The news that International Olympic Committee decided not to include polo in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games was a blow to enthusiasts of the sport all around the world. Polo has long been fighting to once again become an Olympic sport, despite the fact that it has been more than 80 years since the last Olympic polo medals were awarded during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
However, polo enthusiasts have a much more storied sporting history to back up their cries for inclusion. Yes, polo was only contested at the Olympics a total of five times—in 1900, 1908 1920, 1924 and 1936—but the history of the sport stretches back to centuries before the Olympics were even dreamed up.
In fact, many historians consider polo to be the world’s oldest surviving team sport. The game’s exact historical origin isn’t fully known, but it’s likely that nomadic warriors first beginning playing some form of the game on the vast Asian steppes a few thousand years ago. Nonetheless, the first historical recording of a polo tournament comes from 600 B.C. This game was played by rival groups of Persians and Turkomen, with the latter supposedly coming out victorious.
The game grew to be incredibly popular in Persia over time, and eventually, polo began to become synonymous with power, wealth and the aristocracy. Part of the reason behind this is obvious. Polo requires each player to possess at least two horses, one for each half, which would have only been possible for the wealthier members of society.
From being played by Persian royalty, the game began to spread across Asia throughout the Middle Ages. In most places, it was used partly as a cavalry training exercise with each side acting out the roles of opposing armies on a battlefield.
A significant event occurred in the 1500s when one of the world’s first dedicated polo pitches was built outside the Ali Ghapu Palace in modern-day Isfahan, Iran. The stone goal posts from this pitch still stand to this day, and coincidentally, all modern-day polo fields are still almost the exact same size as this ancient pitch.
Eventually, polo was picked up by British colonists in India who saw the wealthier locals partaking in a game from time to time. From there, the game was eventually spread to the British colony of Malta, where it became an instant hit amongst the cavalry and naval officers who eventually brought the game back to the shores of jolly old England.
It didn’t take long for the English to once again make the game closely associated with wealth. Although the first game in England was played on Hounslow Heath by some military officers who’d recently read about it, polo quickly became one of the favorite pastimes of England’s rich upper class.
The game as we officially know it today was also perfected in England, although it was actually an Irishman, Captain John Watson, who wrote the first set of official rules. These rules had one major flaw though, as they didn’t actually state how many players could be on a team.
Therefore, in 1874 the rules were revised to create the Hurlingham Rules. Coincidentally, these are the rules still used today and thus would likely be the ones used if the sport is ever finally included in the Olympics again.