montenegro’s team at the post, scoring the crucial goal to determine their third place in the last thirty seconds of their game.

Water polo is one of the longest running Olympic sports, featuring in the first modern Olympics in 1900. It is a common sport across many European countries and played in pools, lakes and harbours. Renowned for its ferocity and speed, water polo demands fitness, stamina and versatility of its athletes.

It is tempting to think that water polo is easy – it does look like ‘football in water’. But water polo is arguably the most violent of sports in the modern Olympics; it is the aquatic equivalent of rugby, where players forcefully collide and scuffle for possession of the ball. What makes water polo tougher is the need not only to defeat other players and score points but to keep oneself afloat and alive; rugby players don’t have to battle with the ground they play on.

On the surface, it seems as though the rough and tumble is just a consequence of the game’s fast pace. But under the water, where the referee’s vision is obscured, dirty tricks are a commodity. Experienced players know all too well the feeling of an opponent’s nails – from their fingers or even their toes – being raked across the backs of their arms or legs.

It is not uncommon to see a competitive swimmer wear two caps, one on top of the other; water polo players go further, wearing an extra swimsuit, to defend themselves against an unexpected undressing from a rival player. Players can at times unwittingly become buoys for other players to use to pull themselves through the water, grabbing hold of arms, legs and chests as well as the back of man’s shorts or a woman’s back straps. When you are dragged under the water, it is hard not to panic and stop yourself from thrashing out at the nearest player nearby, only adding to the brawl that unfolds.

Water polo is a strongly taxing game. Often the ball becomes less of a way to score and more a buoyancy aid for exhausted swimmers towards the end of the match. But, with its extraordinary physical requirements, water polo undoubtedly keeps players in good shape.

The Rio Olympics saw a number of spats between swimmers in the water polo competitions, many of which were not addressed by the referees. Water polo players come to regard pushing, pulling and tussling as common occurrences. Water polo is a hard sport but as with most team games, there is always excitement to be had!

Before going to university, Jack Harvey played water polo for ten years.