Water polo isn't a game for sissies

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:38 PM ET

Serious water polo is something that resembles a wild hockey game played on melted ice without hockey sticks.

The reason I chose to write about the sport the late Sun columnist Ted Reeve dubbed the "glub-glub" sport is that a major international water polo tournament will be played July 6 to 10 at the University of Toronto's Olympic-size pool.

The World Water Polo League's one semi-final will be the first major international tournament since John Bitove Jr. organized the 1994 world basketball championship. (Small wonder that the IOC never awarded Canada the Summer Olympics). The other semi-final will be played at the same time in New York, with the final six teams -- three from each semi-final -- meeting in August in Belgrade for all the marbles ($500,000).

Toronto fans will get to see the Athens Olympics silver medallist Serbia-Montenegro, as well as the national teams of Greece (fourth in Athens), Germany (fifth), Spain (sixth) and, of course, Canada. New York will host Hungary, Russia, Croatia, Italy and the US.

These teams will be battling not only for the money, but also for the honour of their respective countries, factors that very often inspire players to resort to some nasty underwater maneuvering. That's why players have to wear two bathing suits. In earlier years, there were occasions when a player was left in his birthday suit pleading for another bathing suit.

The ability to break noses, twist arms and fingers or utilize other 'tactical" weapons hasn't kept those in high places from playing the sport. Most notable is the future king of England, Prince William, who was a dedicated water polo player in his school years. Former Major League Baseball commissioner and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee chairman Peter Ueberoth, who played in college, as did Canada's prime minister Paul Martin and the highly successful Toronto film producer Robert Lantos, who rose to the level of international water polo player.

In general, water polo is not a game for sissies. I remember well the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, and the game between the then Soviet Union and Hungary. It was shortly after Soviet tanks invaded Hungary and took advantage of the small Central European country.

But in the Melbourne pool there were no Soviet tanks or guns. However, there were big and tough Soviet water polo players who had world water polo superiority on their minds.

Still, the Hungarians, the people of Attila the Hun, were not to be denied. They matched the Soviets for every dunking, every bathing suit pull, every punch in the nose and other pleasantries reminiscent of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey teams of the 1970s. And, just as the Broad Street Bullies would create a free-for-all when needed, the charged physical play and animosity between the Hungarians and Soviets resulted in a brawl that changed the serene blue-green pool into a tumultuous red sea of blood.

VICIOUS

Never before or since has a water polo game been played with such viciousness. The Hungarians held a 4-0 lead when the brawl broke out and the referee was left with no choice but to call the match. Moreover, the police had to be brought in to prevent a crowd riot as most of the 5,500 pro-Hungarian fans wanted to punish the Soviet aggressors.

As a result, the Hungarians won the gold medal, Yugoslavia the silver and the Soviets had to be content with the bronze. Fearing retribution at home, half of the Hungarian Olympic delegation refused to return home and several of them emigrated to Canada and the US. A couple of players even wound up playing in Toronto.

Speaking of Toronto,the fans here are not likely to witness that type of animosity among the five teams. But the teams will offer Torontonians some of the best water polo they have ever seen in this city. Tickets for the two games-a-day tournament can be obtained from the Ontario Water Polo Association at 416-426-7028.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

Tomorrow is the deadline for a special charity-for-children auction of the Molson Indy Festival Foundation. To have your name put on the No. 4 HVM car of Bjorn Wirdheim costs $50,000. The other major auction listed on the Molson Indy Foundation website includes a ride in the Molson Indy Driver's Parade on July 10 during the official ceremonies for the 20th Running of the Molson Indy, as well as the chance to yell out the famous words "Gentlemen Start Your Engines," or drop the green flag from the starter's tower for the qualifying session on Saturday. For further info call John Bassett at 416-844-0501, or Mary Donohue at 416-966-6002.


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