History of Water Polo

Before the foundation of FINA (now World Aquatics) (the governing body of aquatic sport) in 1908, water polo was defined as aquatic football. 

Water games existed in many places in the world at the end of the 19th century. In the sea as well as in swimming pools, swimmers and bathers generally enjoyed these activities for recreational purposes. This heritage became part of aquatic festivals, which took place mainly in Great-Britain in the mid-19th century. Indeed, such events during aquatics festivals and other races meetings were a positive factor for attracting crowds and motivating the swimmers who did not always find organised competition particularly exciting. Included were ball games taken from “land” activities which, because of the aquatic environment, were very amusing. 

The term horse-riding was often used in reference to these events. In a “water derby”, swimmers sat astride barrels to which a wooden horse’s head had been attached and were named after the great racing horses of the day. Makeshift oars enabled them to move and race. Sometimes aquatic games mimicked the game of polo. Perched on barrels, the players fought for a ball floating in the water and used their paddles as a stick to push and to throw it. Only the name was to be kept of this form of “water polo”, which played the same social function in the reproduction and derision of polo, as the water jousts in the case of knights’ tournaments. Finally, reference was sometimes made to “football”, the name itself being used indiscriminately before 1870 to describe existing practices: in some, players used their upper limbs to control a ball and in others, only “dribbling” was permitted. The first of the two forms was codified in 1871 and became “rugby football”, the second as early as 1863 under the name of association football. As being in the water made it impossible for players to control the ball with their feet, the game of “Football in the water” simply involved two teams moving an object to a particular place (usually a small boat) by whatever, often quite violent, means. This “Football in the water” was of particular interest to the directors of the Metropolitan Swimming Association (MSA). After drawing up the rules of amateur swimming in 1869, they created, on May 12, 1870, a committee responsible for writing a set of rules for football in the water.

Away from London, in the city of Glasgow, the first version of a common set of rules for Scotland appeared in 1877, when the President of the Bon Accord Swimming Club, William Wilson, requested that the President of the Associated Swimming Clubs of Scotland (ASCS) recommend a way to increase interest in the club’s annual gala. He created, from start to finish, a set of rules for a game called “aquatic football”. Probably drawing his inspiration from popular games he was already familiar with, he suggested that two teams of three players fight for an inflatable pouch used as a ball.

Wilson progressively altered the set of rules, giving the game more entertainment value by, for example, introducing a goalkeeper (using association football as his model) and increasing the number of players per team to nine. With these rules, the game became a popular event at aquatic fêtes, being a physically demanding team sport played in “intimate” quarters, and because of its simple rules. Their simplicity was all the more appreciated as the rules were taken from football, i.e. an activity which was becoming more and more popular. When the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) was created in England in 1886, the new rules of water polo (the term became firmly established at this time) were greatly influenced by Wilson’s Scottish code. The definite form it was finally to take was achieved by adaptations in 1888. Championship water polo appealed to spectators and enjoyed real success in England at the end of the century. The generalisation of the English model made it possible to organise matches between England and Scotland, the first of which was held in London on July 28, 1890. In 1895, Ireland played England and then, two years later, matches were organised between Wales and Scotland. The idea of organising games between Commonwealth members came in 1891 and these actually took place in 1911 in the form of an Empire Championship.

In the 1880s and 1890s, references to association football became more frequent over those of rugby football, although the rules and equipment had to be adapted because of the aquatic environment. Still, only minor modifications were made to the regulations until 1900. However, water polo was not football, and to conserve the essential characteristics of the game, the rules had to be precise. After 1900, for example, the water in the pool had to be at least 3 feet deep (91 cm). For the same reason, and to avoid the practice of combined running races and diving taking the game in a different direction, the players, with the exception of the goalkeeper, were no longer permitted, after 1886, to re-enter the water if they left the pool, nor could they wait at the edge of the pool or stand on the bottom of the pool during the match (except to rest). Interest in the game depended on the aquatic environment in which it was played. To forget this was to threaten the game’s survival. 

Easier rules 

At the end of the century, the rules also evolved in accordance with demands for entertainment, which often made refereeing easier. The environment in which water polo was played necessarily made it difficult for both spectators and referees to follow everything that happened. Making the game clearer therefore became important. It can be supposed that for this reason the number of players per team was progressively reduced: “approximately nine” in 1879, not more than eight in 1885, then a compulsory seven in 1886.

As an aquatic rugby, water polo initially expressed the same values that the Victorian male youth, looking for commercial and colonial adventures, wanted to develop through the practice of rugby: the physical fight, an element of risk, a cult of free effort, masculinity. In this sense, through rules and techniques, the cultural constraint was a form of social domination. Both swimmers and water polo players were, however, more socially eclectic and often belonged to lower classes than those who governed the swimming institution. They were closer to the football players, who’s popular faces grew during the 1890s. In twenty years, the change from “rugby water polo” to a “football water polo” could then be considered in three distinct but potentially complementary ways: as a consequence of an agreement for consensual regulations giving it more place among the socially and geographically dominant groups, as a direct effect of the popularisation of the game, or, maybe more plausible, as a relative failure of the imposed dominant model of water polo when faced with those who had other conceptions about how the game should be played.

As an aquatic rugby, water polo initially expressed the same values that the Victorian male youth, looking for commercial and colonial adventures, wanted to develop through the practice of rugby: the physical fight, risk, the cult of free effort, masculinity.

Water polo presented, therefore, divergent ways of playing, which, for instance, influenced the different forms of the game engaged outside the British Isles. Indeed, it began to diffuse from the 1890s on to the United States, Germany, Austria, Hungary, France and Belgium. The diffusion of the British games was easier in cultures where water games already existed and had prepared the people to accept it immediately. Yet, behind this apparent unity, several different attitudes co-existed. Some insisted on the reference to rugby football, i.e. to a form of practice which favoured collective combat and where water simply modified the aspect of traditional power struggles. Those with the most influence on the definition of the rules were more inclined to turn towards association football: here, water polo adopted techniques and regulations which favoured ball passing over physical combat. Others had a different opinion again and saw water polo, above all, as a prop for swimming, to be used in training or for learning swimming techniques. Its institutionalisation was not a guarantee of its recognition as a sport, but rather a means of controlling its usage by imposing a certain standard of game.

This standard being also a consensus, the last set of rules made the game closer to football. Under this form, it diffused to continental Europe and the USA, where it was only accepted in the places where the awareness regarding proper hygiene and swimming facilities was strong enough. In 1908, the English rules were definitely recognised as the only one world standard with the legitimacy brought by FINA.

Author – Theirry Terret
Source – Courtesy of World Aquatics

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