Previewing the Sports You Know Nothing About: Water Polo

Sadly, not known as "Water derby"

water polo hungary USA London 2012 Olympics

Water polo.     Photo: AN HONORABLE GERMAN/Flickr

HOW DOES IT WORK?
It’s 7 vs. 7 with six out-pool (?) players and one goalie. Players can score with any body part other than a clenched fist. They also must only use one hand and cannot bring the ball underwater. The goalies can do whatever they want—fists, two hands, etc.—to keep the ball from going into the goal. A full game is four, eight-minute quarters. Women use a slightly smaller ball, but otherwise the rules are the same for both. There’s group play followed by single-elimination playoffs. Medal dates are August 9 (women) and 12 (men).

HISTORY
It started off as a something called “water derby,” which is an awesome name and should maybe become its own sport involving waterproof fire and horses that can swim. But water polo itself has been in the Olympics since 1900. Women didn’t join until 2000. Hungary has the most medals (15) and the most golds (9). The U.S. is second in total medals (12), while Great Britain and Italy are tied for second with four golds.

WHO IS THE BEST?
Hungarian men’s water polo is one of the most dominant national teams in the history of sports. They won their first gold before Hitler came to power in Germany, and they’ve also won the last three Olympic golds, with a bunch in between. With such sustained success, the only question is whether or not they can stay Hungary for a fourth medal. Also, I wonder if it’s hard not being able to eat an hour before you get into the pool when you’re always Hungary. OK, I’m done. (Croatia, Serbia, and Italy could all end Hungary’s streak.)

For the women, it’s sort of wide open. A different country has won the gold medal each Olympics. Greece, medal-less in Beijing, won the 2011 World Championship, and then lost to Italy in the European Championship final earlier this year. Except, Greece didn’t even qualify for the Olympics. Australia, China, and Russia should all contend for gold.

DOES THE U.S. HAVE ANY CHANCE?
The women struggled at the World Championships, finishing sixth, but they’re among the gold-medal favorites after picking up the silver in the previous two Olympics. The U.S. has a woman, 32-year-old Brenda Villa, who used to be known as the “Wayne Gretzky of Water Polo,” which, I think, makes her the “Emily Dickinson of Athletes Who Were Compared to Wayne Gretzky.” The men are also defending silver medalists, but they haven’t won anything since 2008. Drawn into a group with Serbia, Montenegro, and Hungary, it’ll be tough for them to advance. 

SUGGESTED READING
Blood in the Water at the 1956 Olympics” by Miles Corwin

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