Water polo is the oldest team sports in the Olympics. It was initially created in order to attract more guests in British resorts. It was played in the murky waters of rivers and lakes by men who exhibited swimming prowess and considerable strength. Players wrestle with each other under water in order to achieve a goal.
The paper contains the history of water polo. It discusses how the sport was developed from a brutal and bloody game to a tame Olympic sport.
It also includes an elaboration on the changes in the rules through time and who were the people who played an important part in the evolution of the said sport
History of Water Polo
The history of water polo is not as precise as any other popular Olympic sport played in fact, there is limited data on its beginnings. According to the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA), the term water polo was adopted from the Indian term “pulu” which literally means ball.
The game was first played in Great Britain and was adopted by neighboring countries. The Europeans developed great interest for the game that they ended up formulating a more defined set of rules and regulations and had it included in the Olympic games.
First Water Polo
In an attempt to attract more guests, British resort owners, invented the past time during the mid-1800s. The game was first played in rivers and lakes using a ball made from a pig’s stomach. Players passed the ball just like in the horseback polo game (CWPA).
Scores are obtained when a player crosses over the side of the opposing team and places the ball at the end of the pool. This game demanded strength and swimming prowess as there is no set of rules formulated yet and the game was played in murky waters surrounded by trees and debris.
The lack of widely adopted rules led the players to engage in lake fights in order to pose a score in the game. The players are very intense and brutal in playing thus, instead of being a mere exhibition of talent, water polo games became bloody encounters among teams. It became an exhibition of strength rather than athletic skills (Bean, 2007).
The intensity of the game and the new twist it gave to water sports drew more people became to be interested in the game. People in the English and European territories became widely astonished with the sport that they adopted it even if there is no official set of rules prescribed for the game. The players loved the vigor and intensity that the game infused to water sports. It also gave an exciting twist to swimming competitions and other water related activities.
Water Polo Rules
The people’s wide acceptance of the sport in the English territory paved the way for its evolution. In 1869, the pig’s stomach ball was replaced by a rubber ball and the year after it, a group of swimming professionals was summoned by the Metropolitan Swimming Association in order to formulate the rules and regulations of the game (Terret). However, the first set of water polo rules to be publicized was created by William Wilson in Glasgow, Scotland in 1876.
The set of rules created by Wilson allowed two teams of three players to fight over an inflatable pouch. The game was named as aquatic football. The rules thereof were altered later on in order to add more entertainment value. The players were increased to nine and an additional post was included; the goal keeper. The latter is responsible for preventing the opposing team from making a score. The resemblance of the game with football drew greater interest among the people.
The set of rules promulgated resembled the sport, rugby. A ball which resembled a soccer ball and nets were used. The rules formulated set the dimensions of the goal and prohibited the players to throw and catch the ball using both hands. Players score by swimming towards the goal in order to remove the ball and slam it on the pool deck. The goal of the sport is to carry the ball towards the side of the opponent. A score is acknowledged only when the ball has completely entered the goal. The goalie is prohibited from throwing the ball across half of the pool and the players are not allowed to pass or keep the ball under water. One game lasts up to twenty minutes. The first official water polo game which utilized defined borders and followed a specific set of rules was played in Glasgow (NL Water Polo).
In 1886, the rules for water polo was altered by the Amateur Swimming Association. The new set of rules was patterned after the rules which were created and popularized by Wilson.
The introduction of the rules led to an evolution of the game from exhibition of strength to display of athletic skills. The rules made in Scotland was adopted in Great Britain as well as Belgium, Hungary, Austria, France and Germany. The set of rules which were followed only received minor alterations until 1900.
As the new century started, changes were imposed on the regulations adopted for water polo. The rules had to be more precise in order to ensure the safety of the players. Among the significant alterations introduced is the level of the water in the pool which is not less than three feet deep and the rule that players who left the pool or the playing area are no longer allowed to return. They are also prohibited to stay along the edge of the pool These rules were imposed in order to prohibit the players from diving back into the water and eventually attacking the players from the opposing team (Terret).
Water Polo in America
On the verge of its popularity in European nations, people from other countries also became interested with the sport thus, they also started adopting it. Among these counties is the United States of America.
It was during the year 1888 that water polo was first played in America. It was introduced by John Robinson, a swimming instructor. The game resembled the old rugby style. There are no goals to obtain. The only objective of the game is to hit the marked spot in the pool using the ball.
The Americans play water polo with the use of a loosely inflated ball which could be easily gripped and carried towards the goal. The use of such ball gave room for the opposing team to subject the possessor of the ball to attacks. The players wrestle with the one holding the ball and render him helpless under water.
The sport became very popular among the Americans and was commonly played in the Madison Square Garden as well as the Mechanic’s Hall of Boston. The main attractions with American water polo are violence and the intensity of the players. Certain special awards are even given at the end of the game. Among these awards is the flying salmon; an award is accorded to the player who exhibited the best leap in the air in order to score a goal (CWPA).
An Olympic Game
During the 1900s, water polo reached a new stage as it became the first team sport to be included in the Olympic Games. The first four water polo Olympic Games was dominated by Great Britain.
The Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA) adopted in 1911 the Scottish rule for all water polo events. FINA is the international body which governs amateur water sports. Despite FINA’s recognition of the Scottish rules, players in the United States refused to obey such rules and remained attached with their own rules which espouses the use of strength to win the game. It was only in 1912 that Americans decided to concede to the Scottish rules.
The Scottish rules are tamer and more refined compared to American water polo. However, even with the world wide adoption of the tamer version, water polo remained to be a game of vigor and strength. In a game between Hungary and the Soviet Union in 1956, the most notorious water polo match was played. Blood shed even before the day of the match as around 200,000 troops from the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. The invasion was meant to suppress the uprising of anti-Communists. The heated conflict between the parties resulted to the fusion of anger during the match. Instead of just being a day of fun and exhibition of strength, the game between the two countries ended up in brawls. Due to the chaos that the incident led to, the game was called off by the officials (CWPA).
Among different countries buying Olympic medals for water polo, Hungary has bagged the most medals in water polo numbering to 13, seven of which were gold. Just like the other Southern European nations, Hungarians who compete with this Olympic event are drawn from professional leagues. European counties usually dominate the game in the Olympics as a matter of fact, the United States is the only non-European country which earned medals. The United States men’s division won a gold medal in 1904, silver medals in 1984 and 1988 and bronze medals in 1924, 1932 and 1972 (CWPA).
Water Polo for Women
Water polo as an Olympic Game was limited to men only until 2000 when this game was opened to women players in the Sydney Olympics. However, this is not the first time that women engaged in the said game. As early as 1979, women are already engaged in the said sport. FINA sponsored the first Water Polo World Cup for women (CWPA).
Changes in the Game
The 1912 Olympic game used a leather ball for the event. It was slippery, heat and lopsided as the ball absorbed water. In 1936, the ball was changed from leather to cotton blatter and then to nylon. The nylon was wrapped with rubber fabric in order to facilitate a better grip with the ball. Initially, the color of the ball is red but this was changed to yellow as it is more visible. By the year 1956, the yellow ball became the official ball of water polo.
The rules for the game has also undergone series of changes. The initial rules that were set has been improved through the years. FINA is the body which is responsible for creating a set of unified rules for the game of water polo.
Despite starting out as a very rough and brutal game, water polo has evolved to become a safe exciting game. Water polo may not be a game of blood shed now but it still does not fail to stir in the interest among the audience. More and more people still patronage the sport and even play it for their past time.
Aside from being a form of entertainment, water polo also serves as an avenue where players could exhibit their athleticism. It has become a game of skill, team work and coordination.
Bean, K. 2007, October 24. History of Water Polo. Retrieved January 8, 2009 from,
Terret. T. The Birth of a New Game. Federation Internationale de Natation. Retrieved January 8,
2009 from, http://www.fina.org/project/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1884&Itemid=50
Collegiate Water Polo (CWPA). History of Water Polo. Retrieved January 8, 2009 from,
NL Water Polo. Water Polo History. Retrieved January 8, 2009 from,
Cite this History of Water Polo
History of Water Polo. (2016, Oct 07). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/history-of-water-polo/