Extract from Sports the Olympics Forgot
Keeping a string of polo ponies is an expensive hobby as is maintaining a polo paddock – only the wealthiest people had the necessary funds to play polo in pre-WWII Tehran. However, this didn’t prevent other people inventing a version of the game that was played on any green space available in the city. The rules were slightly different from the polo played on horseback as some elements of croquet were introduced. The game is still played in Tehran and around the world in polo-playing nations.
In deference to the game of polo each player rides a hobby horse and plays with a croquet mallet in their right hand. No left handed shots are allowed in the game. The hobby horses of each team are painted the same colour though their manes can be different colours as can the wheels.
The game is played on a patch of ground 60 yards long by 20 yards wide. Two upright posts, 4 yards high and 4 yards apart, represent the goals at each end. There is no crossbar. The game starts with a hit off by the team who won the toss. There are four quarters each of 16 minutes and teams swap ends after every quarter. There are seven players on each team and there are no designated positions.
An element from croquet was introduced by the addition of a hoop ten yards from each goal in the centre of the pitch. If a team hits the ball through this hoop and scores a goal within twenty seconds then the value of the goal is doubled. A hoop judge stands in the vicinity of each hoop and raises a green flag when the ball goes through it – once the twenty seconds have passed the green flag is lowered.
The game became very popular very quickly as it became a vehicle for people of different political persuasions to at least parade their colours without fear of being arrested by the Shah’s police. Gradually some rule changes were introduced – hitting someone with the mallet deliberately was raised from a warning to a sending off offence as were knocking off the head of an opponent’s hobby horse and deliberately damaging the wheel of the horse. Other sending off offences include pulling the croquet hoop out of the ground and preventing a goal by knocking another player from their horse.
The first Tehran championships were played in 1936 and were won by the Communist Party team, whose horses were painted bright red. Their captain Mahmoud Ghadiri was proud of what this showed: “We play as a team, we play the socialist way, helping each other and supporting one another when the going becomes tough; the other teams rely on individual brilliance but our teamwork always overcomes this; our organization is excellent and everyone keeps a level head and knows their place and their role within the team.”
The Shah decided to enter a team in the following year’s championship but they were knocked out in the first round by the Worker’s Revolutionary Party team who took advantage of the laziness of the Shah’s team, who often waited too long to hit the ball believing that their servant should hit the ball for them instead. The Worker’s party reached the final but lost to the Communist Party team, who were subsequently invited to meet Stalin in Moscow.
Stalin really appreciated the ideals of the game, taking a capitalist game for only the very rich and making it into a sport that everyone could play. He immediately ordered that each Soviet city should create a hobby horse polo league and start playing the anti-capitalist sport. He declined the opportunity to sit on a hobby horse but he did hit the apparatchik who made the suggestion with a croquet mallet.
The sport also spread to India, Afghanistan, and Egypt during the next few years. After the partition of India in 1947 the first contact between India and Pakistan as sporting teams was at the 1949 Hobby Horse world championship in Almaty, where a last-gasp goal from India secured a 4-4 draw. Persia won each of the first eight world championships when they sent the team that won the Tehran championships, but once the rules were changed and a composite team of the best players was sent then they were never a force again, simply because the players from the Communist Party team refused to pass to any of their teammates from the Worker’s Party team and vice-versa.