The Sport


The first makeshift water polo contests were played in Britain in the 1860s – the sport may thank its inception to the monotony that spectators found in the competitive swim races of the times. Some horse jockeys with a want for amusement started “Water Derby”, using barrels to replace the horses in the water. A new version called “Water Football”, with three players aside, enjoyed brief success in 1876.

What could be considered the first regular game of Water Polo was played in 1876. The game did not catch on, however. The same year, a more elaborate set of rules were written which were refined by English and Scottish teams. In 1885, the English National Swimming Association officially recognized water polo as a separate sport thereafter requiring games to be played in accordance with one set of rules. Interest in the emerging sport then spread around the world.

Water polo has evolved with the times. At the beginning, it was an extremely aggressive sport, where fights were commonplace. Players were held underwater and clutching on to swimming suits was part of the game. In 1911, FINA adopted the official rules of water polo, inspired by the Scottish version of the game with its emphasis on passing and scoring.

Canadian Water Polo History

Enthusiastic members of Canadian boating and swimming clubs started to popularize water polo in 1896. The first official water polo tournament in Canada was sponsored by the Montreal Aquatic Club and was played in 1887.

In 1909, an Ontario Water Polo League was formed by eastern universities.

The earliest report of women playing water polo was in 1920, when the Toronto’s Ladies’ Swimming Club started a program. The first Dominion Water Polo Championships for junior men, won by the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association Water Polo Club, was held in 1927.

The Canadian Water Polo Association, now known as Water Polo Canada, was formed in 1956. The sport developed slowly until 1960 when government support was first provided. The Canadian Water Polo League was formed in 1981.

An Olympic Sport

Water Polo has been an Olympic sport since 1896. It was included in the 1900 Paris Games and the 1904 St. Louis Games as an exhibition sport. The game was given permanent status at the 1908 Olympics in London. Canada sent its first men’s water polo team to the Olympics in Munich in 1972. Women’s Water Polo joined the Olympic family at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where Canada finished fifth.

How the Game is Played:

Water polo is recognized as one of the most demanding sports in the world. Combining technique and endurance, the swimmers must have high levels of skill to execute the dribbling (swimming with the ball), passing and shooting.

Water Polo: The Rules of the Game

Waterpolo is played in a pool that is 10 -20 m wide, 20 – 30 m long, and at least 1.8 m deep. At each end is a goal net which is 3 m wide and 0.9 m high. The field of play consists of lines at the goal, 2m, 5m from each goal line, plus a centre line. Water polo players are not allowed to touch either the sides or the bottom of the pool.

There are seven officials required at each game; two referees, two timekeepers, two goal judges and a secretary.

The ball is made of yellow rubber with a rough texture for gripping. There are men’s and women’s sizes of balls.

Personal equipment consists of a bathing suit and a water polo cap. Goalies wear a No. 1 cap, and the teams wear a light (generally white) or a dark colour caps with numbers 2 – 13.

Each team has seven players in the water at one time including the goalie. Up to six substitute players are allowed on deck. Substitutions can be made on a goal, an injury, timeout or any time during the game through the penalty box.

A game is made up of four periods, each eight minutes long with two minutes breaks between periods. At half time the teams switch ends.


Each team lines up at their respective goal lines until the referee blows the whistle and drops the ball at the centre line. Each team sprints for the ball to gain possession.

The ball can be moved by swimming with it (head up front crawl) or passing with one hand. Only the goalie can handle the ball with two hands at once. Once a team has possession of the ball, they must take a shot on goal within 30 seconds, or the ball is given to the opposing team.

A goal is scored when the ball crosses the goal line completely within the net. A player may shoot from any distance or swim with the ball into the net.

After a goal, the teams move to their half of the pool and generally arrange two lines offense and defense. The team who was scored against starts with possession of the ball at the whistle.


Minor fouls include:

  • touching the bottom of the pool or holding on to the side or goal during play
  • pushing off from or impeding an opponent who is not holding the ball
  • holding the ball underwater when tackled
  • hitting the ball with your fist
  • holding the ball with two hands
  • being inside the opponents 2m line except when behind the line of the ball (offside)

The player who is fouled takes a free throw from where the foul occurred or further from the defending net. The free throw must not be a direct shot on net unless the thrower is outside the 5m line.

Exclusion fouls include:

  • pushing or holding an opponent underwater
  • intentionally splashing in the face of an opponent
  • committing any foul within the 5m line which prevents an opponent from scoring
  • disrespecting an official
  • impeding the taking of a free throw, shot taken outside of 5m after the award of a free throw, goal throw or corner throw
  • leaving the pool except in the case of injury or with the permission of the referee
  • interfering with a penalty throw

The offending player swims to the reentry position and remains there for 20 seconds, or until a goal has been scored, or the excluded player’s team has regained possession of the ball or is awarded a free throw.

Penalty fouls include:

  • a defending player committing a foul within the 5m area which prevents a probable goal from being scored
  • for a defending player to commit an act of brutality ( kicking or hitting an opponent) within the 4 m area
  • to intentionally interfere with the alignment of the goal
  • for an excluded player or substitute player to re-enter the field improperly with the object of preventing a goal

Penalty throws shall be taken from the 5m line. All players except the defending goalkeeper shall move outside the 5m line.

Goal throw

When the ball goes over the goal line but not into the net, and the opposing team was the last to touch it, the defending goalie takes possession.

Corner (2m) throw

When the ball goes over the goal line but not into the net, and the defending team was the last to touch it, the attacking team is awarded a throw from the 2 m line at the side of the pool. This may not be a direct shot on net. All offensive players must be outside the 2m line at the time of the throw.

Neutral throws are awarded if one player from each team commit fouls at the same time or when the ball hits an overhead obstruction. The referee throws the ball in so that both teams have equal advantage to gain possession.

Is Water Polo similar to Other Sports?

Water polo is like a combination of soccer, basketball, ice hockey and rugby, played in a deep pool 30 x 20 meters for men and 25 x 20 meters for women. You can learn about Water Polo very quickly if you appreciate the similarities between it and the above games. However, it is the unique characteristics of the game that makes water polo so interesting.

What is so different about Water Polo?

It is played in the water, which makes it difficult for the referee to see exactly what is going on. Players may use subtle pushes and holds to improve their positions. While this may be totally foreign to most sports people, little push-offs and pull-pasts have been a part of water polo for so long that some instructional books exist which actually show how to get away with these moves.

How Physical is Water Polo?

Another interesting point is the way water polo rules distinguish between degrees of physical contact. The four rules which deal with this are; impeding; pushing, holding (sinking and pulling back), and brutality. With the exception of brutality, these rules, do not apply when an opponent is holding the ball, i.e., they can be tackled.

However, impeding (which is basically swimming over someone ) and pushing are considered minor ordinary fouls while to “hold, sink, or pull back an opponent not holding the ball” is considered a major foul.