Water polo’s origins remain obscure, but the sport came into existence in the mid-nineteenth century in the lakes and rivers of England. Believed to be invented by British resort owners, water polo was created in an attempt to attract more guests. In 1870, the London Swimming Association developed a set of water polo rules for indoor swimming pools in order to attract more spectators to swimming exhibitions. At its inception, water polo was known as “aquatic football,” and combined the gameplay of soccer, rugby, wrestling, and football but set in water. Early versions of the game bear little resemblance to the modern iteration played today.
Despite the name, water polo has no connection to horseback polo. The word “polo” comes from the English pronunciation of the Indian word for ball, “pulu.” An inflated rubber ball imported from India known as a “pulu” was used in early gameplay, replacing the usage of a ball made from a pig’s stomach.
Early games focused more on brute strength than athletic skill, with underwater wrestling that would leave players barely conscious when they surfaced. In 1880, Scottish rules shifted the game’s focus to skill over force and a new ball, more closely resembling a leather soccer ball, was used. Starting in the late 1800s is where we first see “modern” water polo, as it introduced equipment and rules that are still used in today’s games. The sport came to the United States in 1888 by way of English swimming instructor John Robinson. American-style water polo featured the older rugby style of play and was rougher. Despite its popularity, violence was the game’s main attraction, and the rest of the world, including the international governing body for all amateur water sports, adopted the Scottish rules.
The Americans continued to play by their own rules until 1912 when, instead of playing semi-final game in the National Championship tournament, the New York Athletic Club and the Chicago Athletic Association decided to fight instead. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) canceled its sponsorship of water polo until 1914 when the United States clubs finally agreed to play under the more civilized international rules.
As the game grew and developed, it evolved from a more rugby-style of play to a soccer-style where an opponent could only make contact if a player held the ball. Changes in swimming led to an increased focus on passing and speed above the surface from brute strength. Though water polo was added to the Olympics in 1900 as a team sport, women were not allowed to compete in the Olympics until the 2000 Games in Sydney.