Taller may not be Better But it sure is more Popular

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet
04/01/14

Every so often, old debates seem to gain new life on WPP and other forums (or is it fora? Perhaps we should debate that instead). One such topic is water polo player height versus performance. Some believe that height is not a determining factor, or better yet: not the ONLY determining factor when it comes to individual or team performance, citing examples such as Tony Azevedo and Manuel Estiarte. Others observe that the better teams typically are larger than their competitors.

As with any academic discussion, the truth necessarily lies somewhere in-between, with talent and skill playing as much a role as physical size. However, there is no denying that recent trends in sports seem to favor the taller players. Whether by chance or design, in almost all sports except perhaps women’s gymnastics the athletes are getting noticeably taller. Water polo seems to be no exception. While height, weight, strength and swimming ability are easy to quantify, the same cannot be said about intangibles such as ball handling skills, reading the situation and creating scoring opportunities. These are all necessary parts of the game, otherwise all that would be needed is a bunch of 7-foot gorillas that can shoot the ball at 60+ mph from back court.

Having said that, let’s return to the original point. Yes indeed, water polo players are taller than the average population, but by how much? Do taller players truly perform better, or is this just a simplistic way for lazy coaches to stack their deck? How do individual nations compare with each other? Does the difference in height reflect in the medal count? We shall now attempt to answer some of these questions.

The tables below list the height of the men’s water polo Olympic medalists from 2012 to 1984 [1]. 1980 was excluded because the Moscow Olympics boycott by some Western nations would have skewed the analysis, and prior years due to the lack of reliable data from countries other than the US. The data is presented in reverse chronological order since the London and Beijing games are still in recent memory.

The figures in the top 13 rows are the individual player’s height in centimeters (since all data published by the IOC is metric). A gray square appears where data was not available. The top four rows at the bottom contain the following: the minimum (MIN) and maximum (MAX) height for each team, the calculated average (AVE) for each team, the population average (POP AVE) for that particular country. The values used for the population average are figures from 2005/2006. Finally, delta is the difference between the player average and the population average. Most country abbreviations are obvious, but there are three which may require clarification: SCG stands for Serbia and Montenegro, EUN stands for the Unified Team which only participated in the 1992 games and consisted of former Soviet Republics, and FRG stands for the former West Germany.

 What is immediately evident from the data is that water polo players are substantially taller than the average population, even more than expected. The minimum delta observed is 6 cm or 2-½ inches for the former West Germany, while the maximum is 19 cm for Hungary. That’s a full 7-½ inches taller than the average male, 20-29 years old. The US overall delta is a little over 12 cm or about 5-¾ inches [2].

As to how the individual nations compare: Spain is consistently the shortest at only 185 cm or about
6’0-¾”. At the opposite end there are Croatia and Hungary with consistent averages near or above 6’5”.

Table 1

Table 2

One thing to consider is that, while most other countries are relatively homogeneous, the Unites States are made up of diverse ethnic groups, some of which are of shorter stature. This necessarily lowered the US population average relative to the other nations compared [2].

Another fact which is apparent from the tables is that, with the exception of 1996 and 1992, the taller team won gold every time. While one can make the argument that in 1992 the three top teams appear exceptionally well-matched from the standpoint of player height, how does one explain Spain’s gold in 1996?

There are two explanations for this. Firstly, the exceptionally talented Spanish team led by Manuel Estiarte, himself a notable exception to the notion that in water polo “taller is better”: at only 178cm (5’10”), Estiarte was actually one of the shortest players on his own team.

The second explanation has to do with the geo-political changes undergone by Eastern-European countries as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Block. Sports went from state-funded to private sponsorship practically overnight, and in the process water polo fell victim to severe lack of funding. Most private money was being funneled into mainstream sports, mainly soccer. Hungarian water polo, who after 1980 was already in a decline, was particularly hard-hit by these changes; as was Yugoslavia, who broke up into several independent nations as a result of civil war. This explains the complete absence of a Yugoslav or Serbian team from the 1992 games and the poor performance when it returned as Serbia and Montenegro in 1996. However, the break-up did give Croatia, and eventually Montenegro, the opportunity to field independent teams of their own.

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Water polo is very complex due to the many skills it involves; some say it is the most difficult team sport. It is therefore not surprising that players and coaches would try to derive any advantage possible. Indeed, top level water polo players are very tall, but that may just be a consequence of the increase in height common across all sports. Or it may be, as some proposed, a consequence of lazy coaches who simply look for the tallest players they can find.

Other metrics could be more meaningful than height: hand size, grip strength, length of throwing arm or size of foot to name only a few, but for some reason these other metrics don't seem to draw as much attention.

Does height truly represent an advantage, and can height be used as a criterion for selecting players with the best potential? As with any other human activity, it is impossible to isolate a single, dominant factor that can predict a particular individual’s performance. Although player height and medal count seem to correlate, there are so many more factors involved that no clear conclusion can be drawn either way. So as the title says: in water polo taller may not always be better, but it’s always been more popular.

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[1] The analysis is limited to men due to the fact there is far less historical data available for women.

[2] Data reflects white American males, 20-39 years old. The figure for all American males 20-29 years of age is 177cm.