LONDON (AP) — Underneath the surface, water polo isn't nearly as civilized as it might seem.
There's a kick here, a punch there, and maybe even a bit of scratching and biting when medals are on the line. Simply put, what happens under the water — hidden from the referees' eyes — may not always be within the rules.
Dirty tactics and cheap tricks are relatively common in the sport — and the players at the London Olympics wouldn't have it any other way.
"Viewers only see a quarter of what goes on but that's part of the game, that's why you love it, you love getting a bit rough, a little dirty out there. If you don't enjoy it you shouldn't be playing this sport," said Holly Lincoln-Smith, who plays center forward for Australia's women's team. "You get out and compare broken fingers, noses, bruises. You learn to love it."
Water polo has long been known for its violent streak. Its most famous game, a grudge match between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Olympics, is known simply as "Blood in the Water."
There hasn't been much bloodshed at the London Games, but play has certainly been physical.
"Here it's been tough, the referees have let a lot of calls go. But you're ready for that, at the world championships it's much worse," Spain women's center forward Maica Garcia said. "These are the games so people even bite because the medal is at stake. They'll do anything for it."
Lincoln-Smith proudly displayed a "munted" pinkie finger that changes shape three times. Hungary center back Orsolya Takacs could only talk for a short moment after a game because she had to put ice over an eye. Officials make sure players' nails are filed down — scratching with fingers and toes is one of the most common dirty techniques — but players still leave the pool covered in bruises, scratches and welts, and sometimes the swimsuits are in tatters.
"If you punch someone, someone punches you," said Niksa Dobud, a center forward for Croatia's men's team. "So we try to play normally without punches."
Has he ever punched an opponent?
"Yes, of course," Dobud said. "It's water polo."
The nature of the game invites physical play, even though players aren't allowed to push or hold an opponent unless he has possession of the ball. Since referees have a hard time seeing everything that happens under the water, players sometimes try to get away with as much as possible. Continued...