Somewhen around last Christmas, I was informed that the newest sponsoring activity by a watch brand would be the support of the World Elephant Polo Championship. I would have thought of a joke, had the brand in question not been Ulysse Nardin, and the person informing me Rolf Schnyder, the company's president. Those two, the president and his company, are generally infamous to do what others don't. Consequently, instead of planes, cars or sailing yachts, UN decided to sponsor a virtually unknown sport, which barely one of us will be lucky enough to watch in person. Elephant polo is the spectacular proff that these grey giants, which seemingly are so portly and heavy, can be astonishingly quick and light-footed.
It is a principle of mine never to quote the press releases of the watch companies in my articles, since they normally are but advertising material, prepared by the company's public relations staff. Instead, I want to present my own thoughts and more info. However, this time, I'd ask you to apologize me for making an exception. The press text, UN provided on the elephant polo sponsoring is so well laid out and full of information, that it would be stupid to replace a good text with my own clueless one, especially since I do not know the least on elephant polo (these wonderful animal are a bit rare here in Austria!). Therefore, please Allow me to quote what UN writes about its most recent public relations activity:
"Ulysse Nardins sponsorship of the World Elephant Polo Championship is a street savvy move. Though different, unique and unexpected (the same superlatives often used to describe Ulysse Nardin itself), elephant polo is not controversial or gimmicky. Though few have a chance of seeing a live contest. It does have universal appeal and is certainly visually arresting and dramatic. Throughout history, elephants have been used to great, theatrical effect. Hannibal crossed the Alps on them. Nadir Shah had his princely gifts for Empress Elizabeth of Russia delivered on elephants. It took his entourage two years to reach St. Petersburg from Delhi but the commotion and admiration they received was worth the time and effort. And lately, who can forget the sight of the oliphants engaged in battle in the Return of the King?
The World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) was formed in 1982 at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in the Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal, by James Manclark, a Scottish landowner and former Olympic tobogganer and AV Jim Edwards, proprietor of Tiger Tops. Ironically, the idea originated, not in some steamy rainforest but over a drink at the Cresta Run Bar, in faraway, snow-clad St. Moritz, Switzerland.
The originators of elephant polo are lost in the mists of time but records show elephant polo was already being played at the turn of the 20th century by members of the British aristocracy. India was under British rule and doubtless elephant polo was a pleasant diversion for the British Raja and the local maharajas.
In mountainous Nepal, elephant polo had always been played on a grass airfield in Meghauly, located 180 meters above sea level on the fringe of Royal Chitwan National Park, where on a clear day you enjoy a breathtaking view of the Himalayas, the worlds highest snowcapped 8000+ meters peaks.
Initially there were no proper organization or authorization body. Games were played on an irregular, adhoc basis. Manclark and Edwards decided to formalize the rules and regulations, set up a committee and administer the games just like any other sport. WEPA became the first and most authoritative body to organize and sanction the ever increasing elephant polo tournaments in Asia.
The first games were played using a soccer ball. This modus operandi had to be drastically modified as the playful pachyderms had a penchant for stamping and smashing the balls! The polo sticks are made of bamboo and attached to a standard polo mallet at the end. The length of the stick depends on the size of the elephant anywhere from 6 to 9 feet. Players simply choose accordingly their preferred size.
Elephant polo is similar to horse polo but with various amendments to accommodate the differences between equine and pachyderm. The pitch is ¾ due to the slower speed of elephants. It is also a penalty for a defending elephant to sit in front of the goal line as obviously its huge bulk would make scoring, well, an elephantine task. For safety, players are harnessed by ropes across their thighs and secured by rope stirrups. The game is momentarily stopped if a players harness comes loose and there is a danger of falling off. Like horse polo, elephant polo is not the worlds safest sport compared to table tennis or badminton. However, throughout WEPAs 22 year history, only a few players have fallen off their elephants.
In horse polo, the players control their horses but in this case, the mahout or trainer is in complete control of the beast. A polo horse can be mounted by any player but an elephant accepts orders only from its mahout and no one else. Each mahout has trained or worked with his elephant for at least a few years which responds quickly to the verbal commands and signals. The mahouts communicate with the elephants by shouting or applying pressure to the back of the elephants ears using their feet. Each game is played with four a side and consists of two 10-minute chukkas of playing time.
As player and mahout are the only two allowed on each elephant, coordination is paramount. The player has to direct and communicate with his mahout quickly regarding where to go, how fast and when to stop or turn. Most mahouts and certainly all the elephants understand only Nepali so communication can be erratic or reduced to sign language or hand signals. Professional players tend to know some basic Nepalese for extra advantage.
The WEPA Tournament continues to be held each year in December in Meghauly and hosted by Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge. It is an invitational tournament and includes teams from all over Asia. The reigning champion is the Tiger Tops Tuskers from Nepal following their success in the finals on December 2003 in the 22nd World Elephant Polo Association Games. First runner up was Thai Anantara Resorts while defending champion National Parks from Nepal managed third place."
Thanks, Rolf Schnyder and Ulysse Nardin, for supporting such a niche genre, and educating us about that little known sport!