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The end of the glory days

Are polo’s glory days over? Have highest echelons of the game lost their way? Have the new rules made it boring, arbitrary and commercial? Chris Ashton reviews Javier Tanoira‘s “Reflections on Argentine Polo”.

Text: Chris Ashton

Javier Tanoira‘s “Reflections on Argentinian Polo”, published in 2009, brings to mind the pithy observation of 18th century English poet Alexander Popefor: “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”. “Reflections” is a critical treatment of the disease that has befallen the highest echelons of polo, namely Argentinian high goal polo. It also contains suggestions as to how existing rules could be changed or brought back in their older form (before the era of “patron polo”) to recapture what the game has lost according to Tanoira.

And he is more than qualified to address this issue. At the peak of his career, he played with a handicap of 8 goals and took part in tournaments such as the British and US Open, as well as the Argentine Open in 2001. Born in 1971, he criticises problems with modern polo not from the viewpoint of an ageing warrior that looks back with nostalgia on glorious times, but on an equal level with players who continue to dominate the high goal game today. Just as impressive is his origin: he is the son of Luisa Miguens de Tanoira, architect and author of “Passion & Glory: A Century of Argentine Polo” and Gonzalo Tanoira, a polo player who died in 2003, who was one of the best 10-goalers of his generation and President of the Argentine Polo Association (AAP) at the time of his passing. This book is required reading for all those who are of the opinion that polo has taken a negative turn. On around 90 pages, Tanoira pleads for a radical change in order to prevent his beloved game being consigned to history. In his book, he combines careful research with a passionate appeal to the Argentine polo community to support his endeavours.

Excerpt from the book: “In this country, which suffers from an evil that is endemic as well as chronic economic and political instability caused by corruption, where bribes are offered for votes and mistakes have been made in the state management of agriculture and livestock farming and where there is widespread poverty across the country, we have gold-dust in our hands in the form of a fundamental activity that provides many families with a livelihood and in which we without doubt are the best in the world. But we have not managed it ourselves; we inherited it from our parents, grandparents and all the polo lovers who are no longer with us. I believe it is our duty to preserve and protect it, for everyone to do the best he or she can to ensure that ‘Polo Argentino‘ remains the best in the world for a long time to come. Thank you for your time, I embrace you all”.

For Tanoira, the final of the Argentine Open 2008 between Ellerstina and La Dolfina was a “cut-up, slow game; fouls galore… I became aware that the players believed they were being more efficient in forcing a slower game where the deciding factor is to have the ball in your possession, not to pass it on and achieve goals through penalties”. Were the umpires to blame as so many polo aficionados insist? Tanoira says not: “It is the players who decide what the referee should whistle at and what not and that is wrong. It should be the Argentine Polo Association (AAP) that defines the criteria… Today it is almost impossible to see good refeering because it is also impossible to watch a good match. The umpires have to be looking attentively not at the two or three players going towards the ball, but at the one who has the ball; the one who marks him; the one who blocks him; the one who counter-blocks him; the one coming up from behind; the one who attempts to block the one coming up from behind. The typical chain of events we see in a match is thus: This is the typical play we are likely to see: a gallop with five or six players heaped together in less than 24 square yards; one has the ball and he touches it with strokes that are not longer than 60 inches, and all the rest are playing each other off with their sticks raised. How can we expect the umpire to do a good job?”

Like many other polo enthusiasts, Tanoira finds that several whistles detract from the enjoyment of the spectators and the match is reduced to penalty shots. In his estimation, there are around 40 per cent more whistles in a match than 25 years ago with melees after throw-ins account for 20 per cent of all penalties. According to Tanoira, the penalties could be reduced by 95 per cent if players were rewarded for ball possession and not given to those who hit the ball out of play. Or if the team that had the goal scored against it had to hit from the defence line instead of having to return to the middle line for the throw-in. The AAP and Hurlingham Polo Association has already implemented some of his suggestions but the others will never see the light of day, such as his suggestion that Argentinian high goal players should play only on a limited number of polo ponies during the high goal season that are clearly identified and cannot be swapped. This would encourage players to use the power of their pony sparingly by focusing more on playing as a team. According to Tanoira, the deep-rooted mistrust of the polo community regarding changes is the biggest obstacle in trying to rescue polo from itself. In order to once again make polo a true spectator sport, he suggests that the “Rules of the Game Sub-Committee” by the AAP should be ratified to enable changes to be made. The committee, which is authorised to make changes to polo rules, comprises a dozen former players who are mostly 10-goalers and winners of the Argentine Open.

By way of comparioson he cites the rules‘ committee of Rugby Union, the British variation on football. Its governing body is the International Rugby Board (IRB) that represents almost 100 national rugby associations and achieved a turnover of 150 million dollars in the last Rugby World Cup in 2003. “The rugby boom worldwide as a spectacle coincided with the work done by this committee. Matches in European rugby leagues are broadcasted live by major sports channels and the IRB and its associations receive a huge amount of money for them. But the television channels also put them under pressure: they want a good show and everyone in the world of rugby understands this. As a result, the rules‘ committee is flexible – because as soon as they implement a rule, the players find a way to circumvent it. Or to put it another way, they try to push the boundaries as much as possible and this often has a negative impact on the quality of the match. In rugby, continuous change is seen not only as a positive thing but also as a matter of course. Contrast this with polo – it would be a traumatic step to take and in some circumstances exacerbated by the conservative attitude that dominates polo. I insist: There are times in which you must dare to make changes to preserve what you have and I think this is such a time.”

What does Tanoira say to us in his “Reflections”? What contribution does he make with his book to the debates within the polo community that take place behind closed doors? Will patron polo determine how polo is played in the future? Or is there another way? I ask Dr Horacio Laffaye about this. But before I reveal what Laffaye thinks about “Reflections”, I‘d just like to tell you a bit more about the polo historian. The native Argentinian with American citizenship has worked almost as a professional surgeon for almost 50 years, 22 years of which he has been Professor of Surgery at Yale Medical School. Ten years ago he wrote the first of several polo histories, “The Polo Encyclopaedia” (2004) and has also written contributions to the books “Profiles in Polo: The Players Who Changed the Game“ (2008), “The Evolution of Polo” (2009), “Polo in England” (2010) and “Polo in the United States” (2011), which were all published by McFarland & Co. In spring 2014, the American publishers will also publish his book “Polo in Argentina: A History”. He grew up on a cattle ranch in the province of Buenos Aires and his brothers, uncles, father and local gauchos introduced him to polo at the age of six. In his foreword for “Polo in Argentina”, he explains: “I have had a livelong love-affair with the game of polo as player, umpire, spectator or today as adminis-trator and writer”. Together with his Argentinian wife Martha, he moved to Southport, Connecticut in the late 1960s. There, he played polo every weekend at the Fairfield Country Hunt Club for 20 years until an accident forced his retirement. However, his passion for polo as a spectator has never waned. In 1992, he bought a second home in Wellington, Florida to escape the bitter winter in New England during the high goal season. In 2003 he was appointed to the board of the Museum of Polo and its Hall of Fame and is now chairman. He also serves on the executive committee of the International Polo Club Palm Beach and manages tournaments for the US Polo Association (USPA). Since 1977 he has written contributions to polo magazines about Argentinian and English high goal polo.

Laffaye describes Tanoira‘s “Reflections” as a “well-conceived dissertation of the decline of polo as practiced in the sport’s premier nation” and as a “clear picture of the game at the beginning of the 21st century”. The tract is well written and is based on his personal experience and observations. It reflects a lucid mind, capable of presenting an easily read text, basing his conclusions after some time of careful examination of the facts and an unbiased evaluation of current issues. As a child growing up in a family who had been playing polo for three generations, Javier was brought up learning the traditional rules of the sport. He also played matches in the exclusive environment of high goal polo and in the open championship classes, which lends his conclusions particular weight. Tanoira carefully analyses the problems the game is currently suffering from. In comparison to previous eras, modern polo places higher demands on players‘ abilities. However, the lack of combination play has eroded much of the thrill of the game, for both spectators and participants alike.

Laffaye confirms Tanoira‘s view, that the main factors that influence the game in Argentina depend on how the rules are interpreted by individual players and sports associations. The rules as they were determined and publicised in the 19th century have served the sport well. Aside from some regulatory changes that mostly serve to take into account local or national conditions, the basic rules for fouls are the same: players must not cross an opponent‘s line, hook the mallet or ride dangerously. The historian confirms that since the start of modern polo in 1870‚ …players have become very adept at circumventing the rules of the game by creating artificial fouls. In England and India, this tactic is known as the “old soldier‘s trick”: the player holds his horse back in order to give an opponent enough space to cross his line of the ball. Unfortunately, today‘s players have made this artificial foul standard practice. These fouls are not only a nightmare for referees and disrupt the flow of the game, but they also affect the outcome of the match. Many goals are scored through penalties which has a negative impact on excellent goals scored as part of the match. One example in high goal polo is a match from the Argentine Open where 53 fouls were recorded. By contrast, only three penalties were called during the second game of the Cup of the Americas in 1950 at Palermo.

Laffaye also supports Tanoira in his opposition to the throw-in: “With a throw-in, more damage is caused than in any other standard situation during the match. If the number of throw-ins was reduced, the flow and excitement of the match could be increased”. This was one of the main aims of the Federation of International Polo (FIP) when it was founded thirty years ago: “to standardize the rules of play and promote the game of polo on an international level”. While these objectives were lofty, their attainment has been compromised by national self-interest and economic conditions. The development of a uniform rulebook has been hindered by the inflexibility of the three great powers, Argentina, England and the USA. But achieving uniform rules should be easy. Football is played across the world by millions of people according to the same rules. How can that not work with polo, given that it only has around 20,000 registered players around the globe?

In practice, the “Big Three” control how the game is played around the world. The regulatory committees in all three nations do not have much interest in changing the status quo for various reasons. As they are at the top, the AAP sees no reason to change the rules. Both in the USA and the UK, polo is hindered by a concept called the “three man polo” concept, whereby the team comprises three professional players and a sponsor. There are no short term or long term plans to change because without “patron sponsorship”, there would be no high goal polo outside Argentina. Neither England nor the USA are satisfied with their own rules and the USPA rules enable unlimited changes to team members during a match or tournament. They do not allow 30-yard penalties to be defended and therefore make the match boring. The length and number of chukkas varies and the way they finish also varies. A lot of constructive work needs to be done. Rules aside, some changes do not seem to focus on whether polo, the fastest team sport in the world, offers a good view for spectators or is a fun way for players to spend their time. The most notorious change was 2 points being awarded for a goal scored from 60 yards away. This practice only detracts from combination play and becomes an obsession with heavy hitters. This has a negative effect on team play. Polo is at a crossroads. It seems as though some regulatory committees have lost their way. There will always be amateur polo but the future of top players lies in the hands of professional institutions that are supported by commercial organisations. Javier Tanoira sounded the alarm with his book. The powers-that-be in polo should take a look at his book and bring polo back to its roots: it should be fun for players and an exciting event for spectators.

Horace Laffaye is not just an important historian and worldwide spokesman for polo. Just like Tanoira, he is its conscience. He not only draws our attention to what modern polo has achieved in 140 years, but also to the threat it is now facing. The regulatory authorities are handing over control to commercial interests that have other intentions in mind. All those who remember how polo once was before “patron polo” took a foothold should thank Tanoira and Laffaye for the fact that they have sounded the warning and shown ways to make polo a spectator sport once again.

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