Deep and meaningful

Underwater hockey

If you play a sport in a new environment, that doesn’t necessarily make it a new sport. Tennis on clay courts, for instance, is not fundamentally unlike tennis on grass. But there’s a vast difference between regular hockey and hockey played under water.

Octopush, as the latter is also known, is possibly unique among sports in that players, while actively involved, can’t breathe.

It was invented in 1954 in Southsea, on the English coast, by scuba divers who were unable, at that time, to dive in chilly British waters during winter.

Tired of swimming laps at the local pool, they improvised a game of hockey using a lead weight from a diving belt as the puck. For sticks they used snorkels; for goals, shallow troughs at either end of the pool’s bottom.

John Bevan, who joined the Southsea club in the 1960s and still plays regularly, remembers the lead weights damaging tiles, to the great displeasure of pool owners. “There was a lot of complaining,” he reports. And some talk of banning the game until, about 10 years ago, somebody devised a sturdy plastic cover for the puck.

It would be hard to determine when octopush ceased to be merely an eccentric way to pass the time – like, say, underwater go-karting, which you can do in Wisconsin – and graduated to full sport status. Some might argue that it has yet to achieve that. Octopush does not figure in the Olympics. Even in the country that invented the game, it is overlooked: the British Octopush Association (BOA) receives none of the Pounds 250,000 distributed by Sport England towards underwater sports. (Nor does the word “Octopush” bring up any results in a search of the agency’s website.) After nearly half a century, octopush remains without doubt a minority pastime. But does that make it less worthwhile than other sports?

Not to the few thousand, worldwide, who play it. The BOA, whose team won the youth title in July’s world championships, in Calgary, claims a total of 1,000 members. Australia, which won the men’s and women’s competitions, has just 450 registered players. Similarly low figures apply to the 15 other countries that took part, including Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.

With a game as little-known as octopush, Bert Dolan – a software consultant from Denver, Colorado, who represented the US at the previous world championships – might reasonably have worried that moving to the UK earlier this summer would put an end to his favoured leisure-time activity. Thanks to the internet, that didn’t happen. In Denver, he keyed a few words into a search engine and found a website specifically designed for “underwater hockey tourists” such as himself. “Away from home?” it enquired. “Deprived of your usual Octopush session, and wondering what lies outside these hotel walls?” Further down the page, Dolan found a chart listing all the clubs in the UK by region. Of those, the nearest to his new office in south-west London was the club at Putney. (Other pages gave details of clubs across Europe, the US and the rest of the world.) Arriving in the UK, Dolan sought out the Putney club and got himself a game.

And it’s to Putney that the Financial Times has come, at the BOA’s invitation, for an insight into the bizarre sport. Necessarily, this involves getting into the water, since all that can be seen from above is a shadowy scrum: like a shark frenzy, only with less blood.

At a signal from the referee, the players lining each end of the Putney pool suck a mighty breath through their snorkels and dive below the surface. They kick towards the halfway line, where the puck lies, thrusting before them sticks shaped like daggers. It’s a sight at once comic and terrifying. Players wear thick rubber gloves, hats for ear protection, fins, and masks that cause their eyes to boggle – particularly when they reach a depth of 12ft 6in, where the puck lies. Just getting near the puck on one breath is hard. Staying down for long enough to do something useful – snaking towards the far end of the pool, or curling round the puck to protect it from opponents – is harder still. In this game, breathing has a uniquely powerful impact on tactics. It’s considered unwise, for instance, for a whole team to dive to the bottom at once, because that will require them to surface together, in turn allowing the other team to score.

Equally unusual, notes Dolan, is this: in other sports, players move backwards and forwards, left and right; in octopush, additionally, they move up and down. A recent marketing campaign contended that octopush is the closest you can get to Quiddich, the game Harry Potter and his friends play on broomsticks.

In lighter moments, octopush players dream of a future in which games are televised and sponsorship is lavish. Most know this is only a dream. Tim Arnold, chairman of the BOA and himself a broadcaster, says: “I know this could be a good game for TV. But it will need a lot of investment.” For a start, there’s the problem with spectators. Watching from above the water, as I found, is useless. And putting games on screen poses huge logistical difficulties. Where to place the cameras? Do you build pools with glass walls? Eryl Adams, who played for Great Britain in the world championships, hints at these problems when he speaks of the official video tapes he bought in order to watch the games afterwards. “The quality was terrible.”

More important, for now, is to build up the game by attracting new players. For the Australians, with both the men’s and women’s titles, that should be easy. For South Africa and the US, which won the women’s over-35s and the men’s over-35s, respectively, it shouldn’t be too hard. Will the British convince the authorities to invest in octopush on the strength of their youth title – the first British gold in 50 years? Arnold, for one, thinks they will. But if that’s to happen, let’s hope nobody mentions that the number of countries that contested the youth title was, er, three.

1032 words. First published 7 September 02. © The Financial Times