It’s fair to say that polo, the sport of kings, is perceived to be one of the most elite sports in the world. However, is this image of polo truly accurate, or is it an outdated view that needs to be altered? To find out the answer to this I interviewed a second year Classics student, and member of the Oxford University Polo Club, Noel Newman.
OUPC is one of the largest clubs at Oxford, with usually over 100 members each year, of which 30-40 are regular players for the University. It is also one of the oldest clubs here, founded in 1874 and is a part of the second oldest polo match in the western world: the Oxford v Cambridge annual varsity match. If you are good enough to be one of the players in this match, you are awarded a half blue for representing Oxford. Throughout the rest of the year OUPC competes in many tournaments, as well as training 2-3 times a week and playing in weekly matches. Like any other university sport, they are a regular crewdating team and have multiple drinks socials throughout the year. So that’s OUPC in a snapshot, but I wanted to find out more about what makes it so special to its members…
So why did you take up polo?
“Before coming to Oxford I had never sat on a horse before and I decided when I saw polo at the OUSU freshers fair that it looked really fun and I wanted to take on the new challenge. I’d heard of polo and what it involved, but I knew nothing even about horses at this point. It just looked like a tremendous adrenaline rush and so I decided to take it up. From my very first session sitting on a horse and hitting a ball, all for the first time, I was completely hooked. From that moment I’ve loved every minute.”
What do you enjoy most about playing polo for OUPC?
“Playing polo is a unique experience and even better when you play for your university. It’s almost an indescribable feeling sitting on a wild animal going at 30mph, hitting a ball at 30mph, and knowing that there’s always an element of danger makes it very exciting. Your co-ordination has to be extremely good to balance not only the riding ability, but also the hitting ability. It really is an adrenaline rush like no other. People regularly fall off, people have even died playing the sport, and that sort of adds to the excitement of it all.”
Do you have any favourite memories from playing polo at Oxford?
I think one of my favourite memories of playing polo at Oxford, apart from when I first tried it and got on the horse for the first time, was when I first fell off. My first fall was at Nationals at the end of my first term. I’d only been riding for 6 weeks and therefore was meant to be in the beginner category, but one of the novices in the team above had been forced to drop out and they needed a beginner to fill in. I ended up playing with and against people way above my standard and just had to go for it. Inevitably, I ended up falling off, in front of all of my friends, family and the many spectators, but it was incredibly fun and just made me more addicted.”
Polo is something many of us have never had the luxury of being able to experience before. It seems to be a sport loved by all who play it, but one that many people feel it is almost impossible to get into. At the start of any sport the coaching is key to helping beginners learn the basic skills and develop into an experienced and talented player.
What is the coaching like at Oxford?
“The coaching at Oxford is very good. Our coach is David Ashby of the Oxford Polo School and due to the fact that the University does not have its own polo ponies, we use his polo ponies for practices and matches. He taught me how to ride a horse when I first started and how to hit the ball; he has been fantastic. He is equally as good with beginners and experienced players alike.”
The fact that polo has always been a sport that attracts interest from the wealthiest in society has put many people off it. This fact is changing however with more people getting into the sport from may different backgrounds. The fact that it does still attract the wealthy can open up opportunities to players that without polo they would never have been able to experience.
What kind of opportunities does it open up?
“OUPC gives you enormous opportunities, not only to play such a unique sport, but affords players once in a life time experiences they would never otherwise get. The greatest opportunity we have had over the last year was our all-expenses paid trip to Tianjin, China. This summer, and indeed the previous summer, OUPC was invited to Tianjin Metropolitan Polo Club, located around an hour outside Beijing, to play in a tournament with teams including Harvard, Yale, Stamford, Cambridge, Oxford itself and the University of London. We played a big tournament out there, stayed in an amazing hotel, got to know some fantastic people, and had an all-round incredible experience. I have so many wonderful memories from that trip, it really has increased my love of the sport even more.”
Was there any particular experience from the trip that jumps out at you?
“The experience in China was amazing not only from the perspective of just being there, but it was particularly interesting because mission statement of the club is that it is bringing nobility back to China. In a one-party Communist country we all found that remarkable. It also seemed to point to a wider political point that the Chinese elite were clearly dominating this club and that the wealth distribution in China is not as it is portrayed by the media. The reality of the people who control the wealth in China was very interesting to see. It was fascinating to see them take on polo, a sport that is not very big at all out there. This club has been set up and built with millions of pounds of investment going into it to try and establish polo as a sport in China.”
It appears that being a member of OUPC is not only incredibly fun and exciting, but provides a far greater experience than simply learning how to play the sport. The opportunity to travel and meet many different people from around the world, with your friends along side you, seems to me pretty cool. Before I finished the interview, I was intrigued to find out how polo, and specifically OUPC, can appeal to Oxford students who are thinking about getting involved…
How would you encourage fellow students at Oxford to take up polo with OUPC?
“Firstly, don’t be put off by polo’s elitist image. It does have a reputation for being ‘the sport of kings’ but if you ever take the time to speak to any member of OUPC, you will see they are extremely welcoming and friendly people. Secondly, we have a thriving social scene where you can meet so many great people outside of your college. I’ve met many of my good friends playing polo for OUPC. And finally, it’s tremendous amounts of fun; you can come along for a taster session at very little expense and have a go for yourself, and just see if you enjoy it. It’s a very difficult addiction to break once you’ve got the bug.”
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