Water Polo: 5 Facts You Didn’t Know About the Toughest Olympic Sport

Water Polo: 5 Facts You Didn’t Know About the Toughest Olympic Sport

When you think of the world’s toughest sports to play, what comes to mind? Boxing? Football? Wrestling?

Due to its lack of mainstream appeal, water polo is often overlooked. On the surface, it looks like a game of handball played in a swimming pool, but it’s far more than that. Water polo is an intensely physical sport requiring a high level of skill that’s extremely tough on the body and poses very real physical risks.

Let’s take a closer look at how the game has evolved since it was first introduced.

When Was Water Polo Invented?

Water polo began sometime in the mid-19th century in England as an aquatic version of rugby football. It’s believed that British holiday resort owners invented this rather strange pastime in an attempt to attract guests.

Early games used an inflated rubber ball imported from India known as a pulu, which means ball. Pronounced polo in English, both the ball and the game became known as water polo.

By 1869, a rubber ball made from a pig’s stomach replaced the original ball. In 1870, the London Swimming Club formulated rules for the sport and hosted the first official game at the Crystal Palace Plunge in London. The games were based more on brute strength than athletic skill.

In 1880, rules were introduced in Scotland to shift the game’s focus to skill over force. A bigger ball, similar to a soccer ball, was used, nets were introduced and players could no longer tackle opponents who did not have possession of the ball. The same rules still apply to today’s game.

In 1888, water polo was introduced in the United States. It featured the old rugby style of play which look like American football in the water. This became very popular and by the late 1890s, water polo was played in venues like Madison Square Garden.

In fact, the popularity of water polo was so great it was the first team sport introduced at the modern Olympic games in 1900.

What started off as an adaptation of rugby played in lakes and rivers, water polo has evolved into the toughest sport in the world.

5 Fun Facts About Water Polo

Want to learn more about water polo? Here are some facts you may not know:

  • Players do not touch the bottom of the pool during practice or games.
  • This sounds simple, but these athletes have to tread water for close to 40 minutes per game, and on average will swim just under two miles every game. These are grueling physical feats and players practice a minimum of 20 hours per week to prepare.

  • You’re not allowed to touch the ball with two hands.
  • This rule applies to both offensive and defensive players. This causes players to learn to be ambidextrous. The only person in the pool who is exempt from this rule is the goaltender.

  • You use every muscle in your body.
  • This is due to the fact that this is a water sport. In the process of treading, swimming, and throwing, the players work all of the major muscle groups.

  • It gets messy underwater.
  • When it comes to what happens under the water, anything goes. Punching, kicking and scratching are all frequent parts of a water polo game. There are penalties when someone intentionally punches someone or has malicious intent, but penalties only apply when the official sees it.

  • The goalies have it tough.
  • The goaltender position is widely considered the toughest position in the sport. They must use only their legs and core to jump out of the water while maintaining a keen awareness of where the ball is at all times to make the blocks.