Polo, king of sports, the sport of kings

A look at a game that, after 2,000 years, is moving from its status of exclusivity to a media phenomenon

by 10 November 2010

Two teams, four horses and their mounts on each side, each facing an opponent and each ready to begin, holding a long wooden mallet. The players are numbered according to their role: number 1 for principal forward, number 2 for the second forward, number 3 for the "playmaker," and number 4 for the back. The umpire rolls the ball to the center of the court – which is about 300 meters long, the size of four football pitches – and the game starts. Seven minutes of great intensity have now begun. Each team must work together to hit the ball and score as many points as possible during game time.

A match can last for from four to eight chukkas (each seven-minute period of play), with four chukka in matches played in Italy, from four to six prescribed by international regulations, and eight chukkas for the most important matches in Argentina, where polo is perhaps not quite a national sport, but certainly a sport in which the country has long enjoyed domination right from when they won the first Olympic gold medal awarded for polo, in 1924.

The wooden or plastic ball is 9 cm in diameter and weights about 130 grams. The players, riding polo ponies – actually horses, small thoroughbreds specially trained for the sport – can reach a speed of 70 km/hour, using the mallet to pass the ball to another player or send it into the net. The sport therefore has a degree of intrinsic risk, and in fact the first recorded accident involved Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak, first Muslim emperor of north India. His rule, which began in 1206, was ended when his horse fell during a match in 1210 and the rider was fatally injured.

Players are equipped with helmet, protective facemask, kneepads, boots and gloves, but the most dangerous accidents occur when a horse trips on the legs of another and falls onto the rider. For this reason, the rules were compiled to limit the possibility of collision, such as the "line of the ball" rule, which establishes right of way for a player in accordance with the path of the ball. A player who has the line of the ball on his right has right of way, and so an opponent tries to move the player off this line by means of shoulder-to-shoulder contact. Play is supervised by two mounted umpires, with a referee on a platform outside the field who takes decisions when the umpires are in disagreement.

Polo has a long history. According to some historians, it is the oldest team sport in the world, with origins in Persia over 2,000 years ago. The name "polo" is derived from the Tibetan world for ball, pulu. The British witnessed the sport in India, and more specifically in the region of Manipur. Today, it is played all over the world, and in particular in Argentina, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America and the United Kingdom. However, it must be mentioned that the oldest polo club, the Calcutta Club founded in 1862, is located in India.

Understandably, it is not a sport accessible to all, because it calls for considerable resources, not just horses and equipment, but also a groom, a player's personal assistant who is responsible for training and looking after horses. Not surprisingly, polo has been referred to as the sport of kings, as in the past it was usually played by the nobility. In modern times, it has retained this exclusive aura, with many tournaments dedicated to royalty such as the Queen Mother or HRH the Sheikh. However, the sport is now played around the world in over 77 countries.

The game of polo offers thrills for all; it is a game of great passion, planning and organization. Most importantly, it must be said that polo is not merely an equestrian sport with a horse. This is one of the few sports in which both horse and rider make up a single, two-part unit, in which both man and horse are essential for good and exciting play. One cannot compete without the other. One cannot do what the other opposes. Polo is a sport that produces considerable mental and physical strain, and, to truly be successful it requires a deep communication, an understanding, a bond between both rider and horse. This relationship develops through time and experience, and it can give rise to some remarkable performances, magical and exciting, on the field.

Today, polo has begun to receive more widespread media attention. Many brands have exploited its sophisticated image for their logos and communications. Its charisma is based on the romantic concept of man and horse working together, on its aristocratic traditions, and the fact that it is something of a vocation, which many players inheriting the passion from their father and grandfather. As a result, it is always wonderful to enjoy a polo match, whether as a spectator or a player.
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