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London Summer Olympics Water Polo: Ten Rules to Know

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The 2012 Games of the XXX Olympiad, which take place in London, England from July 27-Aug. 12, constitute a homecoming of sorts for water polo. In 1870, the first rules for "football to be played in swimming pools" were created by the London Swimming Club and the first match held under these rules was played at London's Crystal Palace Plunge.

These guidelines evolved (along with the ball, which was originally a pig's stomach), with Scotland credited for many changes that eventually became the widespread standard by the late 1880s. International rules were agreed upon during the 20th century.

Here is a rundown of 10 of those rules to know this summer when the London Olympics begin:

Note: Rules are condensed, full list available at

1. Equipment: Post pig-stomach era, the ball was composed of rubber, then leather. Today it is a synthetic material with an inflatable bladder; the men's ball is slightly larger than the women's. Goals are rectangular and measure 3m (9.84ft.) across and are 90cm (2.95ft.) tall (from the surface of the water).

2. Uniforms: Caps with chin straps and ear protectors must be worn at all times. One team will have white or light colored caps; the other, blue or dark colored caps (goalkeepers wear red caps). These are numbered 2-13 for field players; a red cap with number 1 is the starting goaltender, backup keepers wear red 13.

3. Field (pool) of play: notes that the water polo playing area for the Olympics is 2m (6.56ft.) deep and 20m wide. Length for the men's matches is 30m, and for the women's 25m. Marks on the side of the pool denote imaginary lines--white is for the goal and half-distance lines, two-meter line is marked in red, and the five meter-line is yellow. Re-entry areas are red as well, and located in front of the benches.

4. Teams and positions: Six field players and one goalkeeper play, reserves remain on the bench until substituting in through the re-entry area (reserves may enter the game freely during certain play stoppages). Though the field positions are named (center, wings x 2, drivers x 2, point), players may legally change their positions in the pool many times throughout a match. Only goalkeepers may use two hands on the ball at the same time, and only within 5m of their goal.

5. Moving the ball: Periods start with both teams racing for the ball. The ball is then moved by dribbling (swimming with the ball) or passing. It is not legal for a field player to touch the ball with both hands, nor carry or hold the ball under water. The ball must be moved quickly since teams must attempt to score within 30 seconds or be forced to forfeit possession.

6. Shooting and Scoring: The ball must cross entirely over the goal line and into the net to count as a goal. It is illegal to score by using a clenched fist, but the ball may be dribbled into the net. Some legal shot types include overhand, backhand, wet (touches the water) shots, deflections into the net, and various trick shots.

7. Officials: These include two of each of the following: referees, timekeepers, goal judges and secretaries. Each has specific duties, but the referees are in ultimate control of the match.

8. Throws: Water polo includes neutral throws by the referee to restart play, corner throws and goal throws when the ball crosses the end line, and free throws after fouls or by a team that was just scored upon. Penalty throws are awarded when an attacking player is fouled within 5m of the defender's goal, if the foul costs the attacker's team a probable goal.

9. Fouls:

Ordinary fouls are usually for impeding the progress of an opposing player when he is not holding the ball. These can also be called for other minor violations and result in a free throw for the opposing team.

Exclusion fouls mean a player must sit out while play continues, allowing the offended team to play with an extra attacker. Usually the term is 20 seconds, but may be 4 minutes or the entire game depending on severity (with a substitute allowed after four minutes).

Penalty fouls are any fouls committed within 5m of a defender's goal when a goal would probably have resulted, and result in a penalty throw for the attackers from the 5m line.

Personal fouls are given to individual players for any exclusion or penalty foul. If a player receives three personal fouls, he is disqualified from the match.

10. Advantage Rule: At times during a match, it seems that referees are letting players get away with ordinary fouls. This stems from rule WP 7.3, which allows for ignoring an infraction if the resulting penalty would help the team that committed the foul. For example, if a player is progressing towards his opponent's goal and is fouled, stopping play may result in the team that fouled being able to regroup and prepare for the free throw. In this instance, a referee would allow the teams to play on.

The author has been a lifelong sports fan, participant and coach. He loves the Olympic games for their tradition, spectacle and International flavor.

Additional sources:

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