The Lure of Polo Through the Years

The Lure of Polo Through the Years

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The Lure of Polo Through the Years

Dangerous, thrilling, addictive—however you choose to describe the modern game of polo, you can be sure that someone used those same words thousands of years ago for the same purpose. Polo, as it is played today, is merely a refinement of games played as early as the sixth century B.C. It has been said, in many languages and in many time periods, “He who plays polo once will sacrifice his money and body to play again.” Polo has survived for over two thousand years; its addiction must be as powerful as players claim.

The “sport of kings” is one of the oldest sports still in existence today. In fact, versions of the game were played so long ago that a definite origin of the game cannot be determined. Due to the expense of owning and training the best horses, it was primarily nobles who played the game. Because of this, polo was spread as nations conquered others, and it disappeared in areas as noble classes died. Thus, the game was often born and reborn in so many versions that the term polo (translated from several ancient and modern languages) grew to encompass a wide variety of games involving a stick, ball and players on horseback.

Many historians will trace polo’s roots back to Persia (modern day Iran), where the game developed from its most raw and dangerous form. The Persians, who were among the first to domesticate horses and use them in warfare, began playing games on horseback in order to refine their equestrian skills. The game of choice involved any number of players on horseback all attempting to hit a round object with mallets past the other team’s final players. Sometimes hundreds of players were on each team, and the object they were fighting over ranged from balls, to goats, to decapitated human heads. With so many players and no regulation, polo quickly became a sport in which collisions, ill-trained horses, and human error could easily cause injury and even death.

Despite the obvious dangers one encounters while playing polo, it was a popular activity for armies and nobles. For cavalry, polo provided a venue for displaying one’s athleticism, poise, quick thinking, and boldness. In fact, kings from many nations used polo as an easy way to determine appointments for political and army positions. Often, the best polo players were the only ones who could surpass their natural born social class.

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(This was rare, however, because polo was so expensive that often only the richest could afford to play at all.) Yet, if you were an inadequate polo player born into the highest class, you could easily find yourself looked down upon by the elite. As polo evolved into this test of both physical and mental ability, players attempted to play with as much skill and as little recklessness as possible in order to prove their superiority. This marked polo’s transition from a crude battle over a ball to a game of practiced skill.

Polo would not have spread or endured for hundred of years if it were not for armies’ dependence on it. The Persian army played polo in the areas it occupied, and they taught the natural inhabitants of those lands to play. Then those societies, once free of Persian rule, spread the game farther through use of their own army. Areas in which polo was extremely popular before or by the middle ages include Iran, Turkey, the Byzantine Empire (especially Constantinople), India, Japan and China.

Polo originated in Asia, but it would not be confined to one continent for long. Upon occupation of India, the British witnessed the game of polo and quickly decided to adapt it for their own enjoyment. The British, at the time, considered themselves civilized compared to the Indians. Consistent with their love of order and regulation, they instituted boundaries and goal posts to the field and the first set of documented rules for the game in India. The rules, in many adapted forms, caught on slowly throughout Asia. When the British army took the game back to England, it quickly became popular among the upper class.

After the game was introduced in England, it became more of a social sport than a method of practicing warfare. The game spread throughout Europe mostly through social interactions of the noble class. In the late eighteen hundreds, polo debuted in the New World, where it was an almost instant success. By the mid-nineteen thirties, polo was an Olympic sport with modern rules.

With modern technology, nations no longer use polo to train their armies, yet polo is nearly as popular as ever, with over eighty countries having active polo clubs. Argentina, England, and the United States currently have the largest and most competitive polo programs in the world. In any size polo program on any side of the globe, you will find players who live and die with the sport for two main reasons: polo is an expensive activity that requires much of a person’s finances, and more importantly, polo is addictive. While rules and perceptions of the game have changed over the years, the lure of the sport remains as strong as ever.

References

"About the Sport of Polo: The History of Polo." PoloNews.com. March 2004. PoloNews.com. April 2, 2004. www.polonews.com

Chehabi, H.E., and Allen Guttman. "From Iran to All of Asia." International Journal of the History of Sport. 19(2/3) (2002): 384-400.

"History of Polo." Federation of International Polo. April 2004. Federation of International Polo. April 2, 2004.

"The History of Polo." Polo Scotland -- Dundee and Perth Polo Club. March 2004. Dundee and Perth Polo Club. April 2, 2004. www.scottishpolo.com
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