Water polo is played in a pool. In water polo, the pool is called a pitch. Two teams play and there are seven players in each team.
There’s a goal at each end of the pitch. The goal is 3m wide and 90 cm high. The players try to put the ball in the other team’s goal. They can touch the ball with one hand at a time only. (The goalkeeper can use both hands.) Players must not touch the sides or bottom of the pool.
A match lasts eight minutes and is divided into four quarters. At the start of each quarter the referee blows the whistle and throws the ball into the water. The teams try to get the ball and score a goal. They move the ball by swimming, dribbling or passing it.
After a goal is scored the non-scoring team gets the ball. If a player touches the ball with both hands, it’s an ordinary foul and a free throw is given to the other team. For more serious fouls, such as kicking, hitting, holding or sinking an opponent, a player may have to leave the pitch for 20 seconds.
Polo, eh? Played in water? Any connection with Marco Polo?
You mean Marco Polo, 1254-1324, the famous traveller and merchant? No, nothing. Though there is a game played by children, in water, called Marco Polo.
I see. Is that a form of polo, then?
No – just a game of chase.
So is water polo like polo played on land? You know, with horses, helmets, mallets, and so on?
Yes, similar. Players do have to try and hit a ball through their opponent's goal. But they don't use mallets - just their hands. And there are no helmets, just caps. No horses either, I'm afraid - it would take too long to get them into and out of the pool! But originally players in the US rode on floating barrels and used sticks to hit the ball, so it was called water polo.
Didn't they ride on barrels in Europe, then?
No, there was a different version over here, originally called water rugby.
When was all this?
Back in the 1870s. Actually, both versions of the sport were quite violent, with a lot of fighting and wrestling.
What happened to that, then?
The sport got formal rules and became more disciplined - no hitting or rough stuff. It got more popular after that, particularly the European version.
And when did they start playing it in the Olympics?
The first time was at the 1900 Paris Games, and then regularly from 1908.
Do women play, too?
Yes, but there was no women's water polo in the Olympics until 2000.
Which country is the best at it?
The Hungarians won medals at every games from 1928 to 1980. They got a ninth gold in 2008 (making 15 medals in total).
Why are they so good?
Mm…you might have to ask a Hungarian about that…