Viewing the FINA Rules Through the Olympic Looking Glass

Richard Hunkler, Ph.D.
Slippery Rock University

In the FINA water polo wonderland how can we ever expect that the present Technical Water Polo Committee (TWPC) will ever change the rules or their interpretations to reward skill, agility, speed, quickness, and smarts rather than pure, unmitigated, brute force in water polo? When in fact, the TWPC will not even insist that its referees enforce the rules that already exist. Consider the following rule under Exclusion Fouls:

WP 21.7 To hold, sink or pull back an opponent who is not holding the ball. "Holding" is lifting, carrying or touching the ball, but does not include dribbling the ball.

Anyone who watched the 2004 Olympic water polo games saw both the two meter player and the two meter defender hold, sink, and pull back each other while the ball was on the perimeter. If the ball was on the perimeter about three to seven meters away from them, then how could either of them have been playing the ball? When the ball was on the perimeter, why were no exclusion fouls given to either the two meter player or the two meter defender for their blatant disregard of Rule WP 21.7? There were several incorrect common fouls called but no exclusion fouls. They were incorrect common fouls because no one was playing the ball when they were holding, sinking, and pulling back each other per the Exclusion Rule WP 21.7. Most exclusions occurred when the two meter player was playing the ball - this must mean, of course, that at the time of the exclusion the player was not holding the ball?

Those many infractions of Rule WP 21.7 were documented up close and personal by the close-up shots of the TV camera in the 2004 Olympic water polo games. I believe there was even commentary by the announcers who made remarks about the inordinate amount of holding, sinking and pull-backs by the two meter player and the two meter defender. Guess what, when they showed these things they also showed that the ball was nowhere in the cameras viewing area - this meant the players could not have been playing the ball. Moreover, I am not talking about the underwater TV shots but rather about the above water TV shots that were shown quite frequently. In fact when the ball was thrown into the two meter player the camera was usually somewhere else.

The TWP-C thought that rule WP 21.7 was so important to the game that it deserved a long note of explanation, and I quote as follows:

[Note. The correct application of this Rule is very important both as to the presentation of the game and in arriving at a proper and fair result. The wording of the Rule is clear and explicit and can only be interpreted in one way: to hold (figure 16), sink (figure 17) or pull back (figure 18) an opponent who is not holding the ball is an exclusion foul. It is essential that referees apply this Rule correctly, without personal arbitrary interpretation, to ensure that the proper limits to rough play are not exceeded. In addition, referees must note that an infringement of WP 21.7 within the 4 metre area which prevents a probable goal must be punished by the award of a penalty throw.]

If the TWPC will not instruct its referees to enforce this ". very important ." existing rule, how will we be able to get them to listen to any legitimate criticisms of the rules of our sport? Didn't the international rules committee of volleyball change its traditional way of scoring to make it a more interesting and faster game for Olympic spectators and TV audiences? I have also been told that coaches of the leading teams in the world desire to have the rule interpreted in this way. If this is a fact, then the TWPC and those coaches should quit being hypocrites and delete Exclusion Rule WP 21.7. But if they do that then the IOC will know the world water polo community is not really interested in policing our own sport from brutality - that is, to quote rule WP 21.7's note again, "... to ensure that the proper limits to rough play are not exceeded."

I have been told that the TWPC usually instructs its referees to avoid, at all costs, the calling of any fouls away from the ball. One consequence of this is that there is almost no exclusion fouls called away from the ball. The most important consequence of this is that the winner of these two meter battles is always the bigger, stronger player, with little regard for relative skill. Will someone please tell the TWPC that nowhere in Exclusion Rule WP 21.7 does it say "apply this rule only if the ball is present?" The argument used by the TWPC for doing this is that they do not want fouls called away from the ball because no one is watching there, and they do not wish to have a parade of extra-man situations because they are considered boring. Well, the TV camera lens certainly proved that the first part of the above sentence to be incorrect; and, moreover, we have video tapes to prove it. The TWPC is probably more likely to ban TV away-from-the-ball, close-ups than they are to have its referees enforce the WP 21.7 Exclusion Rule. The second part of the above sentence says that if some rule bores the TWPC members than they can instruct its referees to do what ever the TWPC damn well pleases, and this includes instructing referees not to call exclusion fouls that are clearly defined in the rules.

Besides why would some coaches want to change the rules? They are winning with these rules and these interpretations, so why throw chlorine water on a good thing. It appears to me that some nations, including the U. S. of A, are more interested in winning Olympic and World Cup medals than they are in trying to win the hearts and minds of a world of potential, players, coaches, and spectators. I hope that one of these days we will be smart enough and strong enough to place our sport of water polo ahead of any Nation's accomplishments in the sport.

Finally, we had all better be students of history because George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In the United States when over a period of years "soft-ball" or "American rules" water polo became too brutal the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the then U.S. official governing body of water polo, cancelled its sponsorship of the sport. This was not so bad because there was an alternative game available - "hard-ball" or "Scottish rules" water polo. Two years later the AAU renewed its sponsorship when the U.S. club teams agreed to adopt the hard-ball or, by then called, the international water polo rules. These rules helped to create a much cleaner, faster, and more exciting game of water polo not only in the U.S. but also around the world. Let's hope for all the future generations of players, coaches, and spectators the world sports community doesn't begin to think that the present day game of water polo is becoming too brutal because, today, there are no viable alternative sets of rules to rescue our game from extinction.

Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]