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Could a lost Olympic sport find its way back to London?

By Arun Mahey & Jessica Brand
BBC London

BBC London traces the history and evolution of the lost sport of bicycle polo, and questions whether it could, one day, return to its former Olympic glory.

Hardcourt players clamour for the ball during this casual match.
Hardcourt players clamour for the ball during this casual match.

Bicycle polo in both of its forms is something of a hidden sport, despite once having made it to the Olympics.

The traditional game was invented as an alternative to the more expensive traditional polo, played on horses, and the modern hardcourt game is largely underground, driven by the players instead of a governing body.

Unknown to most, though, is the fact that it made an appearance in the 1908 Olympic Games in London.

BBC London traces the history of the sport and questions whether it could, one day, return.

The traditional game

As a sport, bicycle polo has humble origins. Created in 1891 by Irishman, Richard J. Mecredy, the original game was designed for grass fields.

It spread across Britain throughout the 1890s, with one club in Catford, south London, and found its way to France and the US.

The first international match was at Crystal Palace in 1901, where Ireland thrashed England 10-5.

Bicycle polo gained enough popularity to appear as a demonstrative sport at the London 1908 Olympics where Ireland beat Germany 3-1 in the final at the Shepherd's Bush Stadium.

 London match, 3rd July 1948
Two players clash during a match in London on July 3rd, 1948.

However, the sport did not reappear at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, and a couple of years later was abandoned during the First World War.

The 1930s saw the rebirth of the Bicycle Polo Association of Great Britain (BPAGB) along with a new set of rules.

The first game played under the new rules was in Surrey, May 1930. A few months later a British regional league was created.

The Herne Hill Velodrome hosted the first game organised by the BPAGB and from then on, teams were created all over Britain.

By 1938, there were over 170 official teams in 100 clubs, with more than 1000 players. This was the peak of bicycle polo's popularity.

Peter Wall at the Herne Hill velodrome
Peter Wall, established cycle polo veteran, with some of his trophies.

The sport was disrupted again by the Second World War. According to veteran cycle poloist Peter Wall: "After the war there weren't that many players returning from the war, we were a bit short of youngsters to take up the sport."

But traditional bicycle polo continues to this day however, with little of its past popularity.

The modern game

Hardcourt bike polo developed in Seattle, USA at the turn of the century. Ever since, it has spread across Europe and the United Kingdom and the sport has adapted well to urban environments.

It boasts international leagues as well as British and London leagues, but hardcourt bike polo is still something of an underground sport with a culture of its own.

Rules of the new bike polo
Two teams of three players
First to five goals wins
Players must not touch the ground
Players must tap out after touching the ground
No throwing of mallets
Only player-to-player contact is allowed
Goals can only be scored with the end of the mallet

The matches themselves are fast-paced, intense and accidents are common. Players often double as their own mechanics and will customise their own bikes and helmets, and London matches often take place in the evening after work or university as a way for young people to de-stress and socialise.

It lacks a governing body and is instead run by the cycling community.

An Olympic sport?

Given its growing popularity worldwide - with leagues in Europe, Britain, the US and India - could modern bike polo one day make an appearance at the Olympics?

Member of the UK Champion team and a leading figure in the London bike polo scene, Matt Horwood, voices his hopes for the future.

Matt Vidal
Player in the UK Champion team, Mat Horwood

"We need more structure around the bigger tournaments and more awareness so that there can be a training scheme long term, so younger kids can get involved and carry it on in the future to the point where it could be taken as an Olympic sport maybe 10, 15 years from now."

Mr Horwood said that a more short term aspiration for the London scene is to generate sponsorship, not by huge commercial names but by "companies willing to support the sport, actually developing cycle polo and not just sponsoring to get their label out there... just helping the riders to progress."

It could be taken as an Olympic sport maybe 10, 15 years from now."
Matt Horwood

Cycle polo is not the only sport to have been dropped from the Olympics: other long lost sports include polo, skating, tug-of-war, rugby union and the use of live deer in shooting.

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