Once again, for example, the American game is in distinct contrast with the European style. No, we didn't let the air out of the ball again. Quite the opposite. The American style has evolved from crude grappling to a wide-open game of speed, stamina and finesse.
American prospects also are improved by several important rule changes, all designed to speed up the game. But ironically, just when so many developments are enhancing the American outlook, water polo itself is facing a crisis of existence in the one event that is the raison d'être for every player—the Olympic Games. The crisis stems from the way the game is refereed, and it was exacerbated by the fiasco in the 1968 Games, where the rough grab-and-hold tactics of teams like Russia resulted in 80% of the goals being scored on penalty shots. This has somewhat less spectator appeal than watching the Knicks and Lakers stage a free-throw contest for the NBA championship.
So it was only natural that, during the final game, when Russia and Yugoslavia staged a typically brutal—thus slow, thus dull—contest, all but 1,000 spectators walked out.
It was this walkout that apparently jarred the European hierarchy into adopting the American-advocated rules. But only time will tell if the new rules really solve anything, because in water polo the referee himself continues to have enormous discretionary power, probably more so than in any other sport.
Even worse, some nations seem to regard their referees as political emissaries. Art Lambert was shocked when, as the 1968 U.S. coach, he was asked by an Italian team official to arrange for American Olympic Referee John Felix to call few fouls in Italy's next game so Italy could build its goal average. In return the U.S. would get a good game from the next Italian referee.
Hoping to encourage acceptance of the new rules among European referees, Robert Helmick, the chairman of the U.S. Olympic and AAU Water Polo Committee, invited the president of the International Water Polo Referees Association, Alphonse Angella, to be a guest at the AAU meet. If he was impressed by the faster game, Monsieur Angella managed to contain himself.
"Yes," he said, "the faster game would mean an advantage for the Americans. But also they must improve their tactics."
Is the United States now on a level with the best European teams?