21 November 2012

Uganda: Polo - The True Sport of Kings

When it started out sometime in the 5th century BC, what would become modern day polo was largely a training exercise for cavalry army units in Persia, now present day Iran.

More than 100 very warlike men on each side would play against each other in what often was actually a miniature battle. Fatalities were known to occur as elite forces belonging to kings honed their war skills.

No such results will be expected this weekend when the 2012 Nile Gold Polo Invitational is held in Kakira, the third straight year a polo tournament has been held at the Kakira Nile Polo Club.

Polo has evolved over the centuries and moved, first to India and then to the rest of the world. It is played professionally in 16 years, and was an Olympic Sport between 1900 and 1936, with Great Britain topping accumulative medal totals with 9 (including three gold), followed by Argentina (two gold), USA (one gold), Spain (one silver), Mexico (two bronze) and France (one bronze).

Five years ago it came to Uganda, courtesy of the Madhvani family.

"Horses, and subsequently polo, have been a passion in the family since I was a little boy," said Hrishi Madhvani, a third generation member of the Kakira-based family.

"I remember going to watch my father play in Kenya where I grew up and feeling very excited about the sport. When the family moved back from Kenya to Uganda, polo sadly took a less active role in our lives and we always had the intention of taking it up as a sport here."

From the five spectators that turned up for the first 'exhibition match', by 2011 it had grown to over 250, and more than 300 are expected this year.

But there is more to a polo tournament than just guys (and girls) riding horses very fast and trying to hit a wooden ball into their opponents goal.

It is also about high society, fashion and glamour. It takes a lot of money to play polo regularly, that is why it was originally the 'Sport of the Kings'. Of course now real kings are in short supply, but the people who play it are not, and are all kings of sorts in their own ways.

So, high society will be coming to Uganda this weekend. The actual tournament will take place on Saturday and Sunday, November 24 and 25, and will have preliminary games on Saturday; and semis and finals on Sunday.

The players:

Maanan Madhvani: Captain of Kakira Nile Polo Club; described as passionate about horses and his polo.

Hrishi Madhvani: Has played across the globe; has outstanding teamwork skills and a great ability to read the game.

Mike Du Toit: His former military background makes him a fine team player and sportsman.

Phylippa Marrian: One of four women expected to play, she is one of Kenya's finest horsewomen, and has played across the globe.

Tara Osborne: Although she started playing polo only a year ago, her expert horsemanship, perception of the game, technique and agility enables her to play well above her handicap.

Lizzie McKinnell: Learned to play polo in Uganda, and displays exceptional technique on the field.

Edward Burbidge: A man of many talents, pilot, successful financier and one of Kenya's most improved polo players.

Akash Amrit: One of Kenya's youngest - and most improved - players, Akash plays well above his handicap and is one to watch out for on the field.

Chris Foot: One of polo's finest commentators, his charm and eloquence off the field are the perfect veil to his competitive spirit on the field.

Cindy Voorspuy: One of Africa's top ranked women polo players, there isn't much she doesn't know about rearing, stabling, managing and riding horses in Kenya.

Bhajran Singh: KNPC's new Head Groom, Bhajran has played polo in India as well as the USA. His two-goal handicap makes him the highest-ranked player in the tournament.

Joseph Wachira: One of Uganda's finest horsemen and KNPC's chief horse trainer, he has trained and schooled polo ponies for over 10 years, and this will be his polo career debut.

Tickets are available at sh75,000, before Friday at: Prunes Café, 8 Wampewo Ave, Kololo; Le Petit Village, Ggaba Road;

Quality Cuts, Ggaba Road. Last minute tickets will be available from Plot 18, Iganga Road, Jinja (next to the Bank of Baroda) on a first-come-first-serve basis. No tickets will be sold at the gate.

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