There is little documentation about the origins of water polo. The English term “polo” comes from the Indian word “pulu”, meaning ball. British army officers learned the horseback game of polo while stationed in east India and brought it back to Europe. The polo name then became attached to a ball game that was played in water. In its early days, players would ride on floating barrels which resembled the way polo players would ride horses. They carried sticks with which to swing at the ball, hence the name water polo.
In 1870 the London Swimming Club developed rules for “football to be played in swimming pools”. The first official game is said to have taken place at London’s Crystal Palace in 1874. In these early games, dunking opponents was permitted as was diving with the ball and carrying it under the swimsuit as close to the goal as possible. Goals were scored when a player placed the ball with two hands on the deck. By 1880, the introduction of a variation on the front crawl brought in rule changes to make the game faster. Brute strength was replaced by technique and tactical moves. Goal nets were introduced.
By the turn of the 20th century, the game had spread to the United States, Hungary, Belgium, Austria, Germany and France. Water polo made its Olympic debut with a men’s tournament at Paris 1900, making it one of the first team sports to be included at the Olympic Games. Absent from St. Louis 1904, men’s water polo has been a fixture on the Olympic program at every Games since. Women competed at the world championships for the first time in 1986 and it was another 14 years before women’s water polo was included in the Olympic program at Sydney 2000.
Canada has competed in the men’s Olympic tournament four times previously (Munich 1972, Montreal 1976, Los Angeles 1984, Beijing 2008) and the women’s Olympic tournament twice previously (Sydney 2000, Athens 2004).
A men’s water polo tournament has been included at every edition of the Pan American Games, beginning in 1951. Canada finished a best-ever second at Guadalajara 2011 following five bronze medals. A women’s water polo tournament was first included at the Pan Am Games in 1999 when Canada won gold, followed by three straight silver medals.