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Water polo

Water polo was initially a very dangerous sport that first developed in the rivers and lakes of mid-19th century England as an aquatic version of rugby  developed in the US in the 19th century. In 1870, the London Swimming Association developed a set of rules for the sport to be used in indoor swimming pools. Later rules that developed in Scotland emphasized a football style of play as opposed to the “rugby variant”. Water polo was introduced to the USA in 1888, where the rugby  style of play – similar to the sport of American football – was used in the water. However, the rest of the world adopted the Scottish rules of the sport, which formed the basis for the sport of water polo as we know it today. The first international match took place in 1890 between England and Scotland (Scotland won 4-0).

Brief overview of the rules

Two teams of seven players face off in a pool which dimensions are not fixed and can vary between 20×10 and 30×20 meters (FINA approved  matches require a 30×20 meter pool for men, and 25×20 meter pool for women). Matches are played in four eight-minute quarters. Other than the goalkeeper, players may only hold the ball with one hand. Possession lasts 30 seconds; if the team does not attack the goal within that time, possession passes to the opposition.

Water polo is an intensely physical sport and contact is permitted with players in possession of the ball. Strength, endurance and physical power are therefore highly important, as is strategy, like in all team sports.

Olympic history

Water polo is one of the oldest team sports at the Olympic Games of the modern era, as it was added to the programme at the same time as rugby in 1900 – first in the form of competitions between clubs, then tournaments between countries from 1908. However, it wasn’t until Sydney 2000, a century later, that the women’s event was introduced to the Olympic Games.

European countries National Olympic Committees have been the dominant force in men’s water polo for years,  with an NOC from the continent winning gold at every edition of the Games since 1908. Hungary tops the men’s medal table with 16 medals (including nine golds). Women’s water polo at the Olympics is still in its infancy, but the USA are the reigning three-time champions after winning gold at London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020

Events in 2024

The water polo games will be held between the 5th and the 11th of August.

  • Water polo tournament (women’s / men’s)

Venue in 2024

International organisation

International federation : Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA)

© Paul Gilham/Getty Images

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