I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Young men in stripped-down vehicles chasing a ball across a field; what could possibly go wrong?
It seems one Joshua Crane Jr. gets the credit or blame for inventing the game of auto polo. In 1902, he showed off his skills of driving a car and swinging a polo mallet at the same time. The demonstration took place at the Dedham Polo Club in Boston.
But, young Mr. Crane was way ahead of his time. His mount was a steam-powered Mobile Runabout and his newly invented sport did not catch on. The introduction of new-fangled internal combustion machines changed that.
Polo as a Sales Promotion
Ford dealer Ralph “Pappy” Hankinson revives auto polo.
In 1912, a wily car salesman in Topeka, Kansas decided an auto polo match was just the thing to promote sales of Model Ts.
The event was held in an alfalfa field and drew a crowd of thousands. Two teams, the Grey Ghosts and the Red Devils faced off. Each team had two cars with a driver and a mallet man. The latter stood on the running board (they had those things back then) and tried to whack a basketball-sized sphere through goalposts.
Anticipating trouble, good old Pappy had a physician on hand. History does not record if emergency medical help was required in that Kansas alfalfa patch, but they certainly came in handy later.
Souped up Auto Polo
Humans, being a competitive lot, started to modify auto polo vehicles from the basic Tin Lizzie. The bodywork was stripped away and roll cages attached. Engines were tweaked to deliver more zing, so speeds increased and collisions became more frequent and serious.
An unforeseen benefit was that the medical profession learned a lot about how to deal with fractures and worse.
Competitive leagues started up around America, rules were codified, and the whole shebang was guided the Auto Polo Association.
A reporter with The Prescott Journal Miner in Arizona breathlessly described the action in November 1917: “If one comes to these games expecting to be mildly amused, they will receive, to their intense satisfaction, the biggest surprise in the world. You will laugh, you will hold your breath, and the chills will creep up your spine. The very air at an auto polo contest seems to be surcharged with excitement, while waves of sympathetic feeling and enthusiasm push from one end of the grandstand to the other."
Auto Polo Disappears
As auto polo became more competitive, it became more expensive. Pappy Hankinson`s team suffered more than 1,500 broken wheels, 66 broken axles, and the complete destruction of six vehicles in one season.
And, the fickle public, eager for some new excitement, moved on to such diversions as octopus wrestling and deer racing.
In the end, the British magazine Automobile Topics got its wish. Having witnessed an exhibition of auto polo in 1912 its writer sniffed that he hoped “this lunatic sport” would disappear. By the late 1920s, it had vanished.
There was a brief recurrence following World War Two, but the same issue of costly crashes sank the revival.
Buzkashi, is Afghanistan’s national sport. It is sometimes referred to as Afghan polo and it is extremely violent.
As with many whimsical ideas, the notion of playing polo while mounted on an elephant got its first airing in a pub, probably several hours after opening time.
According to writer Ben Schott, the game was dreamed up by two Brits in a bar in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Mr. Schott does not record how many glasses of absinthe were involved.
Obviously, to play the game you need pachyderms and they’re hard to come by in the Swiss Alps, so elephant polo is played far from its birthplace in places such as Nepal, India, and Thailand.
Rules of Elephant Polo
Four-a-side in the “world’s largest sport.”
There are two people aboard each elephant; the mahout who drives and steers the animal and the player who tries to whack the polo ball with a mallet as much as three metres (nine feet) long.
Like regular polo on horseback, the aim is to knock a ball between goalposts. The size of the pitch depends on what kind of field is available but is between 100 and 120 metres long by 60 to 80 metres. If the field is of small size then the teams are cut down to three players each.
There are two halves, called chukkers, of ten minutes each, with a break of 15 minutes between them.
In the early days, a soccer ball was used but the elephants found it to be huge fun to stomp on the ball until it exploded. Nowadays, a standard polo ball is used, but this is small enough for an elephant to pick it up with its trunk; this constitutes a foul and earns the other team a free hit.
It’s also a foul for an elephant to lie down in the goalmouth.
Play Up, and Play the Game
Unlike the auto variety, elephant polo is played at a stately pace.
James Crabtree of The Financial Times played in a match in Jodhpur, India in December 2011.
He described a melee of players leaning over the sides of their mounts trying to catch a glimpse of the ball “hidden far below amidst a dense thicket of grey flesh. Mallets are wielded. Now and again someone even makes contact, and the ball is pushed a few feet forward. The elephants then lollop after it, stopping only occasionally to snack on a patch of grass.”
Crabtree relates that the game appeared headed for a goalless draw when one of his teammates got solid mallet on the ball and his elephant displayed what, under the circumstances “might be called a burst of speed” and ambled after it. A couple more whacks and a goal was scored.
Hazards of Elephant Polo
Falling from the top of an elephant is not advised. It’s nine feet to the ground and there are likely to be other pachyderms around. Getting stepped on by three or four tonnes of meat is likely to be painful if not fatal.
Then, there’s elephant poo to contend with. When one of these animals takes a dump it creates a serious hazard, particularly if the ball lands in it.
The World Elephant Polo Association (Yes, there is such a body) has a regulation to cover this: “If the ball is ‘buried’ in the field, and impossible to hit out cleanly, the game (and clock) will be stopped by the Umpire, and a throw in between two opposing players will start the game (and the clock). All other elephants must be 15 metres from the spot.”
Some unlucky official, of course, has the task of retrieving the ball from its “burial.”
And, What About the Elephants?
Asian elephants are gentle creatures, except when they’re not.
The World Elephant Polo Association says “The health and welfare of the elephants used in elephant polo tournaments is of prime concern. Abuse of the elephant is considered to be the most serious offence.”
In 2007, an 18-year-old elephant named Abey was playing in a match in Sri Lanka when he threw off his mahout and player. Both men ended up in hospital, but Abey wasn’t done yet. He lumbered into the parking lot and destroyed the Spanish team’s minibus.
Abey’s outburst suggests the animals don’t always get a kick out of polo so it was only a matter of time before People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took notice.
A vigorous campaign condemning a tournament in Rajasthan, India as cruel to elephants was mounted. It caused the beer company Carlsberg to drop its sponsorship and that led to the cancellation of the event.
- Actual polo, the game played on horseback, is called “The Sport of Kings” because they are the only ones able to afford the cost. According to The Economist, the best polo ponies cost $200,000, and you’re going to need at least six of them. Then, there’s stabling, grooms, feed, transportation, vet fees, and on and on.
- The Collegiate Water Polo Association tells us that “The modern game originated as a form of rugby football played in rivers and lakes in England and Scotland with a ball constructed of Indian rubber. This ‘water rugby’ came to be called ‘water polo’ based on the English pronunciation of the Balti word for ball, pulu.” Wouldn’t water handball be a better name?
- Other variants of traditional polo that can probably trace their origins to the bottom of a beer glass involve bicycles, canoes, golf carts, Segways, camels, and yaks. Hobby horse polo emerged in Germany, probably around Oktoberfest time, in 1998.
- “Auto polo.” Alex Q. Arbuckle, Mashable, undated.
- “Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and other Forgotten Sports.” Edward Brooke-Hitching, Simon and Schuster, 2015.
- “ ‘Play to Win’ is the Slogan of Auto Poloists.” Southeast Missourian, September 21, 1922.
- “Schott’s Sporting, Gaming, & Idling Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Bloomsbury, 2004.
- “Elephant Polo ... with the FT.” James Crabtree, Financial Times, January 13, 2012.
- “Why You Should never Make an Elephant Angry.” London Daily Mail, February 16, 2007.
- “ ‘Cruel’ Elephant Polo Match Cancelled in Jaipur.” Daily Telegraph, August 21, 2011.
- World Elephant Polo Association.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
WheelScene from U.S.A. on August 31, 2017:
The Auto Polo was very cool to read about! Didn't they do Ostrich polo as well???