The very first team sport to be included in the Olympic programme, Water Polo was played at the Paris 1900 Games, as an exhibition sport. The first records of the activity, however, date back to the 19th century in England, Scotland and the United States.
Initially, the sport was similar to Polo, but with canoes in place of horses. In Great Britain, the sport evolved, gradually becoming more like “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, subsequently, the aim was to throw the ball into the other team’s goal.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the old model of Water Polo remained popular, with very violent games, similar to Rugby. In fact, there was so much resistance to the European format that, at the 1904 Games, in the US city of St. Louis, only American teams took part. German athletes considered participating, but they gave up when they found out the game would be played according to US rules.
This problem only ended in 1911, when the International Swimming Federation (known by French acronym FINA), the organization responsible for Water Polo, made the British rules official throughout the world. Nine years later, in 1920, 12 teams competed in the event at the Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. The women’s event began at the Sydney 2000 Games.
One example of the sport’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 again, 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 2m. There are goals at each end, 3m wide and 90 cm above the surface of the water.