Pop quiz. Which sport is the longest standing team sport in Olympic history?
Soccer? Close, but try again. Basketball? Nope. Field hockey? No way.
It's water polo. It has been an Olympic sport for 100 years and is
played in just as many countries. Some even say it is the most physically
demanding of all team games.
"I would say that it's probably accurate," says Dan Sharadin. He is
a former elite club player. He is also the director of collegiate and senior
programs for United States Water Polo.
"You are in a medium where it is difficult to move," he says. "You have
the resistance and friction of water. And if you consider that you play up
to one hour and 15 minutes, it can be grueling."
Also, expect a lot of incidental and intentional contact during a game
of water polo. "There is a lot more contact than in a basketball game, and
a lot of it goes unnoticed."
A team consists of 13 players with seven players in the water: six field
players and one goalkeeper. Games last four seven-minute quarters.
You have to tread water the entire time you are in the game. Otherwise,
possession changes. This is also the case when you touch the sides of the
pool. So you must have a lot of endurance to play this sport.
Exceptional swimming ability is also a must because turnovers are frequent.
Play changes direction often. You must also have a lot of strength to rise
out of the water and above your opponent before hurling the ball toward the
net. This emphasis on power reflects the game's history.
Water polo developed in Scotland during the late 19th century. Players
could only use their feet to move the ball. It wasn't even called water
polo back then.
Fans called it aquatic football or aquatic rugby instead. Serious injuries
were common. The game eventually moved towards its current form that allows
players to pass the ball with their hands just as in team handball.
Water polo also has elements of other, better-known sports.
As in basketball, two clocks keep time in a water polo game -- a game clock
and a 35-second shot clock. If a team cannot score during that time, possession
changes. Players also foul out if they pick up three major fouls.
Players are sent to a penalty box just as in hockey. Plus, there are spot
penalty shots like in soccer if a defending player commits a foul inside the
goal mouth area.
These features give the sport an enormous crossover appeal, especially
in countries where team handball, soccer and basketball are popular. It is
perhaps no surprise that European countries such as Hungary, Spain and Yugoslavia
have dominated the sport for a long time.
Water polo is also popular in Australia and South Africa. It is less popular
in North America, but this is changing.
The U.S. team has been improving over the last few years. Many consider
it a serious medal contender again.
"The popularity of our sport has definitely increased, especially since
the inclusion of the women into the Olympics," says Heather Kaulbach. She
is director of operations at the national office of a water polo association.
One big reason for this increase in popularity has been an increase in
media coverage, she says. The Internet has also played a big role in making
the sport more visible. "The means of promoting the sport have increased,
and that definitely helps," she says.
Playing water polo may also lead you towards a career in sports administration,
facility management and coaching, says Sharadin. He started playing when he
was 14 years old. He now works with college and senior club teams throughout
Kaulbach, meanwhile, played for a national team from 1983 to 1994. Like
Sharadin, she used her involvement with the sport to gain employment, first
as a lifeguard, and now as a senior administrator with the sport's governing
"A lot of the athletes do that, because once you spend so much time in
the aquatic environment, you try to get a profession related to that," she
But she warns against high expectations.
"With a sport like ours, there are opportunities," she says. "But they
are limited compared to other sports."
Clubs exist in all major cities and at all major universities, so finding
a team is not difficult. And if you are a good swimmer, you can learn the
game quickly. "Picking up the basic skills of the game is not difficult,"
You also don't need much equipment. All you need is a special cap
to cover your head and ears -- plus your swimsuit, of course.
United States Water Polo
1685 W. Uintah
Charles F. Cicciarella
USA Water Polo
National Water Polo League
Follow scores from Great Britain's top water polo league
Women's Water Polo at Stanford
The site of one of the top college teams in North America
Australian Water Polo
Get the goods on water polo in Australia