Pushing Boundaries, Cracking Ceilings
Originally (and I'm talking here of 2500 years ago ) polo, while being the prerogative of the court, was a gender inclusive sport. Women, usually princesses and their ladies-in-waiting, played alongside and against men. In its later history, however, polo became more and more a sport played by the military and therefore a male prerogative. It took the likes of Claire Tomlinson and Sunny Hale in the late 1960s and early 1970s playing in mixed gender teams and in high-goal, to open up the way for women to take up the sport.
Since then they have been doing so in large numbers. At entry level, women now represent a higher percentage at most clubs world wide. However, at top levels men dominate the action. This is about to change and the Swiss Polo Association is forcing the pace. Perhaps no surprise, as the President of the Association is Morgan Van Overbroek, the first female to occupy this role, and one of her prerogatives is the promotion of women's polo. This fits in well with the global pro-female movement and the struggle for both social and economic equality. The number of women's tournaments is growing every year. Sponsors are starting to see these young, athletic and courageous female polo players as perfect product ambassadors.
My question was, how have we come from hard-fought inclusion (see blog Polo and Palaces) to purely female tournaments? Is this a contradiction? What's the attraction for the players? Can they improve and move to a higher level? I set out to find answers to my questions, and there was no better place to do this than at the 22nd International Ladies Tournament in Polo Park Zürich. Five female players were put under the magnifying glass. Each had a different background and ranged from team sponsor to playing mum.
At the pony-lines I found Belen Podesta giving instructions to her team mates and working out a
game plan. Belen has been around polo all her young life (see blog Perfect Timing) and is part of a large polo family. She plays polo for fun, taking part in club chukkers, occasionally being pulled in as substitute in tournaments. For her, the chance to take on responsibility and direct play were strong incentives to take part in an all female tournament. "They're huge fun" she tells me and provide an opportunity to compare oneself with other female players of approximately the same level.
Annette Fetscherin was my next candidate, busy preparing herself for the first match of the Sunday morning. Annette is a sport journalist and TV sport announcer and so highly qualified to give me information on the importance of women's tournaments. That word "fun" came up a couple of times and catching up with girlfriends was an added bonus, but Annette said it was also a completely different game. She had been given the chance to play Nr.4, the defender, and this would mean she would have to take part in the power plays, penalties, hit-ins. Again we have that word "responsibility ".
Setting up a display of her products field-side, was Kira Wetzel with her firm Nearside.ch. She plays in both Switzerland and Argentina, so why did she want to play in this particular tournament? "Playing with and against women," Kira says, "lets you play more to your potential as the opponents are physically your equal". While the game may not be as open as with the strong, long shots from male team mates, Kira says you enjoy it more. "It's a fight, but fun" That word again!
Kira's firm Nearside.ch is big in sponsoring women's polo, and encouraging female players, as she feels female polo is underrated. She gives me the Women's Open 2020 in Argentina as an example of this. Unlike the men's games, not all the female games were filmed for television and only the finalists were given the unforgettable experience of playing in Palermo. It is, of course, important for sponsors to feel their teams will be given the best coverage possible.
Morgan Van Overbroek plays in many countries in mixed teams but also likes to play 2 to 3 all- female tournaments a year and has played them in Argentina, Thailand and Switzerland. She tells me that in mixed games a woman has perhaps 1-2 minutes where the male opposition thinks she is slower and weaker. Once the men have realised that is not the case then there's no pause. It's game full on. In women's games, at all levels, there's a bit more time to think and to work in a way not usually asked of you. However she says the girls are rougher than the men and there's more of a chance for injury. "The girls are never gentle!" No mercy there, then.
Family time meant that Franziska Fuhrer had been out of polo for 10 years. This was a big step back into the game and she was thrilled to be part of the event at Polo Park Zürich. She's a horsewoman and was playing her homebred 6 year-old, Mariposa. "Taking part in these all- female events is the easiest way to improve your game", she tells me. The men are often too competitive and at mixed tournaments she often feels quite lost. Gaining confidence is, for Franziska, an important reason to play in women's tournaments.
So......what was the result of my mini survey? I was able to commentate the Sunday games observing the players interact and relax after play. Yes, it seems that fun is an extremely important aspect of the tournament. There was a lot of hugging and laughter at the pony lines; the players sitting on the grass with a white wine, watching the others play and chatting, relaxed. However, on a more serious note, the opportunity to play at different positions and take responsibility was seen as a chance to improve. A female player is often a good rider, and in mixed teams is usually requested to ride-off and bother the opposition, leaving the ball for her team mates. This can be extremely frustrating for a competitive personality.
At the end of the day, however, I was given the impression that it was the mix that was important. To be on an equal physical footing with your opponent is a plus for a woman, but mixed tournaments shift the momentum and sharpen your game. The level and quality of female polo here in Polo Park Zürich has been steadily improving. Given the sponsorship combined with press coverage they are about to push boundaries and crack that glass ceiling.