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Polo's Test Ride for World Stage

Championships: The title goes to Argentina in a 10-day event that draws record crowds and seeks to rekindle the sport's Olympic appeal.

August 31, 1998|NICOLE VARGAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The FIP World Polo Championships may have ended Sunday, but it left a lasting impression on the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club and the record crowds that turned out for the 10-day event. Organizers of FIP, the international polo federation, hope the championships have a lasting global impact as well.

Defending champion Argentina's 13-8 victory in Sunday's final over Brazil drew 8,000 spectators who filled the grandstands and spilled onto the sidelines. According to the U.S. Polo Assn., it was the largest crowd to watch polo in the United States since World War II, outnumbering the previous record of 7,200 the same event drew on Aug. 23.

The international championship brought together mid-level teams from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, England, Guatemala and the U.S. that have advanced through more than a year of regional competitions involving 45 nations. Although countries such as Argentina could field far stronger teams because they have many high-level players, the polo federation used its ratings system to limit the players eligible and create as even a playing field as possible.

Players in the tournament had from one- to six-goal ratings, and teams had from 11- to 18-goal ratings. The sport's scale ranges from one goal to 10, depending on experience and ability, with the best players in the world getting a 10-goal rating.

"You don't have 7,000 people show up to a polo match, especially at the 14-goal level," U.S. player Billy Sheldon of Vista said during the week. "We all have gotten the opportunities to feel like stars for a couple of weeks."

Changes in the U.S. lineup helped the team advance to Friday's semifinals, where the Americans lost to undefeated Argentina. As the host country, however, the U.S. received the most fan support during games and even appeared on a local morning news show. All the American players were magnets for autograph-seekers.

Since its organization in 1983, the FIP has maintained as one of its primary goals the return of polo to the Olympics. The sport was last played in the Games in 1936, when Argentina won the gold in Berlin.

According to Patrick Nesbitt, president of USA International Polo Championship Inc., FIP's goal is to get polo back in the Olympics in 2008.

"With the formation of the Federation of International Polo, we now have the organization," Nesbitt said. "We still have some obstacles to overcome. We must play the sport in 70 countries. We currently only play [polo] in about 60 countries. But we're growing."

In the world championships, the host country provides horses. More than 160 horses were donated for this tournament by polo players all over the U.S. The horses were evaluated and put into groups of equal ability before they were chosen at random by each team.

The fan-friendly tournament, played amid cooling ocean breezes, began with a benefit at the House of Blues, where spectators, players and celebrities were entertained by Nancy Sinatra. After each day's matches, players mingled with the fans, discussing the day's play and their hopes that the sport continues to grow on the world sports scene.

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