BEHIND THE SCENES: Becoming more urban and popular, polo’s plan to return to the Olympics

Today, the Games have surfing, skateboarding and climbing, three sports unimaginable in the Olympic program until a few years ago. Polo took note of that and wants to follow the same path.

Delfin Uranga, president of the Argentine Polo Association (AAP), in front of the historic oak tree / SEBASTIÁN FEST
Delfin Uranga, president of the Argentine Polo Association (AAP), in front of the historic oak tree / SEBASTIÁN FEST

Thomas Bach should not be surprised if in a few months’ time someone tells him about an old oak tree growing in Buenos Aires.

An oak tree? Yes, the sapling of the Olympic oak that has been growing for decades at the Campo Argentino de Polo in Palermo, one of the most attractive districts of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, the last country to win a gold medal in polo at the Olympic Games.

After the 1936 Berlin Games, an oak sapling born in the German Black Forest traveled by boat to Buenos Aires, and has been there ever since, next to a plaque commemorating the Argentine Olympic champion. An image that Delfín Uranga, the young and dynamic president of the Argentine Polo Association (AAP), wants to change.

Delfin Uranga, president of the Argentine Polo Association (AAP), in front of the historic oak tree / SEBASTIÁN FEST
Delfin Uranga, president of the Argentine Polo Association (AAP), in front of the historic oak tree / SEBASTIÁN FEST
The plaque showing the Argentine team that won the gold medal in polo in Berlin 1936 / SEBASTIÁN FEST
The plaque showing the Argentine team that won the gold medal in polo in Berlin 1936 / SEBASTIÁN FEST

What is his goal? That the oak tree stops referring to the past and projects itself into the future. That is to say, to make polo an Olympic sport again. How? By turning it into an urban sport. Is it possible? Yes, Uranga is already working on that together with the International Polo Federation.

“Why not adopt new polo formats? Urban polo, for example,” Uranga asks and answers at the same time during an interview with Around the Rings in Buenos Aires.

“A century ago, the horse was synonymous with mobility, horses were in the streets. But today it’s not like that anymore. People move around on bicycles and electronic devices. What we are looking for is to create a bridge with the city, with the urban. We want to try bike polo and polo on e-wheels. In California they also play on Segways. All of that is polo, only different”.

Uranga, 47, has been involved in polo all his life. His father was also president of the AAP and founded the international federation. The Uranga at the helm today could have rested on his laurels, but he understood that isolationist and elitist polo prevents the sport from growing.

“I once took a cab to get to the Campo Argentino de Polo. When we arrived, the cab driver asked me if he could see what we had in here. I said yes, the entrance is free. And then he asked me, ‘But would they let someone like me in?”

“That got me thinking. What I want is for more people to play polo, for more people to see it. For decades, polo was something alien to people who don’t know polo, it was limited to traditional families who taught their children. It was like in the Middle Ages, always the same people, always the same families. We are now looking to enlarge the base, because then the rest of the pyramid grows”.

“And Palermo is a spectacular place in Buenos Aires with an equestrian culture. In a huge area of the city, in the heart of the city, polo, racing and show jumping come together.”

The Argentine Polo Field / SEBASTIÁN FEST
The Argentine Polo Field / SEBASTIÁN FEST

Bach once said that the Olympic Games could be changed from the inside or they would be changed from the outside. Today, the Games have surfing, skateboarding and climbing, three sports unimaginable in the Olympic program until a few years ago. Polo took note of that and wants to follow the same path. Or at least that’s what Uranga says.

Think polo on sand for the summer Games. Or snow for the winter ones. In both cases, three players and three horses per team. But think also of polo on bicycles, e-wheels or segways. The strategy followed by the Argentine Fernando Aguerre at the head of the International Surfing Association (ISA) caught the attention of polo.

“It would be very difficult to set up traditional polo, it requires a lot of space and many horses, it would be complex to enter the Games like that. That is why we are betting on either of the two variants, winter or summer. As rugby did with the sevens format. Polo has to adapt, because Argentina’s superiority is very great if it is played in the traditional format”.

“If they call me from the X-Games, I’ll go,” Uranga exaggerates. “If there is someone with a cue hitting the ball, that’s polo. There are 51 universities in the U.S. that play indoor polo. Let’s go for it! I went to the University of California Santa Barbara when I was 21. They didn’t have polo. A few miles away they played polo. We put together the University of Santa Barbara polo team, 21 girls and three boys signed up, it was a success. That’s when I saw the enormity of polo in the United States with the universities”.

Uranga, who created “Polo University” and a radio for spectators to understand what’s going on during matches, is pure enthusiasm.

“Simplifying polo is the key to enter the Games. We have a product that can adapt to what the world is asking for today. At the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Games we did a demonstration, it was impressive the attraction generated by the horses.”

“The leadership role of Argentina is enormous, and the president of the international federation is Argentine, Horacio Areco. The headquarters are now in Uruguay, but a lot of work is being done from Buenos Aires. The Italian federation is also helping us a lot, and Gerardo Werthein gave us good advice”.

“My father had a dream that polo would be Olympic again,” adds the head of Argentine polo, although the father’s dream was quite different from the son’s plan.

“We want e-wheels polo to become a sport. It has to be regulated, but it has the advantage of having predictive wheels. For example, if you are close to crashing the wheels stop, there are other safety issues with helmets, which allow you to avoid crashes.”

Delfín Uranga and one of the possibilities of polo on electric wheels / SEBASTIÁN FEST
Delfín Uranga and one of the possibilities of polo on electric wheels / SEBASTIÁN FEST

“I call all this urban polo: electric wheel, bike, segway, but they are all polo. And we want the Palermo Polo Field to be the place for worldwide experimentation.”

Polo is no stranger to California, but it seems unlikely that the horse sport will make it into Los Angeles 28, the Games only six and a half years away. Brisbane 32 seems more viable, also because Australia has a tradition in the sport.

And the paradox is evident: present in the Olympic program since Paris 1912, the modern pentathlon knew how to survive, but today it is facing an existential crisis for getting rid of horses. Polo, which has been absent from the Games for 85 years, proposes to return with or without horses. In summer or winter. Or both. Whatever the IOC decides.

The important thing, it is crystal clear, is to return.

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