A sport that requires endurance, stamina, speed and strength, and the only ball sport at the Olympics that is played in the water, here’s what you need to know about water polo
Being in a pool is a common image people connect to summer, and in the athletics world, the pool is the location one of the most fun-looking, and yet physical, sports — water polo.
Water polo’s Olympic history stretches back to 1900, the second games of the modern Olympic era, and is one of the longest-running and more popular Olympic events. The women’s competition began 100 years later, at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
This year’s water polo competitions begin on July 23 and will stretch all the way through Aug. 8, with all matches taking place at the Tokyo Tatsumi International Swimming Center.
2021 Olympics: Water polo rules
In water polo, two teams compete, with seven players in competition at one time, including a goalkeeper. The pool is two meters deep, and no player’s feet may touch the bottom. When in possession of the ball, a team’s players must be continuously swimming and have 30 seconds to shoot.
Contact between athletes is allowed at any time, even without ball possession. However, striking a player, splashing water in their face or interfering with a free throw are all fouls.
Each match consists of four, eight-minute quarters. Whichever team scores the most goals in that time frame wins. In the event of a tie, a penalty shootout determines the winner.
2021 Olympics: Who are the teams and athletes to know?
The most dominant country on the men’s side of water polo is Hungary, which has medaled 15 times in the Olympic sport’s history. The country has nine men’s gold medals in the sport, the most of any country, including three straight gold medals in 2000, 2004 and 2008.
Italy has medaled 10 times, including a bronze in 2016, but hasn’t claimed gold since 1992. Great Britain was the inaugural Olympic men’s water polo champion and won four gold medals, but hasn’t claimed gold since 1920 — and hasn’t finished fourth or higher since 1928. The United States, meanwhile, has earned six medals but has yet to ever win men’s water polo gold.
This year’s Hungarian men’s water polo team will be led by captain Denes Varga, who was a member of the team that won gold in 2008. He was also a member of the 2013 World Championships and 2020 European Championships gold-medal winning teams.
Varga was the World Championship MVP in 2013, the World Cup MVP and Hungarian Water Polo Player of the Year in 2014 and the European Championship MVP in 2014 and 2020.
The Italian squad will be captained by Pietro Figlioli, who won silver with Italy in 2012 and bronze in 2016. He was a member of the World Championships winning team in 2011. Prior to representing Italy, Figlioli, known for his speed in swimming in shooting, competed on the Australian Olympic teams in 2004 and 2008 and earned a bronze medal with Australia in the 2007 FINA World League.
The U.S. captain is Jesse Smith, a member of the 2008 silver-medal-winning Olympic squad. The Hawaii native, who plays for Panathinaikos in Greece currently, has helped his country to four straight gold medals in the sport at the Pan American Games.
The U.S., meanwhile, is the dominant force in women’s Olympic water polo, having medaled in each Olympic Games that have had the sport. Team USA won silver in 2000 and 2008 and bronze in 2004, but they will enter this Olympics as the back-to-back defending champions.
Australia has earned three medals, winning the inaugural gold medal in 2000 and bronzes in 2008 and 2012. Hungary has made the last three bronze-medal matchups but has failed to win any of them.
The women’s U.S. squad will be led by Margaret (Maggie) Steffens, who was a member of the 2012 and 2016 teams and currently has the second-most goals in Olympic women’s water polo history with 38. Also keep an eye on Ashleigh Johnson, a suffocating presence in goal.
She is perhaps one of the most decorated champions of the sport, additionally being a three-time Worlds champion, a three-time Pan-American Games gold medalist, three FINA World Cup title wins and nine FINA World League titles.
Rowena (Rowie) Webster, who was competed in over 300 international games, will lead the Australian team. A pro since 2008, Webster was a member of the 2012 bronze-medal Olympic team and 2013 silver-medal and 2019 bronze-medal World Championships team. After experiences with the Richmond Tigers, Victorian State and Arizona State, Webster has played water polo professionally in Greece and Russia.
The Hungary women’s team captain is Rita Keszthelyi, who has been a player for the national team for nearly a decade now. Keszthelyi was a part of the 2013 bronze-medal World Championships team. She won gold with Hungary at the 2016 European Championships, additionally taking bronze in 2012, 2014 and 2020.
2021 Olympics: The elevator pitch for water polo
Water polo may not be a major sport in the minds of most sports fans and it’s not the one you might first think of when you think of the Summer Olympics. But after watching a matchup or two, you might get hooked on water polo.
Firstly, if you enjoy soccer, hockey, or even just swimming, you might end up liking the sport, as you’ll see elements of them in the gameplay. It’s interesting to see the strategies and movements in the water each team makes as they look to quickly get the ball into the opposing net, especially in the transition between zones.
The 30-second shot clock combined with the speed and intensity leads to a quick-paced, back-and-forth action that is hard to turn your eyes away from.
It gets even more intense and high-pressured when a team is trying to mount a comeback or put the game away as the clock winds down, like something you’d see in the MLS or NHL playoffs.
The game is simple once you get the hang of it, it’s fun, it’s fast, it’s physical and it’s intense. Water polo should definitely be on your list of Olympic events to check out.