Summer Olympics: All About Water Polo

All About Water Polo

Water Polo is my favorite Olympic Sport. Why? It combines so many great elements of what I like in other sports into a mysterious and confusing yet riveting package. Some of its elements, like what the point of the game is, who is on what team, and how to score, are intuitive. Others, like what all the whistles mean and how is it possible to play this sport without drowning, are a source of wonder!

How Does Water Polo Work?

Water Polo is a team sport played with seven players on each team in a rectangular pool around six feet deep. At either end of the playing area in the pool, there are two rectangular goals with nets, like miniature soccer goals. These goals are three meters wide and a little less than a meter (90 centimeters) high. Players try to throw a ball, about the size of a soccer ball, into this net. In the pool at any given time are six regular players and one goalie. Unlike soccer, all the players can use their hands (just try to use your feet in a pool!) but goalies are the only ones who can punch the ball, catch it or block it with both hands, and touch the bottom of the pool. Games are 32 minutes long divided into four eight minute quarters. If that sounds long to you, you’ve stumbled onto the essential truth about Water Polo. It is HARD WORK.

Water Polo players are the toughest athletes out there. Imagine spending half an hour swimming as fast as you can back and forth in a pool, interrupted only by periods of treading water during which you’ll have to churn your feet and legs fast enough to propel your upper body out of the water to catch or throw a pass or shoot. Meanwhile, there’s another team that’s basically trying to drown you in order to get the ball back. It’s pretty amazing. Water Polo is not an anything-goes sport, there are refs, and there are rules (although they’re mostly inscrutable to beginners) but there’s only so much that refs walking on the concrete next to the pool can see. During the last Olympics, NBC installed under-water cameras and the rough play (and unintentional nudity) was impressive.

Why do People Like Watching Water Polo?

Well, since I said this was my favorite Olympic sport, I should say why I like watching Water Polo. First, it’s a lot like many of the other sports I love — soccer, ice hockey, basketball — but in a different setting. The fact that it’s played in water makes it different in interesting ways. First, the relative speed of passing and swimming is much different than that of passing and running or skating. This changes the tactics of the game. Secondly, the constant swimming adds an element of toughness to the game that I enjoy — I can’t imagine swimming for that long without touching the bottom, much less playing a game, much less playing a game where people are trying to drown you! It’s tough and crazy and impressive.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Water Polo is just Water Polo — there is only one event – with medals for men and women.

How Dangerous is Water Polo?

Water Polo players are extraordinarily strong and take a lot of punishment during an average match. That said, injuries are relatively rare. The most common are shoulder injuries, thanks to the inhuman speed with which players throw the ball on top of already fatigued muscles from swimming. Other than that, errant (or aimed) elbows and fists can leave a mark, and scratches are a fact of life.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Water Polo?

Meh. Men and women basically play under the same rules. Women are often put in a slightly smaller pool though. In this Olympics, there are 12 men’s teams competing and only eight women’s teams. This is a classic vicious cycle of there being less support within countries for women’s sports which gives international competitions cover to accept smaller fields which discourages more countries from investing in women’s sports.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Water Polo is from Saturday, August 6 to Saturday, August 20.

Read more about water polo on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Modern Pentathlon

All About Modern Pentathlon

The Olympics are a human tradition that goes back to ancient Greece but they’re also very much a product of late 19th century Europe. No event expresses this modern origin better than the Modern Pentathlon, a combination of thoroughly upper class Victorian European activities.

How Does Modern Pentathlon Work?

The modern pentathlon combines five skills into a single event: swimming, show jumping on horses, fencing, running, and pistol shooting. Scores are accumulate throughout the first thee skills: a 200 meter freestyle swim, a show jumping exhibition, and a epee fencing tournament. The cumulative score from those activities gets turned into a ranked list which defines when each athlete starts the final combined run and pistol shooting competition. This combined competition requires athletes to run 800 meters, shoot five targets, and then repeat four times. The genius aspect of using the earlier standings to stagger the start of the combined competition is that the person who finishes the run/shoot first is the overall winner. Another clever aspect of the modern pentathlon is that athletes are paired with a horse randomly 20 minutes before taking part in the show jumping competition. This is a far cry from normal equestrian events when athlete and horse practice together, sometimes for years before the Olympics.

Why do People Like Watching Modern Pentathlon?

One of my favorite stories about sports that I’ve learned over the past few years comes from David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene. In it, he describes “the big bang of sports bodies” that happened during the 1930s. Before that time, the people who ran sports on a national and international level believed that there was basically an ideal body for sports (unsurprisingly a medium sized European man) and that a person possessing that body should be the best at virtually everything. The modern pentathlon clearly stems from that time. Because we now know that there’s an ideal body type for swimming (long torso, big hands and feet) and that it’s different from the ideal body type for running (long legs, very small torso), it’s in some ways extra entertaining to watch a sport that forces people to compete in different sports and rewards versatility.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

The modern pentathlon is confusing enough with its five components, that it’s a relief to know it only has two events: men’s and women’s.

How Dangerous is Modern Pentathlon?

Well, let’s see. Swimming is pretty safe, as is running. The shooting is done with lasers, not bullets, so we’re good there. Fencing with epees is going to leave some marks, but no real damage should be done most of the time. Nope, the most dangerous sport in the modern pentathlon by far is the show jumping. Anything on a horse, particularly jumping over barriers, is dangerous! You can get pretty hurt falling off a horse and the pentathlon turns up the difficulty level by asking athletes to compete on well-trained but unfamiliar horses.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Modern Pentathlon?

Perfect — 36 men and 36 women.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Modern pentathlon is from Friday, August 19 to Saturday, August 20.

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

What are some hurling vocabulary words I should know?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m going to my first hurling match tomorrow at Fenway park and I want to sound like I know what I’m talking about, even if I have no idea. What are some hurling vocabulary words I should know?


Dear Chester,

In my last post about hurling, I tried to explain how the sport worked, but I didn’t get into vocabulary at all. I just called the stick a stick and the ball a ball and so on. My goal was to arm you (and me) to understand the basics of the sport so we could enjoy watching it in person more. If we really want to sound knowledgeable though, you’re right, we need to learn the lingo. So, here’s a list of words to learn:

  • Camogie – this is to hurling as competitive softball in the United States is to baseball. It is the women’s version of hurling, which has its own ancient origins and slightly different rules.
  • Hurley – nope, not the fat dude in Lost, in hurling, the hurley is the stick. You can also call it a hurley stick.
  • Bas – the bas is the flat end of the hurley, used to hit the ball.
  • Sliotar – pronounced sly-o-tar, this is a hurling ball.
  • Block, hook, and side pull – these are the three acceptable forms of physical contact that a player is allowed to make with the opposing player who has the sliotar. A block is when a player uses his hurley to trap the ball between it and the opposing player’s hurley. A hook is when a player uses his stick from behind to snag the opponent’s stick before he can hit the ball. A side pull is basically a shoulder check – when two players collide side to side with their shoulders taking the brunt of the force.
  • Puckout – this is a restart of play which happens after a goal or a shot that misses the goal and goes out of bounds. It’s a free pass from the goalie, like a goal kick in soccer.
  • Lash – to lash is to hit the ball while it’s on the ground. Not necessarily in anger, although this may be where the phrase, “to lash out” comes from!

Enjoy the game tomorrow! And have fun deploying some of your new vocab words!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How does the sport of hurling work?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m going to see my first hurling game ever tomorrow at Fenway Park in Boston. I’m excited for the Irish food and music. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the game too, but I have no idea what it’s like. How does the sport of hurling work?


Dear Chester,

What a coincidence, I’m going to see my first hurling match tomorrow at Fenway Park as well! It’s like you’re inside my head! Hurling is an ancient Irish sport, thousands of years old. It’s so old in fact, that many more common sports contain elements of hurling in how their games work. As a result, hurling feels like it’s a Frankensport, made up of many little parts of other sports. That’s really the easiest way to understand it, even if in truth, it’s the other way around.

Hurling is played on a giant rectangular field. Games are 70 minutes long, split into two 35 minute halves. A hurling field is one and a half times longer than a football field and almost twice as wide. Each team has fifteen players on the field at a time. Each player has a stick. The stick looks a little like it was created by taking a field hockey stick and smushing the thick, rounded end to create a flatter, wider surface. Another way to think about it is as if you took a lacrosse stick but replaced the pocket with a flat piece of wood. Players do wear helmets, but other than that there’s no protective padding. There are two goals, which look very much like soccer goals, on their side of the field. Unlike soccer goals, but very much like football uprights, there are tall posts that extend up from either side of the goal. You may have seen this on high school or college fields that are used for both soccer and football. In hurling, both elements of the goal are in play simultaneously. Finally, there’s a ball that’s marginally smaller than a baseball and is constructed in roughly the same way — leather stitched around a cork center.

The object of the game is to get the ball between your opponent’s goalposts. If the ball goes into the soccer-like part of the goal, it is worth three points and called a goal. If the ball goes between the upright above the crossbar, as in a football field goal, it is called a point and worth, you guessed it, one point. This is fairly straightforward, especially compared to how some other sports score their games. There is, however, a complication. Hurling has a very unique way of expressing the score. Instead of adding the points to create a single score, like we’re used to in basketball (a three pointer plus a two pointer equals five points) or football (a touchdown plus an extra point plus a field goal equals ten) hurling keeps goals and points separate. The score of a team that made two goals and five points is written as 2-5. If they played against a team that scored one goal and nine points, the final score would be written as Team A 2-5, Team B 1-9. The total amounts are added to figure out who won — in this case, Team B won by a total score of 12 points to 11 — but they’re not written that way.

The game will probably look quite chaotic to both of us. That’s normal when watching a sport for the first time. In terms of rules, the most important thing to understand is how players are allowed to interact with the ball. Like basketball, players cannot simply run with the ball in their hands. A player with the ball is allowed to take four steps but after that, they must bounce the ball on the end of their stick to continue running. They are allowed to catch the ball off their stick and run another four steps if need be, but this catch and run is only allowed three times consecutively. The ball cannot be picked up off the ground but must be scooped up with the stick. Players are not allowed to throw the ball, so passing and shooting must be done with the stick or by slapping the ball with an open hand.

I think that’s most of what we’ll need to enjoy the game tomorrow. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What does "links" mean in golf?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does “links” mean in golf?


Dear Wade,

The term, “links” has two meanings within golf. It is used generally to refer to the course that golf is played on. A golfer might say to a friend of hers, “sorry, I can’t come over and collect kindling with you because I’m going to hit the links today. It also has a more technical meaning, referring to a particular type or style of golf course. If you haven’t ever bothered to dig into the history of the word links, you might find it easy to invent reasons for its general meaning. Viewed from above, a golf course, with its many kidney shaped fairways and greens, can look a little like a string of sausages. Perhaps that’s why it’s described as links? If you’ve never seen it written, you might think that it’s not “links” but “lynx,” the genus of small, predatory, wild cats. Why a cat? Who knows? Half of golf terms seem to be birds, so why not throw a cat in there? In truth, the history of the use of the word “links” in golf can be traced all the way back to the very beginning of the sport.

Although the very first golf-like games may have been played in what is now the Netherlands as early as 1261, golf historians tend to trace a direct line from Scotland in the 1400s to today. Golf must have been a fairly common sport by the mid-1400s and just as addictive as its modern counterpart, because in 1457 it was officially prohibited by the King of Scotland. Early golf enthusiasts faced several difficulties. As we already know, golf was outlawed at times, but even when it was legal, you needed a lot of uninhabited, non-farm land to play it on. The solution that many Scottish golfers found was to create courses near the shore, where the earth was sandy and the water brackish. Useless for farming, this land was ideal for the sport in many ways. The grasses that grew tended “to have short blades with long roots,” which made it hearty enough to survive being hit with clubs and balls, and when nibbled short by livestock, smooth enough for the ball to run on. The hard ground also encouraged the ball to bounce and roll further. The landscape also came with many natural impediments to golf – wind and rain blowing in from the sea, small streams that ran through the land and sandier patches that stopped the grass from growing and the ball from rolling. Instead of resisting these features, golfers embraced the challenge, and indeed, water hazards and sand traps are the two main artificially created obstacles on modern golf courses. The word the Scots used to describe this environment was “links” which comes from the Old English, hlinc, meaning “rising ground” or “ridge.”

Golf is no longer illegal and there are courses spread around the world in every environment imaginable. Although it can be used as a general term, links has retained its meaning as being descriptive of a certain style of golf course set in a particular type of environment. The most obvious visual difference between a non-links and a links course is that a links course will have few or no trees. Unlike a modern course, where the fairways (a safer area to set up a golfer’s next shot, because it has shorter, more even grass) and the rough (the opposite) are easily visually distinguished by color and texture, on links courses they are more difficult to distinguish. The same goes for the course’s greens which, on modern courses are planted with very soft grass to make the ball slow down and roll, but which on links courses may be more similar to the rest of the course. Water and sand are the key obstacles in all styles of golf course, but on links courses, they are either naturally occurring or carefully designed to give that impression. A key difference on links courses is the presence of some very dramatic walls that hold a green back from a sandy bunker.

As a result of the topographical and environmental differences, success on a links course requires different techniques from other courses. Tina Mickelson addresses this on a post she wrote for the PGA website. She identifies three key differences:

  • Because of the wind on links courses, players should drive the ball (the first and usually longest shot on any given hole) with a lower trajectory than on other courses.
  • Since the texture of the grass doesn’t vary as much between fairway and green, players should let the ball bounce up and onto the green as opposed to trying to loft it into the air and have it stick on the green.
  • The sand bunkers on links courses tend to be much more treacherous than on other courses. Mickelson recommends practicing very high shots out of sand, to get over the walls, and extreme prudence. It’s better to hit the ball the wrong way but onto the grass than it is to get stuck in the sand for shot after shot.

Golf enjoys tradition as much as any sport and as such, there’s a certain prestige to links courses. The downside of this is that lost of golf courses that don’t really fit the description of a links course call themselves one anyway, for marketing reasons. The benefit of golf’s attraction to its own past is that it gives The British Open, the only major tournament always played on a true links course, the enjoyable and rosy glow of long history and tradition.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How do people gamble on horse racing?

Dear Sports Fan,

How do people gamble on horse racing? Like most people, I’ll watch the Kentucky Derby or one of the other Triple Crown races if its on but I never understand the gambling talk. Can you help?


Dear Kelly,

As with many sports, but perhaps even more so in horse racing, one of the primary attractions is gambling. There are lots of ways to bet on a horse race, so many in fact, that to the uninitiated it may seem like an impossible task. There are really only two key things that need to be deciphered to have a basic understanding of how to gamble on horse racing.

The first is how to understand odds. Each horse has odds expressed as a combination of two numbers that can be written as “40 to 1” or “40/1”. These numbers are simultaneously an expression of what people think is going to happen and how lucrative betting on that horse could be. The easiest way to think about this is by fitting the numbers into the sentence: If the race were run [sum of two numbers] times, you should expect this horse to win [second number] times. As you sub the numbers in, you can see why betting on a 40/1 horse (one that, if the race were run 41 times, should be expected to win only once) is called a long shot bet or one that is unlikely to pay off. A bet on the favorite, this year a horse named American Pharoah who currently has 5/2 odds (if the race were run seven times, you should expect him to win twice), is more likely to win. That’s why the payouts also vary depending on the odds. A long shot bet on a 20 to 1 horse will typically pay $21 for every one you bet while a 5/2 bet like the one you’d place on the favorite this year will typically pay only $7 for every one you bet. There’s no need to memorize the payouts but if you want to cheat sheet, ABC News has a handy one here.

The second piece of gambling on horses to learn is that there are several different things that you can bet on. This is a little like the prop bets that are so popular around the Super Bowl. In horse racing, betting on which horse is going to win is just the start of things. There are also bets called Place or Show that give you a little flexibility in case your horse doesn’t win. Betting on a horse to place means you win if they come in first or second while show means you win if they come in first, second, or third. With each additional piece of flexibility, you stand to win less though. The other main vector of betting is in the other direction — betting on your ability to predict not just which horse will come in first but also which will come in second, third, fourth, or even fifth. As you add horses that must finish the race in a specific spot, your chances of winning go down and your potential payout goes up. The name for each bet also gets increasingly silly. Predicting the top two exactly is called an Exacta, three a Trifecta, four a Superfecta, and five a Super High-Five.

Unlike other sports, where it’s usually recommended not to split your rooting interests for the sake of gambling (watching a game in which you’ve bet money against your favorite team is a confusing and disheartening experience) at a horse race, it’s often more fun to make multiple bets. If you take a liking to two or three horses, it can sometimes be better to bet different combinations of them in exactas or even trifectas than to bet them straight-up.

Now that you have a basic understanding of some of the key concepts and terms in gambling on horse racing, you can go off and lose (or win!) some money or you can test your knowledge. Keep your eyes peeled to Dear Sports Fan for our upcoming annotated version of the classic horse racing gamblers song, Fugue for Tinhorns from the musical Guys and Dolls.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why do people like boxing?

Dear Sports Fan,

I don’t get why anyone watches boxing. It’s brutal and doesn’t seem all that interesting. Why do people like boxing?


Dear Nick,

Boxing is a truly brutal sport and you have my permission not to like it if you don’t want to. No one will make you! There are lots of people who do like boxing though and I think they have some pretty good reasons. There are a lot of things that are appealing about the sport. It’s a sport where fans really get to know the athletes because there are only two of them and they barely wear any clothing. Along with running, it’s the most elemental sport there is. It’s both highly technical and very emotional. Over the years, it’s also inspired a wealth of wonderful stories and the legacy of those movies, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and books imbues the sport with an air of drama. Lastly, it’s kind of an old-school sport. During the middle of last century, boxing was one of the biggest sports in the United States. Being a boxing fan today gives you permission to enjoy a big does nostalgia. It’s also honest. There’s no pretending that the sport is about anything other than damaging someone’s brain or their body. There’s something to be appreciated about that, even if it is brutal.

Let’s explore some of these reasons in greater depth.

Boxing is elemental

Boxing is to sports what the paleo diet is to nutrition. There’s no sport which calls to our ancient hearts more than boxing. If prostitution is the oldest profession, then boxing (or running) is the oldest sport. Boxing is sport stripped down to it’s base elements. It’s just two people, trading punches until one person falls. Every other sport seems artificial and contrived in comparison. OffsidesTwo-line pass? Block/charge calls? Boxing doesn’t deal with any of that nonsense — don’t kick or head-butt, don’t hit someone in the crotch… those are about the only rules. Part of the joy of watching sports is wondering what you would do in a similar situation. Would you come through? Would you battle through pain? That’s increasingly difficult to do in sports like football. How can you imagine yourself in a situation whose details are virtually beyond understanding. It’s hard to daydream about catching a hook route or a stop-and-go much less how you would attack a pulling guard to get to the quarterback. It’s easy to imagine being in a fight. Fights happen in real life all the time. You hope it doesn’t happen to you but it’s not hard to put yourself in that situation and think about how you would respond.

Boxing is highly technical

Of course, any real boxing fan will be squirming in their seat reading the previous paragraph. While it’s true that boxing is fighting and fighting is elemental, it’s not true that boxing is simple. It’s highly technical. If you listen to boxers talk about their fights, what’s usually going on in their heads is as foreign for most lay people as complex football concepts. Boxing is a highly tactical sport. Despite the fact that they’re getting hit, often in the head, constantly, boxers are busy trying to think one step ahead of their opponent. Something seemingly small, like how a boxer moves his left foot out an inch before throwing a particular punch, or how, after landing a punch to the head, they leave their right elbow a smidge too far to the outside, can be the difference between winning and losing. Clever boxers will spend whole rounds sussing these little weaknesses out or setting their opponent up by simulating a weakness of their own, only to make it disappear when the other guy least expects it.

Boxing tests athletes to their limit

How many times have you watched a soccer game and seen the players hug, trade shirts, and walk off the field smiling. Or an NBA game where players give each other dap before the games and stroll off after the game to get changed and do some media interviews. Forget about baseball, where professionals can still play two games in one day. Those sports are all hard in their own ways but they don’t test their participants the way boxing does. When a fighter steps into a boxing ring, they’re guaranteed to have an intense, life-altering experience. It happens every time. That’s why boxers only fight once to a handful of times a year as opposed to basketball with its 82 game regular season or baseball with double that amount. There are no substitutions or injury timeouts in boxing. If a fighter is injured, they lose. That’s kind of the point.

Boxing has great stories

Boxing has inspired great fictional movies like Raging BullThe Fighter, and Million Dollar Baby, not to mention the all-time classic, Rocky. There’s a slew of great articles and books about boxing like David Remnick’s King of the World, Norman Mailer’s The Fight, and Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing. If you’re in a documentary mood, check out these two lesser known films, Ring of Fire – The Emile Griffith Story about a fight that begun with gay slurs and eventually led to the death of one of the boxers or Kassim the Dream about an Ugandan child soldier who became a champion boxer. Boxing is one of the most personal sports out there and it’s rawness lends itself to compelling characters and dramas.

Thanks for reading, hopefully this has explained some of why other people like boxing, even if you never do,
Ezra Fischer