LONDON — Underneath the surface, water polo isn't nearly as civilized as it might seem.
There's a kick here, a punch there, and maybe even a bit of scratching and biting when medals are on the line. Simply put, what happens under the water — hidden from the referees' eyes — may not always be within the rules.
Dirty tactics and cheap tricks are relatively common in the sport — and the players at the London Olympics wouldn't have it any other way.
"Viewers only see a quarter of what goes on but that's part of the game, that's why you love it, you love getting a bit rough, a little dirty out there. If you don't enjoy it you shouldn't be playing this sport," said Holly Lincoln-Smith, who plays center forward for Australia's women's team. "You get out and compare broken fingers, noses, bruises. You learn to love it."
Water polo has long been known for its violent streak. Its most famous game, a grudge match between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Olympics, is known simply as "Blood in the Water."
There hasn't been much bloodshed at the London Games, but play has certainly been physical.
"Here it's been tough, the referees have let a lot of calls go. But you're ready for that, at the world championships it's much worse," Spain women's center forward Maica Garcia said. "These are the games so people even bite because the medal is at stake. They'll do anything for it."
Lincoln-Smith proudly displayed a "munted" pinkie finger that changes shape three times. Hungary center back Orsolya Takacs could only talk for a short moment after a game because she had to put ice over an eye. Officials make sure players' nails are filed down — scratching with fingers and toes is one of the most common dirty techniques — but players still leave the pool covered in bruises, scratches and welts, and sometimes the swimsuits are in tatters.
"If you punch someone, someone punches you," said Niksa Dobud, a center forward for Croatia's men's team. "So we try to play normally without punches."
Has he ever punched an opponent?
"Yes, of course," Dobud said. "It's water polo."
The nature of the game invites physical play, even though players aren't allowed to push or hold an opponent unless he has possession of the ball. Since referees have a hard time seeing everything that happens under the water, players sometimes try to get away with as much as possible.
"With all these big bodies banging into each other, all the clutching and grabbing under the water, you have to stay close or you risk getting injured. You also have to know how to get away with enough," said Russell McKinnon, a former New Zealand player who is now an official with governing body FINA. "There's a lot of theater in it. You have to be a great Hollywood actor, that's the half of it. You're attempting to get the ball, so if there's a little bit of collateral damage on the way, that's expected."
The "Blood in the Water" match — an Olympic semifinal which took place shortly after Moscow had sent troops into Budapest to deal with an anti-Soviet uprising — was stopped after a Hungarian player emerged from the water bleeding heavily from a gash below his right eye, the result of a punch to the face. Hungary won 4-0 and went on to take the gold.
The game has become part of water polo folklore and has helped set the tone for the type of play that continues to this day.
McKinnon said the Hungarian team is still "the chess masters" when it comes to exploiting rules — an opinion shared by some of the players.
"Hungarians are much dirtier and the Russians are the dirtiest," Dobud said. "It's nothing much. Sometimes rude, but it's not boxing, but sometimes wrestling. Most of the time most of the players play fair, but some don't. But (those who don't) get it back double."
The center forward spot is perhaps the most demanding, with the teams' biggest players tussling for position in front of goal. The center forward often tries to provoke the center back into committing a foul that could lead to a man advantage. The pair are often seen with their arms flailing and heads bobbing while gasping for air, locked in a constant physical tussle.
"We focus a lot on the underwater fighting," Takacs said. "You have to know how to handle it well. You cannot get frustrated. You play with your elbows, you play with your knees, feet, hands, it all plays a part."
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