Olympic water polo was thrown into a mini quagmire some years ago when it was decided one way to lift the number of women’s teams was to drain every team of two players on the Olympic roster.

Contrary to the norm of 13 players as the sport evolved from seven-minute quarters to eight-minute contests, Olympians were being asked to work harder and under more stress with the threat of injury having a profound effect on players and the team dynamic.

With Paris 2024 not far away, a silent revolution has emerged with the fact that all teams will be at full strength come opening day. Teams know it, but the general public is probably unaware of the not-so-easy task to change the minds of Olympic officialdom by allowing another 44 athletes to experience the Olympic thrill.

This was done through the excellent rapport World Aquatics President Captain Husain Al Musallam has with the International Olympic Committee and WA Executive Director Brent Nowicki said that no concessions were made to accommodate the extra players.

In these days of cost-savings and the lid of Olympic athlete numbers, it is amazing that a large cohort of our discipline gets to make it to Paris.

Image Source: Tsutomu Kishimoto/World Aquatics

In fact, Nowicki (above) said that it was a narrow-sighted decision to trim the teams: “It was a threat to the sport, short-sighted and detrimental to the longevity of the sport.”

How did the change occur?

Image Source: Aniko Kovacs/World Aquatics

WA sought the brightest minds in formulating its argument to the IOC and drafted in legendary United States of American women’s coach Adam Krikorian (above); Spanish five-time Olympian Felipe Perrone, USA women’s three-time Olympic gold-medallist Maggie Steffens and Greek women’s captain Margarita Plevritou to help shape the background argument; along with many other medical and administrative leaders.

“We identified the problem and saw how we could fix it. We were obviously constrained by the number of quota places available, so we had that against us, and we needed to finesse that.

“You could make two arguments. You could argue the sporting side of the argument and you could argue the health argument. When you make those arguments, the health argument is first as it is the most paramount, and then the sporting argument follows. We believed that we should push really hard on the safety argument to achieve what we were trying to do.

“We assembled a list of the all the cons against what was being proposed by the IOC and we built a team of people to help support our counter argument. We got some medical and science people engaged, some athletes engaged, and some coaches engaged, some administrators engaged, and so we were able to give a 360-degree approach as to why a reduced roster was not only unsafe and not healthy for our athletes, but simply wasn’t a sound approach on the sporting side.”

Nowicki pointed out the obvious impracticality of how a coach runs a scrimmage with 11 players and with the possibility or an injury or two, prior to a major event.

“That’s when you get to the sporting side of it. You don’t want to put that sport at the Games and it comes down to an injury and an unfair advantage. It’s a bad look.”

WA did not need to give up anything at the negotiating table.

“We have a very good, sound relationship with the IOC, driven by the President, and we have a growth strategy we wanted to implement and want to make sure we continue that relationship. We didn’t have to horse-trade anything. It was purely an evidence-based argument that addressed a problem created outside our control.”

On women being only 10 teams in Paris, Nowicki said: “I hope that by Los Angeles (2028) we’ll have full gender parity — 12 teams across both sides — I feel confident that we will get that.”

What the chief administrator thinks

Image Source: Aniko Kovacs/World Aquatics

TWPC chairman Tamas Molnar (pictured above with French captain Ugo Crousillat) said: “It’s a big success. Big step forward. Thirteen is the minimum we can play, without any structural changes in the tactics.“

What the coaches think

Krikorian said: “The entire world knows that our sport requires the highest level of physical fitness (not to mention 14 players total to train and compete) so, in that sense, it was a logical and simple decision.

“It truly takes a full team of athletes pulling in the same direction and playing nearly every position in the pool in order to have success. For that reason, water polo is the ultimate Olympic TEAM sport!”

Italian head coach Alessandro Campagna, himself an Olympic champion, said: “With 11 we were killing our sport. Nothing more to say.”

However, should 15 players ever be agreed to for Olympic Games, he had this to say: “It would be very important to have to reserves at the Olympic Games for several reasons:

“The game has an increasingly intense pace and to have two substitutions available allows teams to have fresh players; the level is very high and there is balance between the teams and have fast and spectacular matches could have a great emotional impact at the Olympics.

Image Source: Aniko Kovacs/World Aquatics

“This year, the players will play almost 85 games, so we have a duty to preserve them. With VAR there will be more exclusions and it’s not right to let a team play with 12 players. I am in favour for two extra players.”