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Water Polo Events in the 2012 London Summer Olympics

Water polo competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games will be held July 29 through August 12 at the Olympic Park Water Polo Arena. Up to 12 countries may enter one men’s team and 8 countries may enter one women’s team.

To the uninitiated observer, Olympic water polo looks like what you might get if you combined volleyball, basketball, soccer, handball, and synchronized swimming into one. (Unlike the land-based version of polo, no horses are involved.) Men’s water polo has been a part of modern Olympic competition since the 1900 Games in Paris and was one of the Olympic Games’ first team sports. Women’s water polo was introduced 100 years later at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Developed in Great Britain in the 1800s and most directly rooted in the sport of rugby, water polo was initially known as “water ball”. Because it requires a wide variety of athletic skills, water polo is a very challenging team sport, and its players are among the fittest of the fit. For example, the game is played in at least 6 feet of water and unless you’re the goalkeeper, you are never allowed to stand on the bottom. Thus, players are in constant motion treading water even when they’re not handling the ball. The average game requires about 3 kilometers of swimming!

A team of six field players and one goalkeeper may be in the water at one time. The team works together to move the ball (about the size of a volley ball) down the playing field and into the net to score points, similar to soccer or hockey but with hands rather than feet or sticks. To make the game even more challenging, players may only touch the ball with one hand at a time (except for the goalie). The goalie is also the only player allowed to actually stand on the bottom of the pool (assuming it is shallow enough).

Play begins with a swim-off: Each team starts with players from each team jumping into the water and swimming to the middle in an effort to gain control of the ball, which the referee drops into the pool (like a jump ball in basketball). Also as in basketball, the ball must keep moving and can’t be held in one place for long. Players advance the ball downfield by swimming with it in front of them or passing it to a teammate.

A game consists of four periods; in Olympic water polo, each period is 8 minutes long. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins. If the score is tied, two 3-minute overtime periods are played. If that is not enough to break the tie, a penalty shootout determines the winner.

Other than the goalie, players don’t play one particular position throughout the game. Instead, each player assumes whatever position is needed in the moment. The seven positions for each team include:

  • The center or hole set (1) directs the team’s strategy from the center of the active field of play

  • The wings (2) play the front third of the field, similar to a forward in basketball

  • The flats or drivers (2) help move the ball downfield and cover the midfield area

  • The point (1) is positioned farthest from the goal and helps the goalkeeper defend the backfield

  • The goalkeeper (1) defends his team’s net and blocks shots aimed at the goal to prevent the other team from scoring.

To keep track of who’s who, players on the home team usually wear numbered dark blue or black caps and the visitors wear numbered white caps. Goalies for both teams wear red “#1” caps. (Some color variations may be allowed.) These caps also protect the players’ heads and ears.

Water polo plays tends to be very aggressive. Fouls, penalties, and ejections are common. If a player commits a foul, he or she must give up the ball. A more aggressive foul may result in a brief ejection of 20 seconds. A player may be ejected up to three times before being ejected for the remainder of the game. If any player’s foul is considered a brutality, such as punching another player, the player is immediately ejected for the duration of the game.

For the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the men’s field of play is 20 meters wide by 30 meters long; the women’s is 20 meters wide by 25 meters long. The water is 2 meters deep. Each goal is 90 centimeters high by 3 meters wide.

Visit the website of the sport’s official governing body, the International Swimming Federation (FINA), for more details about Olympic water polo.

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