Olympics Summer

Water fight

An inside look at how this tough water sport went from rivers and streams to the Olympic pool.

There's a lot more than swimming in this tough water sport


Though water polo is more controlled than it used to be, players must still be tough enough to fight off opponents, beat them to the ball and score goals- all while treading water. ((Dimitar Dilkoff/Getty Images) )


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The birth of water polo sounds suspiciously like a Monty Python sketch: groups of upper-class holiday-makers splashing about in a lake astride wooden barrels painted to look like horses, and whacking at a leather ball with kayak paddles.

It is thought that British resort owners invented this rather strange pastime during the mid-1800s in an attempt - however odd - to attract guests. The first matches were played on nearby lakes and rivers, and the game's passing similarity to horseback polo earned it the name "water polo."

Some players say that water polo is like rugby, and that for every visible foul, there are plenty more taking place below the surface. ((Attila Kisbenedek/Getty Images) )
After the elimination of the paddles and barrels, the game was adapted to swimming pools in 1870 by the London Swimming Club, which hosted the first official game at the Crystal Palace Plunge in London. Matches resembled rugby on water and were based more on brute strength than athletic skill.

Underwater wrestling bouts would leave some players barely conscious when they rose to the surface. A common trick players used was to place the small ball in their swimming trunks and swim underwater towards the goal, where they would score by removing the ball and slamming it onto the pool deck.

Skill over brute force

In 1880, rules were drafted 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 apply to today's game.

The Scottish rules were adopted throughout Great Britain, and the game quickly caught on in nations like Hungary, Belgium, Austria, Germany and France, which began playing the sport by the late 1800s. America was introduced to the sport in 1889 by English swimming instructor John Robinson.

Most gold medals

Hungary - 8

Britain - 4

Italy - 4

Yugoslavia - 3

Soviet Union - 2

Water polo made its Olympic debut in 1900 and has remained on the roster ever since. Great Britain won gold at each of the first four Games.

Women were not allowed to compete until the 2000 Games in Sydney, where Australia won the gold, the U.S. took the silver, and the bronze went to Russia. The first World Cup for women was held by FINA (the sport's governing body) in 1979, and the first World Championships took place in 1986.

Hungary vs. Soviet Union
Politics hit the pool at the 1956 Olympics when Hungary played the USSR. Above, a Hungarian player shows the signs of battle after referees called the game early to end the violent clash. Hungary went on to win gold. ((Staff/Getty Images))
The most notorious incident in the history of Olympic water polo took place during the 1956 match between the Soviet Union and Hungary. One month prior to the Games, 200,000 Soviet troops invaded Hungary to suppress an anti-Communist uprising, so there was plenty of bad blood between the two sides before the scrappy game started.

The game was marred by brawls and became so brutal that officials called it off altogether. Hungary was leading 4-0 at the time and was declared the winner; the team advanced to the finals and won the gold.

Hungarians are well-known for their extraordinary play in the water. Hungary has won the most medals in Olympic water polo history, with a total of 13, including seven gold, four of them coming between 1932-1956. Like other notable southern European nations, such as Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia, its national team draws its players from a pool of talent that plays in the professional leagues.

Hungary has also fielded some of the most celebrated water polo players of all time. Dezso Gyarmati won a medal at five different Olympics from 1948-1964 (three gold, one silver and one bronze). Oliver Halassy, who represented Hungary three times between 1928-1936, won two gold and one silver. What makes his medal count even more extraordinary is that Halassy had one of his legs amputated below the knee as a child.

Russia has won nine medals in water polo, including two gold and a bronze in Athens. The U.S. has won seven medals, including three silver and a third place finish in 2004, but has yet to reach the top spot.

For Canadian water polo players and fans, the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be historic. For the first time, the Canadian men's team has earned the right to compete. The team assured its position by finishing in the top four at the men's Olympic qualifying tournament in Romania this spring.

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