Revival of the Sport Of Kings
When the 2017 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games are held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this month, polo, one of the oldest team sports in the world, will return to the playing field after a 10-year absence.
The last time polo was played at the SEA Games in 2007, Satinder Garcha captained the Singapore team to a silver medal. This year he is poised to lead the seven-player side to do one better and hopefully clinch a gold.
Polo has a glamorous history and reputation for being the sport of kings, but in reality, it is a fast, physical and high adrenalin sport. As it is not normally played in international games, participating in this year’s SEA Games is a unique prospect for Garcha and his teammates.
“Playing polo on a national level is a rare opportunity that doesn’t happen often. It’s fantastic that we have [a chance] to battle it out for gold,” says Garcha, who is also and entrepreneur and the president of the Singapore Polo Club.
With the addition of Argentinian polo legend Hector Julio Crotto as their coach since May, and the backing of major sponsor Prudential, Garcha believes that the national team has a massive advantage compared to the last SEA Games.
“I think the biggest difference is that we are a lot more organised and structured in our approach this time around,” he observes.
“It’s an absolute honour to represent your country in any capacity, let alone as a captain of the team. The SEA Games is a terrific platform for more people around the region to watch the world’s oldest sport.”
The sports contested at each SEA Games are determined by the host nation. Malaysia’s decision to include polo this year is influenced by the rich history of the sport in the royal families of Johor and Pahang. The country is also the reigning gold medal winner and the team to beat.
To that end, the Singapore team has been training almost every day for the biennial games since May, as well as playing four times a week at the Singapore Polo Club.
New coach Juni, as he is affectionately known, has a “remarkable polo pedigree” and brings over 40 years of experience, galvanising the team with his holistic approach to coaching.
“He’s played in Asia quite a lot, especially in Brunei and Malaysia, so he knows the region and feels the conditions,” explains Garcha.
Members of the national team also play on the polo circuit for three to four months each year, getting international exposure and experience. Garcha himself has played at the highest level of the sport in Argentina, which is renowned for the world’s best polo players and horses.
“My relative success playing polo in Argentina has contributed a lot to the national team,” he remarks.
Although he didn’t start playing polo until his 30s, Garcha’s drive for the sport came from his father who captained the India team and was part of the cavalry. “I’ve had the privilege of watching my dad play all over the world ever since I was a kid,” he says.
Consistent with its inclusion in Kuala Lumpur 2017, polo is seeing a revival in Southeast Asia, with a growing number of active clubs in the region.
The Sultan of Brunei’s daughter, Princess Azemah Ni'matul Bolkiah, and the Malaysian Youth and Sports Minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, will both play it in the SEA Games.
“I certainly feel a renewed interest, particularly with high profile individuals participating,” says Garcha. “We can also see that each of the SEA Games teams have invested a lot of time and money training their respective teams.”
As team captain, Garcha is working with sponsors to raise the profile of the sport and generate greater interest within the wider community.
The Youth Polo initiative has up to thirty kids participating every week, and the club recently hosted the Sentebale Royal Salute Polo Cup, with England’s Prince Harry playing in the prestigious charity match.
“We are expanding our international network and have had a record number of sponsorships and support from our partners, which goes to show the value they see in what we’re doing,” says Garcha. “It feels great that polo is making a comeback.”
The polo competition at the 2017 SEA Games will take place at Equestrian Park Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur from 22-29 August.