First team sport to join the Olympic programme, Water Polo was played at the Paris 1900 Games, as an exhibition. However, the first records date back to the 19th century in England, Scotland and the United States.
Initially, the sport was similar to Polo, but with canoes used instead of horses. In Great Britain, the sport evolved, taking on the concept of playing “rugby in the swimming pool”. In 1880, a series of new rules transformed the discipline’s format: previously, competitors would hold the rubber ball under the water and cross the pool with it until reaching the opponent team’s area, but in today’s game, the aim is to throw the ball into the other team’s goal.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the old model of Water Polo was becoming popular, with very violent games, similar to Rugby. There was so much resistance to the format used in Europe that, at the 1904 Games, in the American city of St. Louis, only American teams took part. German athletes considered participating, but they gave up when they found out that US rules would be used.
This problem only ended in 1911, when the International Swimming Federation (known by French acronym FINA), responsible for Water Polo, made the British rules official throughout the world. Some years later, in 1920, the sport’s popularity was evident at the Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, which featured 12 teams. Women began competing only at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
One example of the discipline’s constant evolution is the ball used – at first, it was made of vulcanised rubber imported from India, and then leather, which soaked up water and became even heavier during matches, and finally rubber, which was only officially adopted in Olympic competitions at the Melbourne 1956 Games.
Each team has 13 players, but only seven may be in the pool at the same time. The pool has a different format – 30 x 20 m for men, and 25 x 17 m for women. The depth is 2 m. There are goals at each end, 3 m wide and 90 cm above the water surface.