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Inside The Hardcore, Full-Contact Sport Played Entirely In Boats

Everything you need to know about this week’s Canoe Polo World Championships

Image via Tuomo Sainio (cc)

For those who watch water polo and think, “That would be fun, but treading water looks excruciating,” we present the Canoe Polo World Championships, which kicked off this week in Syracuse, Italy. Canoe polo is kayak-infused water basketball, and it’s glorious.


The rules are simple: Teams of five kayakers, including one goalkeeper, face off in a 35 meters long by 23 meters wide pool or pitch. They attempt to throw a ball into a square net hanging two meters above the opposing side’s back line. Competitors can use their paddles and hands but can’t hold the ball longer than five seconds. Further, teams can’t maintain possession for longer than 60 seconds without shooting, and players must avoid such fouls as “illegal kayak tackle” and “illegal use of the paddle.”

For equipment, players compete in special lightweight kayaks with foam-protected edges, while wearing helmets and faceguards. It’s a contact sport, full of flailing arms and paddles. Boats capsize, or worse. This week’s defending champions are the French men and German women, who are part of a field of 24 nations on the men’s side and 18 on the women’s, respectively. The French are led by canoe polo legend Maxime Gohier, who is competing in the event for the final time this year, while the German women aim for their third consecutive (and sixth overall) title.

But that’s just this week in Syracuse. Canoe polo’s roots date back millennia. Inuit tribes in the Arctic Circle, who designed the world’s first single-person canoes (which Americans today call “kayaks”), used these smaller boats to hunt whales, seals, and other sea mammals. They also used kayaks to play games, incorporating weapons and targets into competitions designed to improve hunting skills.

Meanwhile, canoe-based ball sports emerged in Europe in the late 19th century, with varying rules and regulations. Great Britain typically used two-person boats, but also played a version in which competitors rode wooden barrels adorned with horse heads. Germany played a longer game on a larger pitch, while France focused on paddling skills.

Canoe Polo in the London Charivarl, October 2, 1875 (Image via JW Lester)

Canoe polo was mostly played in rivers until the ‘60s, when London started building pools in public schools. Brits brought the game indoors, forever changing the sport. The smaller playing area led to smaller plastic kayaks and new rules, which became the official version of the sport when the International Canoe Federation published polo’s first rulebook in 1986.

As the sport grew from novelty to global niche phenomenon in the ‘90s, the ICF launched the Canoe Polo World Championships, hosting 18 countries at the inaugural 1994 games in Sheffield, England. The 2014 installment in France hosted 28 countries and was streamed by six million viewers. It’s still not an Olympic sport, but Team USA and other national committees manage canoe polo teams, and the World Games added the sport in 2005. This week’s late-round matchups can be watched on YouTube.

And if a competitor capsizes and is knocked out of his/her kayak, according to the rules, “The player may not take any further part in the play and must leave the playing area immediately, with all of their equipment.” Consider yourself prepared.

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