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.

What is the Most Challenging Ball Sport? The Least?

Dear Sports Fan,

What do you consider the most physically challenging sport that involves a ball? The least?


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Okay, so bocce is not the most physically challenging... but is it a sport?

Hey Crystal,

I’m glad you said “physically challenging” rather than simply “challenging.” That makes this a much easier question for me to answer because it rules out baseball. Baseball (only nominally a sport as far as I’m concerned) is extremely technically challenging but virtually no one would say it is the most physically challenging sport. I’m glad you specified that the sport should involve a ball because that rules out hockey, ballet, and cycling. All three of those sports are incredibly physically grueling often to the point of seriously damaging the people who play them.

The most physically challenging ball sport has to be water polo. I know I’ve mentioned water polo before so attentive readers may be thinking that I just have a thing for water polo. But seriously — imagine swimming and treading water for 32 minutes.[1] That’s exhausting enough! Now add playing a sport which involves a lot of time treading water without your hands and arms and tons of times when you drive yourself up out of the water to catch, throw, and block the ball. To that add violence. Tons of violence. Here is an article from the Washington Post written during the 2004 olympics that describes this pretty well:

Water polo players launch themselves out of the water to shoot.

Through the murk of the water, you see elbows swung into guts, knees slammed into groins, hands yanking bathing suits into painful wedgies, guys simply swimming on top of an opponent and holding him under water until he fights his way, punching and kicking, to the surface. Technically, none of this stuff is legal, but the refs working the poolside allow a certain amount of leeway.

The least physically challenging sport is actually a harder question because being physically challenging is one of the elements that usually helps distinguish between a game and a sport. For instance, though many of you might think I was going to argue for golf as the least challenging sport, I would say that if you count golf as a sport, you should count bocce! And bocce is much less physically challenging than golf.[2] No need to limber up to hit a ball hundreds of feet in bocce. No “walking the course” for 72 holes over four days. Bocce consists of throwing not that heavy balls not that far towards an even smaller, lighter ball.

One of the best five baseball players in the world.

If you exclude bocce, golf, pool, darts, and try to find a true sport sport which is pretty easy to play, then I think it’s probably got to be cricket. I don’t know that much about cricket but I do know that test cricket is played over up to five days. During each day “there are usually three two-hour sessions, with a forty minute break for ‘lunch’ and a twenty minute break for ‘tea’.” I am sure cricket takes an enormous amount of skill and it’s hard to argue that baseball (a sport where one of it’s best players looks like this) is more physically demanding… but…. well, what do you think?

Great question!
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. There are four eight-minute quarters in water polo although because the clock stops on fouls and when the ball goes out of bounds, most quarters actually last around 12 minutes. Players will continue to tread water even when the clock has stopped. We hope.
  2. Excluding cross-country bocce, of course!