Bicycle Polo: A Brief History of the Sport

Colin Ward-HenningerContributor IMay 26, 2011

A modern game of bicycle polo.
A modern game of bicycle polo.

When people think of polo, they probably think of three things: horses, swimming and that little guy on the shirts.

Most people will be surprised to find out that there's another form of polo that doesn't involve animals, a swimming pool or Ralph Lauren.

It's called bicycle polo and it is becoming more and more popular in the United States. Like most sports, however, bicycle polo did not start in the US. For its origins, we have to go back...way back.

The exact origin of the sport of polo is unknown, but we do know that the first recorded match was in 600 BC between the Persians and the Turkomans. The Turkomans took the victory, which came as quite a shock since most bookies had the Persians favored by a point-and-a-half.

The sport was also played in India around 525 AD with elephants. No, that wasn't a joke to make sure you're still paying attention. The ancient Indians actually played polo on the backs of giant elephants, trying to strike a round ball on the ground with an extremely long mallet.

This game (and the simpler horse version) continued to be played around the world for years, when finally in the mid-19th century, a kindly Irishman named John Watson decided to write down a universal set of rules.

In 1875, the Hurlingham Rules were created (not sure how Watson got swindled out of naming rights) and the number of players was limited to five per squad.

About the same time that polo was being refined, so was an invention that would change the landscape of human travel: the bicycle.

The original "bicycle" was invented by Comte Mede de Sivrac of France around 1790, but this thing needed quite a bit of work. It was more of a scooter than a bicycle because it had no pedals so the rider had to push the "celerifere" with his feet.

This design was rethought over the years until finally in the 1860s, a father-and-son team named Pierre and Ernest Michaux adapted an earlier invention of a pedal-driven bike and came up with a design more like the one we know today.

So by the late 1800s, with polo as the most popular sport in England and the new invention of the bicycle taking off, it didn't take long for someone to put two and two together.

That someone was R.J. Mecredy, aka The Father of Irish Motoring, who came up with the idea for bicycle polo in 1891. The first matches were played later that year and by Halloween, there was a complete set of bicycle polo rules written down and published.

The sport caught on quickly—by 1895, the first English clubs had formed in Northampton, Newcastle, Coventry, Melton Mowbray and Catford.

It had become so popular by 1908 that bicycle polo was played as a demonstration sport at the London Olympics. The English expectantly took home the gold, beating Germany 3-1.

Bicycle polo hit a major roadblock in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I and the matches were put on hold indefinitely. The sport lay dormant until a revival in the 1930s, when the Bicycle Polo Association of Great Britain reformed and amended the rules (each side now had eight players instead of five). By 1938, the Association had 170 teams in 100 clubs with over 1,000 players.

Concurrently, however, the French were developing their own version of the game with their own set of rules, which made for interesting international matches with England. In a series of matches in the 1930s, the two sides would determine beforehand by which set of rules they would be playing.

Predictably, the matches under French rules resulted in a France victory and a tie, and the matches under UK rules went to the British.

After another dormant period due to the Second World War, bicycle polo came back stronger than ever in the mid-1940s.

There have been minor rule changes over the years, but the game remains essentially the same as it was 200 years ago. Only the outfits look slightly different and not every player has a mustache anymore.

Today the game is played in at least 15 countries around the world and there has been yet another evolution, as a hard-court version has become exceedingly popular in the past few years.

So the next time you see a bunch of middle-aged men trying to hit a ball while riding around on bikes, you can stop your friends and entertain them with the eventful history of the sport that is bicycle polo.