Water polo looks like every worst nightmare sport rolled into one. If you tossed me into the deep end of an Olympic pool and told me to tread water for thirty minutes while attempting to grab a ball and dodge vicious opponents, I would probably be dead before the first goal was scored.
From the look of it, water polo combines the psychological torment of playing handball against an eighth grader with the brutality of ice hockey and lacrosse, all with the added bonus of potentially drowning.
It’s no wonder Bleacher Report ranked water polo as the number one toughest sport in the entire world.
Though punching can get a player tossed from the game, many water polo professionals manage to get into blows from time to time. With a majority of their bodies underwater, and lots of splashing to reduce visibility for the referees, players are prone to kicking or hitting beneath the surface.
“With all these big bodies banging into each other, all the clutching and grabbing under the water, you have to stay close or you risk getting injured. You also have to know how to get away with enough,” Russell McKinnon, a former New Zealand player, told ESPN in 2012.
Similar to soccer, there are theatrics involved in playing water polo and effectively fouling your opponent without getting caught.
“Officials make sure players’ nails are filed down — scratching with fingers and toes is one of the most common dirty techniques — but players still leave the pool covered in bruises, scratches, and welts, and sometimes the swimsuits are in tatters,” ESPN noted during the London 2012 Olympics.
Imagine playing a sport in which your opponents sharpening their finger and toe nails (for optimal scratching effect) was so commonplace that an official had to check their hands and feet before every game.
How is this a thing. Seriously.
2016 marks the 60th anniversary of an Olympic water polo match dubbed “Blood in the Water” — a game played between Hungary and the USSR just weeks after Soviet troops had invaded Hungary. Tensions were so high that a fight between the teams broke out before the match, a Russian player gashed a Hungarian player’s face so badly that the latter started bleeding into the water, and even the fans started brawling with one another.
Though violence in modern water polo games has never reached these heights (yet), its still considered to be a brutal sport.
The potential for bodily harm combined with inevitably violence means water polo is safely assumed to be the most difficult sport there is. So next time you tune in to the Rio coverage, and see a bunch of grown adults splashing about in a pool, know that they’re probably the toughest athletes in the world.
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