The sport of water polo has arrived at a crossroads. Which way are we going to go? Too long we have buried our heads in the sand, like the proverbial ostrich, and have ignored the warning signs that not everything is going well in our sport. The latest moves by FINA to reduce the roster size to eleven players for the Olympic games should serve as a warning that everything is not what it seems with FINA and international water polo.
We have been told for years that “don’t worry about our status as an Olympic sport, because FINA will always protect and watch out for us”. This idea that we are protected by FINA is really a myth, an untruth that we have believed over the years; and that has caused many of us to think that the sport is doing all right internationally.
The reduction of team rosters is the start of the reduction of the influence of water polo by the International Community of Sport. To me it is an obvious sign of disrespect to our sport of water polo by FINA, as well as the IOC; as well as a sign that our status as an Olympic sport may very well be in jeopardy.
First you have to understand that FINA and the IOC only care about one thing; and that is the amount of TV revenue that they can generate at the Olympic games. Let’s face it, swimming makes money for FINA and the IOC, and water polo does not. In fact, water polo loses money. Here is a direct quote from FINA President Julio Maglione about the recent changes made by the IOC for the 2020 Olympic games.
“Aquatics at the Olympic Games are going from strength to strength. After earning a place in the top group of sports at the Olympic Games, thanks to the incredible attractiveness of our competitions shown by TV viewers, the IOC has now rewarded us by giving FINA more events on the program. The addition of three events for Tokyo 2020 means FINA is well positioned to continue its leadership in terms of broadcast demand and digital interest.”
REDUCE TWO PLAYERS PER TEAM
This sounds great. But my interpretation of this statement is that FINA (swimming) makes money for the IOC, so they were rewarded with the addition of three swimming events, one of them a mixed male and female relay. In reference to water polo, he mentioned that water polo was able to add two women’s teams to the Olympic program. NOWHERE did Mr. Maglione (or FINA) mention that in order to add three swimming events and two water polo teams that water polo would have to make a sacrifice and cut two players from every team roster at the Olympic games.
As far as I know, water polo coaches were never consulted by FINA to see how cutting two players would affect the game at the Olympic level. Think about this for a minute! Water polo is the ONLY team sport that has to reduce the size of their rosters. Not only did basketball not have to reduce the size of their rosters, they actually were granted an entire new sport of 3 on 3 half-court basketball, a sport that is played on the playgrounds of New York city.
WE GAIN 22, BUT LOSE 44
This shows you what the IOC really thinks about water polo. They told us that we would have to cut our already small rosters in order to add two women’s teams. All of this supposedly for gender equity (equality for men and women). That is a complete fabrication by the IOC! It had nothing to do with adding two women’s teams. Water polo had to cut rosters so that basketball and swimming could add new events! We already have more women than men in aquatic sports because of synchronized swimming. Why don’t other sports have to cut rosters for gender equality? If they wanted true gender equity, they should have added 4 women’s water polo teams to make it twelve teams for men and twelve teams for women. They couldn’t even do that right!
Nowhere in the statement by FINA, or Mr. Maglione, did they mention that water polo, despite gaining two women’s teams, actually losses a total of 22 athletes at the Olympic games. We add two teams of women’s players (add 22 players); but by reducing the rosters by two players for each team, we actually lose 20 players for the women and 24 for the men, for a loss of 44 athletes. So we add 22, but lose 44, making it a total of 22 water polo players that will never get a chance to play for their teams at the Olympic games.
3 SUBSTITUTES FOR 6 PLAYERS
Water polo is the only team sport that does not have one substitute for every starting player. Only three (3) substitutes for six (6) players increases the possibility that a team would not have enough players to finish a game; or would have to play a goalkeeper in the field. Compare this to basketball that has seven substitutes for six players, and volleyball, a game where there are no players excluded for fouling, with six substitutes for six players.
Sports like Rugby 7’s, team handball and field hockey have similar numbers. In some of those sports a player cannot even “foul out” of a game like a player can in water polo; and yet we only have three substitutes (assuming that most teams will carry two goalkeepers). Only soccer has fewer substitutes among team sports; but soccer rules limit the number of substitutions that can be made in a game.
COACHES DON’T WANT TO CHANGE ROSTERS OR CHANGE RULES
I am sure that Italian Olympic coach Sandro Campagna expressed the feelings of many other Olympic coaches when he made the comment in an interview in Gazzetta Dello Sport that the 11-players rosters are “a defeat of FINA”. I can only translate his comment to mean that this is a “defeat of water polo by FINA”. I completely agree! He goes on to say that “I hope that rule will only apply at the Olympics. Having less players and less substitutions is risky for a contact sport as water polo. Injury rate is higher, players lose their mental alertness, game rhythm becomes slower, pugnacity increases. Still having the three fouls limit, we will see more definitive exclusions”.
Campagna also rejects the proposed new FINA rules. “I don’t consider myself conservative, but these “cosmetic” changes are not only useless, they are harmful indeed. Refereeing standards should rather be modified, nowadays too much of refereeing is about interpretation. Those things should be codified better.”
DOES FINA REALLY CARE ABOUT WATER POLO?
So, after seeing what FINA has proposed for our sport, does anyone still feel that FINA really cares about water polo, and will protect and support water polo from the reduction of Olympic sports by the IOC? Reducing water polo Olympic rosters and adding new rules that nobody wants tells me that FINA does NOT care about our sport. There is only one solution to this problem. We need to get water polo people involved in these decisions, not just members of the FINA TWPC and the FINA Bureau. We need to get coaches, referees, players and administrators who know the game to get involved. WE NEED TO TAKE CHARGE OF OUR OWN SPORT!
PERHAPS A WATER POLO CONGRESS?
Gazzetta dello Sport, in its interview with Mr. Campagna, reports that FINA could take time off about the rule changes. Instead of the Congress of Budapest (July 13rd), another congress dedicated only to water polo, probably in October, could host the debate about new rules. If this happens, and the right people are involved, then perhaps some positive changes to help our sport could actually happen. Hopefully this report is true and a Water Polo Congress will actually happen!