Polo is without a shadow of a doubt one of the oldest ball games known to man. The first mentioning of Polo was recorded in 600 BC, when the Turkomans beat the Persians in what was probably a diplomatic tournament.
Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire around the year 331BC, was a keen polo player. When his rival, Darius of Persia, suggested he should stay at home and play polo, Alexander replied: ‘‘I am the stick – the ball is the world.’’ Darius soon regretted his taunts.
The Persians spread the game throughout the eastern world, and were later followed by the Mogul conquerors of India, who helped spread the game even further. The Christian emperors of Byzantium also often played polo after having seen their Muslim adversaries play, and in those times safety in the game was not what it is today. One emperor, John Cantacuzenus (who ruled from 1341 to 1347) was one of the earliest casualties of the game.
After this, variations of polo developed in China, Japan and Russia, but it is thanks to Persia – and its ancient capital Ispahan – that we must turn to see the earliest polo ground in the world. It was laid out in front of Ali Ghapu Palace by Shah Abbas the Great, who reigned from 1585 to 1628. The terrain, although now used as a public park, is the exact size of the modern polo field – and also retains its original stone goalposts.
The Mogul ruler of India in the 16th century Akbar the Great, was devoted to the polo game and his old stables can still be seen at Agra. As the Mogul power declined in India, the game was restricted to remote states on the Burma-Assam border, notably Manipur.
A variation was also played in Afghanistan, although it bore little resemblance to the game we know and enjoy today. The Manipur tribesman called the game kangjai. The English preferred the easier ‘polo’, supposedly derived from pulu, the Tibetan for willow, from which the original balls were made.
Captain Robert Stewart and Luitenant Joe Sherer were the men responsible for introducing the west to the galloping game. They saw it while they were stationed in Manipur, and in 1859 called the inaugural meeting of the first polo club, the Silchar.
The British Army and British tea planters in India quickly took interest in the game and in 1863 Calcutta Polo Club, today the oldest in the world, was founded. Officers returning home on leave brought word of the game to England – the first ‘official’ match was organised by Capt Edward ‘Chicken’ Hartopp, 10th Hussars, on Hounslow Heath in 1869, although it now seems that a detachment of that regiment had played a ‘scratch’ game near Limerick a year earlier.
The oldest clubs outside India are today Malta (1868) and the All Ireland, Dublin (1872) and it was an Irishman, Capt John Watson, 13th Hussars (1852-1908) who drew up the basics for what are now the international rules of polo.
The first club in England, the Monmouthshire, was founded in 1872 and others, including Hurlingham, followed quickly. Handicaps were introduced by the USA in 1888 and by England and India in 1910.
The first official match in Argentina took place in 1875, the game having been taken there by Irish and English ranchers and engineers. In 1876 Lt Col Thomas St Quintin, 10th Hussars, introduced polo to Australia and, in the same year, James Gordon Bennett Jr organised the first game in the USA. He had seen tournaments while on a visit to England, and returned home with a set of sticks, balls and the Hurlingham rulebook. In 1900, 1908, 1920, 1924 and 1936 polo was an Olympic discipline and has now been recognised again by the International Olympic Committee.
After the last war, mechanisation of the cavalry – the traditional ‘nursery’ for polo players – and national austerity boded ill for the future of the game. But the enthusiasm of players such as the 3rd Viscount Cowdray, ‘father’ of modern English polo, saw a revival in the late 1940s.
Today, polo is played in around eighty countries worldwide. Unlike most sports, it is played somewhere in the world all year round – from England to Argentina, from the USA to India and from Switzerland – yes, there is even snow polo – to the Gulf.
The premier polo nations are Argentina, England and the USA, followed closely by Australia and New Zealand.
There has recently been a popular renaissance of the game in India, with many of the old princely states and families taking up the sport of their fathers.
In Europe polo is now rapidly expanding. Almost every capital has its Polo club. In Spain, Sotogrande is fast becoming one of the finest high-goal centres in the world.Polo has always been a game played by kings and princes.