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From Ethiopia to Thailand

Interview: Diana Beata Krüger

At the BMW-B.Grimm Thai Polo Open, POLO+10 met the match day commentator Andy Harrison. He is the Headmaster of St Andrews International School, a keen polo player and occasional commentator & umpire. Born in the UK, Harrison moved abroad in his early twenties and this is when he discovered his passion for polo.

POLO+10: Where did you first play polo?
Andy Harrison: I think it is fair to say my first polo experience, which I had in Ethiopia, would look very different to that of most players. In fact there will be people who would hardly recognize the game as polo at all. The chukkas were regularly twenty minutes long (or until we had a score in some cases). The local ponies stood no higher than 135 cm high. The players only needed 45 inch mallets to easily reach the ground. At the end of the game, the players and their grooms could be seen riding their ponies’ home down the chaotic city roads. This all took place 8,000 feet above sea level in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia.

POLO+10: What other peculiarities can you tell us from polo in Ethiopia?
Andy: To those who play polo in the modern day, this would have looked quite archaic and probably how people would have imagined polo a century ago. It wasn’t, it was just 20 years ago. The games were played with the traditional old bamboo balls, which were far from round and stored in buckets of water between games in the hope they would regain their shape. The pitch on a military parade ground was established each week by placing piles of rocks at each end, to serve as the goals. The stone collector (grounds man) was paid a pound a week, to collect the rocks and to move the sheep, goats and cattle that were grazing on the pitch away for the duration of the game. The pitch boundary was marked by a crowd of a hundred or so locals who came to watch each game. There were no 60/40 or 30 yard markings. There was no need, there were no umpires and no fouls were ever awarded! The games were played out between the mounted police, an infantry regiment and a couple of expats, a diplomat and a coffee grower! All of this is such a far cry from the Thai Polo Club where I am now fortunate enough to play my polo.

POLO+10: What are the differences between polo in Ethiopia and in Thailand, the place you are now playing polo at?
Andy: You could say I have moved from the worst pitches and slowest ponies to arguably the best polo club in Asia. Now instead of playing alongside policemen and ceremonial infantry riders, I ride alongside Thailand’s best and emerging players, as well as royalty, players and patrons from around the region (Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, China, Malaysia and Korea) and of course Argentine and British professionals. Chukkas are now the standard 7,5 minutes long, played at least three times the speed, with a round ball rolling along the manicured turf before flying between the bright orange goal posts.

POLO+10: How did the sport of polo in Thailand develop?
Andy: Thailand is a fast emerging Mecca for polo. Over the past ten years, it has developed some of the best facilities around to compliment its six-month playing season, under bright blue skies and the warmth of Thailand. As each year passes we are seeing many more patrons and teams from far and wide coming to Thailand. Some use Thailand as their base, others arrive for the major tournaments (up to 16 goals). All of this takes place at a stone’s throw from Thailand’s beaches and islands and easy commuting distance of Bangkok and its airport.

POLO+10: What is you forecast for the sport of polo in Thailand?
Andy: With Patrons like Harald Link and Nunthinee Tanner, polo is in very capable hands in Thailand. Not only have they developed the leading polo club, with world-class facilities, they also have a dream to see the growth of polo amongst Thais and to see them develop to the highest level. To this end, they have brought in the world-renowned American coach, Rege Ludwig, who has established a program to develop both Thai youth players and breed Thai polo ponies. All in the aim of allowing many more people access to this truly wonderful sport. With the continued development of ties between Thailand and Malaysia, we are seeing the season extended even further, with teams participating in the various tournaments, with the most prestigious being the RMPA International league (15 goal). The league comprises of four tournaments held in both Malaysia and Thailand. Last year saw the Malaysian team, Ranhill, the league victors, taking the title away from Thai Polo who were the 2013 winners. However, both those teams know the other major players in Asia polo; Royal Phahang, KotaSAS/IBIL, Jogo, Headhunters and La Sarita are all breathing down their necks! With teams and clubs now emerging from China and Korea, polo is certainly in great shape in South-East Asia.

Dear Andy, we thank you for these fascinating insights into the sport of polo in Ethiopia and Thailand and good look for the future!

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