New York Times, December 30, 2001
Getting caught with too many men on the ice in hockey is embarrassing. But don't get caught with too many elephants on the pitch, either. That's a foul in elephant polo.
Every December since 1982, the World Elephant Polo Association has held its championship tournament on the polo field adjacent to Meghauly airport on the edge of Royal Chitwan National Park in Chitwan, Nepal.
The Tigresses USA, from left, Laurie Jones,
Hattie Broadhead, Celia Temple and
Margie MacDougal, played for the U.S.
in the elephant polo tournament.
Photo: Charlie Varley/varleypix.com
This year Chivas Regal, a team representing Scotland, beat the Tigresses, a United States club which became the first all-women's team to make it to the finals in the 20-year history of the tournament.
"Elephant polo is a remarkably fast game," said Tigresses goalie Laurie Jones, a 46-year-old lawyer from Bremerton, Wash. "Elephants move faster than you'd think. The only time the game is slowed down is when the elephants are caught in a muddle, so it's important to space yourself across the field."
"The easiest thing for a goalie would be to have the elephant lie down in front of the goal, but somebody actually tried that during a game and they disallowed that," Jones said.
The rules are constantly evolving, and the elephants, it seems, are constantly testing them: picking up the ball with the trunk is a foul, but unintentionally kicking a ball into the goal is allowed. And crushing the ball — initially, soccer balls were used in the game — necessitated the change to the standard polo ball now in use.
Jones believes that the elephants know that the ball is the object of the game. "They know they are chasing the ball and try to help out by trying to get the ball down the pitch," he said. "I think it's fair to say that elephant polo has become part of their culture."
Perhaps a more agreeable part of their culture are the treats of sugar cane or rice balls packed with vitamins (molasses and rock salt) that the elephants receive at the end of each match.
In many ways, elephant polo is a lot like horse polo. It is played on a marked field, 120 meters by 70 meters. A team consists of four elephants, matched to their opponents in size and speed, and four players. The players' sticks are made of bamboo and have a standard polo mallet affixed to the end. The length of the stick depends on the size of the elephant. Sticks range from 5 to 12 feet long. The umpire oversees the play from a wooden howdah (seat) on the back of his elephant that is, as one might suspect, the largest elephant.
Unlike horse polo, each elephant also carries a mahout, or driver, as well as the player. The mahout directs the elephant using his voice, hands, feet or a goad. "In order to play good elephant polo, the elephant, mahout and player have to be of one mind," said Raj Kalaan, a player with Chivas Regal.
Finding the one mind can be a challenge, Jones said, since most of the mahouts don't speak English. "I've learned to communicate by pointing," she said, "and with a few words: Go, stop, right, left, stop, slow."
The goalie usually plays on a bigger elephant, Jones says, and timing is critical in defending offensive strikes by players on smaller, faster elephants. "Big elephants can't turn around fast, so if you miss one shot at the ball you don't get a second chance," Jones said. "The goalie elephant needs to charge and intimidate the offensive elephant at just the right time in order to give the goalie the best opportunity to take the ball away."
Members of The Tigresses are Margie McDougal, 46, the center and the team captain who is a social worker and homemaker and lives in Katmandu; Celia Temple, 40, on offense, a doctor in Edinburgh, Scotland; Hattie Broadhead, 21, a student in England when she is not playing defense; and Jones, who has been the team's goalie for four years.
In the past, the team was called the International Tigresses and represented the world in the tournament. But this year, no team from the United States was entered and the Tigresses decided to play for America to show respect for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and to support the United States' efforts to fight the terrorists. "It didn't seem right to not have an American team this year," Jones said.