Olympic Water Polo Rules

A group of men play water polo

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At the international and Olympic level, water polo is governed by FINA (Federation Internationale de Natation). They also govern swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, and masters swimming. The detailed water polo rules for all aspects of the competition are available through the FINA website.

The Team

Water polo is played as a 6 on 6 game plus goalkeepers, so each team has 7 in the water at a time. How long is a game? Each water polo game is made up of four, 7-minute, quarters. Total squad size is 13 players. If there are less than 6 swimmers in the water, a team does not have to have a goalie. Substitutions may be made at any time during a game (like hockey) but the players must make the exchange in a specific area behind their own goal line, called the re-entry area.

The Game

The game starts with all players lined up at their own goal line. The referee blows a whistle and throws the ball into play at mid-pool. The swimmers sprint to their positions, with some players from each team swimming to get possession of the ball.

Players try to throw the ball into a goal. No one except the goalie may touch the ball with more than one hand at a time. The ball is not to be totally submerged at any time.

Swimmers either pass the ball to other teammates, swim with the ball bouncing and floating between their arms as they move forward (sort of like dribbling a basketball), or take a shot at the goal to score a point. There is a 35-second shot clock; a shot must be taken before time expires or ball possession changes.


A goal is when the ball completely crosses the goal line, an imaginary surface across the front of the goal. The ball could go part-way in and be pulled out by the goalie and would not be scored. The team scoring the most goals at the end of regulation time is the winner. If there is a tie at the end of regulation time:

  1. There are two overtime periods, each three minutes long, with the team scoring the most goals declared the winner.
  2. If there is still a tie after overtime, then a shoot-out is held. Five players from each team shoot for the goal.
  3. If there is still a tie, then the same 5 shoot again until one misses and the other scores a goal.

Minor Fouls

All fouls result in a change in possession of the ball or a penalty shot if it occurred within a zone 5-meters from the goal. There are minor fouls (one whistle blast from the referee) which result in just a change in possession. When possession changes, the offense gets a free throw from the spot of the foul, an unhindered chance to pass the ball to another player within about 3-seconds.

  • Pushing the ball underwater (even if you are forced to do so by a defensive player)
  • Touching the ball with both hands
  • Coming into contact with the arm of a player that has the ball
  • Hitting the ball with a fist
  • Throwing the ball out-of-bounds
  • Pushing of the poolside, pool bottom, or another player

Major Fouls

A major foul (two whistle blasts) results in the guilty player removal from the game for a 20-seconds, which creates unbalanced situations. Players getting more than two major fouls are out of the game.

  • Intentionally holding the player with the ball
  • Interfering with a free throw
  • Pushing another player underwater (called sinking the player)
  • Swearing
  • The player with the ball intentionally pushing another player (think "offensive foul" in basketball)

Brutal Fouls

There are also fouls (called "brutality" fouls) which result in a 4-minutes ejection for intentionally hitting or kicking someone; a player could also be ejected from the game, with the missing player replaced after 20-seconds.

  • Hitting another player
  • Kicking another player

The Pool

There are two floating goals, one secured at each end of the playing area. The goal usually has a flat front surface and is lined with a net. It is 3-meters wide and .9 meters high

The pool is deep enough (1.8 to 2 meters) to prevent swimmers from touching or pushing off of the bottom. The field of play is marked with lane ropes, swimmers are not permitted to touch or grab them in any way. They may not push off of them (or off of any wall) either. The pool is 30 meters long between the goals for men's games, 25-meters for women. The pool is 20 meters wide.

Swim Gear

Water polo players wear colored swim caps (that tie under their chin) to identify themselves to their teammates and to identify the goalie. The caps have special plastic cups over ear holes to protect the player's ears.

The players wear swimsuits—sometimes two suits. At the Olympic level, the suits are specifically designed for water polo, with a firm fit (extra fabric could be grabbed by an opposing player) and are somewhat slick to make it harder for an opposing player to hold the swimmer.

The floating ball is made of a special material that allows it to be gripped when wet. Different size balls are used for men and women.

The Officials

There are two referees, two goal judges, several timekeepers, and secretaries. Each has specific duties. The referees control the field of play and watch for fouls. The goal judges determine if a ball shot at the goal scores. The timekeepers and secretaries keep track of goals, game time, penalty time, the shot clock, number of penalties per player, and other game statistics.

Medaling in the Olympics

Teams must qualify for the Olympic games at qualifying tournaments. There are 12 men's teams and 8 women's team in the Olympic tournament.

The men's tournament starts with two, 6-team pools of round-robin play, with the top four teams from each of those advancing to quarterfinals. The quarterfinal winners move on to the medal rounds, with the winner taking the gold medal.

All 8 women's teams play each other in the first round. The top four teams then advance to semi-finals, with the winners advancing to the gold medal game.