The History Of Water Polo

Origin and Early Rules

The earliest known documentation of modern water polo can be traced back to the late19th century and a man named William Wilson, a Scotsman renown for his contributions to aquatic development. As a swimming coach, Wilson developed revolutionary techniques on efficiency and safety. As an iconoclastic engineer, however, he created what was first known as “aquatic football”, a form of soccer, rugby, wrestling, and American football – all while treading water.

The first game took place along the banks of the River Dee in Aberdeen, Scotland. It experienced a massive gain in popularity in the following years, and was played throughout Great Britain in various loosely organized official capacities. Shortly thereafter, in 1885, the Swimming Association of Great Britain officially recognized the game and formalized the rules made by Wilson.

At first, players scored by planting the ball on the end of the pool with both hands. A favorite trick of the players was to place the five-to-nine inch rubber ball inside their swimming suit and dive under the murky water, then appear again as near the goal as possible.

If the player came up too near the goal, he was promptly jumped on by the goalie, who was permitted to stand on the pool deck. Games were often nothing more than gang fights in the water as players ignored the ball, preferring underwater wrestling matches that usually ended with one man floating to the surface unconscious.

The introduction of the “Trudgeon stroke” by Scottish players changed the nature of water polo. It became a game that emphasized swimming, speed and passing. Scottish rules moved from a rugby variant to a soccer style of play. Goals became a cage of l0 x 3 feet and a goal could be scored by being thrown. Players could only be tackled when they “held” the ball and the ball could no longer be taken under water. The small rubber ball was replaced by a leather soccer ball.

America Learns Water Polo

Water polo was introduced to the USA in 1888. The game featured the old rugby style of play which resembled American football in the water. “American style” water polo became very popular and by the late 1890’s was played in venues like Madison Square Garden and Boston’s Mechanics Hall, attracting 14,000 spectators to national championship games.

The game of the day featured plays like the “flying salmon,” where the player with the ball leapt through the air from the backs of his teammates to score a goal. Violence was the game’s main attraction.

Americans Keep it Rough While The World Encourages Finesse

Meanwhile, the rest of the world adopted the Scottish rules: Hungary in 1889, Belgium in 1900, Austria and Germany in 1894 and France in 1895. By 1900, water polo was so popular it became the first team sport added to the Olympic program.

At the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, only U.S. club teams were willing to compete under American rules and in horrid conditions. The New York Herald newspaper reported several athletes were stricken with typhoid fever after competing in an artificial, contaminated pond. “The water was green and slimy, like stagnant putrid pools found in swamps. After the first day’s competition, seven of twelve NYAC men were compelled to take to bed, sick from the effects of the water in which they swam,” reported the Herald. The New York Athletic Club defeated the Chicago Athletic Association for the gold medal.

Olympic Swimmer and Water Polo player Johnny Weissmuller

In 1911, the Federation International de Natation Amateur (FINA), the international governing body for all amateur aquatic sports, adopted the Scottish rules for all international events.

Americans continued to play by their own rules until 1912, when, instead of playing their semi-final match in the National Championship tournament, the New York AC and the Chicago AA chose to brawl. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) cancelled its sponsorship of the sport until 1914 when American clubs finally agreed to play under the more civilized international rules.

  • The “dry pass” was invented in 1928. This involved teammates passing the ball over the water to one another without ever letting it touch the surface. This drastically increased the speed of the game, which had previously relied on scrambles for balls that were allowed to first drop on the surface of the water. As a result, finesse and quickness became more important traits for a water polo athlete.

Internationally, European teams have dominated the sport. The United States is the only non-European team to win Olympic medals. In addition to the gold won by the NYAC in 1904, the U.S. won silver medals in 1984 and 1988 and bronze medals in 1924, 1932 and 1972.

World Politics Gets Into the Water

The most notorious incident in the history of Olympic water polo took place during the 1956 match between the Soviet Union and Hungary. Four weeks 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. This became know as the infamous “Blood In the Water” match.  Hungary was leading 4-0 at the time and was declared the winner; the team advanced to the finals and won the gold.

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 (3 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze). Oliver Halassy, who represented Hungary three times between 1928-1936, won 2 gold and 1 silver. What makes his medal count even more extraordinary is that Halassy had one of his legs amputated below the knee as a child!

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 thirteen, including 7 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.

Modern Times

Water polo within the United States was adopted as a championship sport for men in the collegiate system in the early 70’s, while women were added about 30 years later as participation grew. Today, collegiate and high school teams can be found throughout the country.

Women were not allowed to compete at the Olympics until the 2000 Games in Sydney, where Australia won the gold medal, the United States took the silver, and the bronze went to Russia. The first Water Polo World Cup for women was held by FINA (the sport’s governing body) in 1979, and the first World Championships took place in 198

Internationally the game is played all over the world, with Europe and Asia boasting the world’s strongest programs for men. The USA is the only non-European team to win Olympic medals. In addition to the gold won by the New York Athletic Club in 1904, the United States men’s program won silver medals in 1984 and 1988 and bronze medals in 1924, 1932 and 1972.

The recent addition of women’s water polo paints a different story for dominance, as Canada and the United States often vie for top billing with the world’s best as the Americans have proven to be among the world’s best repeatedly contending for the Olympic and World Championship titles.




Pictures- Illustrated History of Olympic Water Polo