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As far back as 1876, a Scotsman named William Wilson devised the first rules for a game played between teams in the water. The first games were held in England as a reaction to the public’s boredom with the swimming carnivals of the time. The game was later to be known as water polo.
That game was played atop barrels and truly resembled the sport of polo. Although very rough in the early days, the game now is an energetic sport which emphasises swimming ability and ball skills. It is played by both men and women and is the longest-standing team sport in the Olympic Games, being introduced in Paris in 1900. The sport is governed by FINA, the world swimming body, and is played in more than 100 countries.
Water polo is considered the most physically demanding of all team games, requiring top performers to cover up to three kilometres in the pool during the one hour it takes to complete a game. This exertion is quite apart from the physical contact, both above and below the surface of the water that players must endure. Despite this, water polo is almost totally devoid of injury from personal contact and generally speaking is played in the spirit demanded by the stringent rules.
A modified form of the game called Flippa Ball has taken off across Australia, allowing children under 10 to engage in regular participation otherwise not possible in the past. This can only encourage the next generation of water polo players.
Australia’s International Success – Men
Australia first played in the Olympic Games in 1948, and has qualified for all subsequent Games, but did not win a point in Olympic competition until 1972 when it drew with Bulgaria.
Since then the Aussies have qualified for all Olympics (except Atlanta in 1996) and World Championships, gradually moving up the rankings to a high of fifth in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics. The team then went one better at the 1998 World Championships in Perth.
The team was placed third in the 1993 World Water Polo Cup, held in Athens, defeating both Russia and the United States. The team was ranked third in the world but slipped to 10th following the VII World Championships held in Rome 1994.
In 1996, the Aussie Sharks won the prestigious, six-nation Control Cup in Hungary as well as a bronze medal at an eight-nation tournament in Italy, but the heartbreak came in Berlin where the men failed to win their final game of the Olympic Games Qualification Tournament and missed the trip to Atlanta. This meant ithey could not qualify for the 1997 World Cup, either.
In January 1998, in Perth, the Australian men’s team made the semifinals of the World Championships for the first time, losing to Yugoslavia in the bronze-medal play-off.
This next year was not so bright, crashing to eight and last in the 1999 World Cup in Sydney. The final positioning was not bettered in 2000 at the Olympic Games but it did qualify for the top eight. The team had one win and two draws to make the top eight in what was a very tough competition.
At Fukuoka, Japan, in the World Championships of 2001, the new-look team finished 10th to slip outside the World Cup qualification for the coming year.
In Manchester, England the following year, the youthful team, changed once again from Fukuoka, finished runner-up to Canada 6-5 in the inaugural Commonwealth Championships gold-medal final.
2003 saw some excellent results, including beating newly crowned European champion Serbia & Montenegro 12-11 in the World League in Hungary and then downing European No 2 Croatia 10-6 at the World Championships in Barcelona, Spain where the team finished a creditable seventh.
The Olympic Games of 2004 in Athens witnessed the Sharks heading off Croatia for ninth position followed by 10th position at the Montreal FINA World Championships in 2005. Australia produced some excellent FINA World League results, finishing fourth in 2006 and taking the bronze medal in 2007 in Berlin, Germany. At the 2007 Melbourne FINA World Championships, a tight tournament saw the Sharks finish a disappointing 10th.
The Sharks bounced back with a consecutive bronze medal at the FINA World League Super Finals in 2008 and went with high expectations to Beijing, China for the Olympic Games. The team lost three games by a single goal and drew with European champion Montenegro but could only finish eighth. The team’s defining moment was coming within centimetres of drawing with eventual champion Hungary, losing 13-12 in the finest game of the tournament.
Australia’s International Success – Women
The Australian women’s team took out the 1984 World Cup in Los Angeles, USA, and the inaugural World Championship in Madrid, Spain, in 1986. This was the only Gold Medal by Australia at the latter championships, including swimming, diving and synchronised swimming. This success followed years of competing on “shoe-string” budgets around the world since their first international competition in 1975. The team finished sixth at the 1994 World Swimming Championships in Rome, Italy.
In 1995, the team again reached the pinnacle by claiming the World Cup in Sydney, Australia, beating five-time champion the Netherlands in the gold-medal final. Skipper Debbie Watson (NSW) has the honour of being the only member of all three world title-winning teams.
Late in 1997 the breakthrough came for the women with the sport being included for women on the Olympic program with 2000 being the debut Games.
In 1996, the women won the silver medal in the Olympic Year Tournament behind the Netherlands; won the bronze medal at the 1997 World Cup in Nancy, France; and then the bronze medal at the World Swimming Championships in Perth in 1998.
In the 14 months since the 1998 World Championships, the women won the four international tournaments they contested in the Netherlands, Italy, the United States and Hungary.
They then went on to win the silver medal at the 1999 World Cup in Winnipeg, Canada.
Australia won everything it entered, almost, since that silver medal, determined to go one better in Sydney at the 2000 Olympic Games. The only stumble was to the United States and Canada in a lead-up tournament, the Holiday Cup, in the United States. At Sydney, Australia lost one game, to the Netherlands, en route to securing the historic, inaugural Olympic Games gold medal. That win galvanised the nation in the way in which it was won, Yvette Higgins slamming in a nine-metre shot from a free throw with only 1.3 seconds left on the clock. In fact, the ball crossed the goal-line .2s from the final hooter. Captain Bridgette Gusterson was the equal highest goal scorer.
The World Championships in 2001 brought the team down to earth, finishing fifth, as did the Hungarian men’s team, also a gold medallist from Sydney.
The women won the inaugural Commonwealth Championships title in Manchester, England in 2002, beating world No 3 Canada 6-5 in the final.
Following some excellent results in Europe in the lead-up to the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, including tournament victories in Hungary and Greece, the team had a disappointing tournament, finishing seventh.
The Athens Olympic Games proved not to be for the women, losing the bronze-medal play-off to the USA by a goal.
A change of coach from Istvan Gorgenyi to Greg McFadden brought new fortunes for the team after the Olympics. The team collected a series of final appearances, winning the Commonwealth Championships in 2006 in Perth over Canada, winning the FINA World Cup in Tianjin, China (for a third time) in August of that year, finishing a goal down to the USA at the FINA World Championships in Melbourne in 2007 and later that year taking silver behind the USA at the FINA World League Super Finals in Montreal, Canada. The team also won bronze at the FINA World League Super Finals in Kirishi, Russia in 2005 while only coming fourth in Italy in 2006.
It was another bronze medal at the 2008 FINA World League Super Finals in Tenerife, Spain before going into the Beijing Olympics as a strong medal favourite. The team did not disappoint in a tight competition, facing and losing by a goal to the USA in the semifinals and then beating Hungary for bronze in a penalty shootout. Australia earlier drew with Hungary and only finished second in its group meaning the expected final clash with the USA came in the semifinals with the USA winning by a goal.
The national junior teams have acquitted themselves well with the women winning the silver medals in 1995 and 1997 before courageously taking home the gold medal in 1999 to give the women’s teams four world titles.The junior women then won the silver again in Perth in 2001 but slumped to sixth in Canada in 2003. Fortunes were revived with the bronze medal in Perth in 2005 and the gold medal in Porto, Portugal in 2007.
The junior men finished fourth in the previous two World Championships in 1995 and 1997 before collecting silver in 1999, narrowly going down to Italy. The men slipped to ninth in Turkey in 2001 and then improved to seventh in Naples, Italy in 2003. In 2005 in Argentina the team finished a disappointing ninth before bouncing back in 2007 in Los Angeles, USA, finishing fifth with only one loss but two draws. The loss was in a penalty shootout to eventual champion Hungary in the quarter-finals.
Click here for further information on the origins of water polo.
For further information on the history of water polo a copy of Water Polo Warriors: Chronicle of Australian Water Polo by Dr Tracy Rockwell can be purchased for $39.00. Please contact our office on (02) 9763 0600 for further information.