FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Polo

Feb 1, 2007
2007 / Feburary 2007

Polo has a social problem. Let’s face it, when did you last walk into a bar and find everyone cheering a polo game on television? Ordinary neighborhood kids never post pictures of polo stars on their walls. And the word “chukker” is definitely not part of the vocabulary of the average sports fan.

In the United States, polo usually means money — and old money at that. If you can trace your family tree back to the Mayflower, you’re probably also the member of a polo club. The clubs vigorously insist that the sport is open to all. Well, sure. Just bring your own horse.

Attempts have been made to overcome that most basic of obstacles. Lessons and membership are now available to the horseless at most polo clubs. At the same time, variants of the sport have been devised using bicycles (www.bicyclepolo.org) and, more recently, Segways (www.segwayhtpolo.com). But at its purest, polo is all about horses and riders, the ultimate test of equine agility and skillful horsemanship.

Polo originated in Asia around 2,000 years ago. It was imported to Europe by British military officers in the mid-19th century, and was introduced to the United States in 1876 by newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett. Thus, the foundations were laid for the sport as we know it today, in which royalty, aristocrats, tycoons, and suave polo professionals (usually Argentinean) gallop around an immaculate field while the beautiful people clink their champagne glasses and rattle their jewelry on the sidelines.

But in Asia, most notably in Pakistan, the game has remained true to its roots. It is played and watched by people from across the social spectrum. The highlight is the Shandur Pass Tournament, which is held on a remote playing field 11,000 feet up in the Karakorum mountains each June. More than 10,000 spectators travel to the back of beyond to witness the event, which is one of the most remarkable spectacles in world sport.

For the less intrepid, the northern Pakistani city of Gilgit (where at least there are international standard hotels) holds an annual polo tournament in early November. There you can experience the indigenous, no-holds-barred version of the game, in which the polo mallets often are used to knock rivals off their horses, and blood and broken bones are common.

More extreme still is the primitive version of the game played in Afghanistan. Known as buzkashi, there are no mallets and no ball. Instead, the riders battle each other to carry the headless carcass of a calf to a scoring circle known as “the circle of justice.” There are no other discernable rules. It is not unusual for a close game to end in a shootout — a real one, with guns.

Buzkashi is a million miles from the rarified atmosphere of American polo, which is presided over by the United States Polo Association (www.usa-polo.org). Recently, efforts have been made to bring polo to ESPN, where its format — the game is divided into six chukkers, each lasting seven minutes — is tailor-made for commercial breaks. A new tournament, the Triple Crown (www.triplecrownofpolo.com), has been initiated to appeal specifically to a potential mass audience. The 2007 televised event begins at the Sarasota Polo Club on March 25.

Will it work? Will the sport manage to shake off its elite reputation and attract a large television audience? Mainstream U.S. sports fans who remain indifferent even to soccer, the world’s most popular sport, will take some convincing.

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FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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