Pak­istani polo fanciers live on a sep­a­rate play­ing field from rest of na­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By James Palmer

LA­HORE, Pak­istan — Eight hel­meted men in white rid­ing pants and leather boots gal­loped atop their well-groomed steeds to­ward the white ball as it bounced on a lush field.

One rider burst for­ward, wound back his mal­let and un­leashed a fu­ri­ous strike, driv­ing the ball be­tween black-and-white striped posts and bring­ing a round of well-man­nered ap­plause from the au­di­ence.

It was just an­other balmy Sun­day af­ter­noon at the La­hore Polo Club, but a world away from the vi­o­lence, ter­ror­ist bomb­ings and po­lit­i­cal tur­moil that have dom­i­nated head­lines from Pak­istan since the Sept. 11 sui­cide at­tacks in the U.S.

It also il­lus­trates Pak­istan’s sharp di­vide be­tween rich and poor. Most peo­ple in Pak­istan live on less than $2 a day.

The polo club in La­hore wel­comes play­ers of all ages, sexes and skill lev­els. Girls and women here are given an equal op­por­tu­nity to pur­sue the game.

“Women don’t usu­ally in­dulge in sport in Pak­istan, so it’s a unique sit­u­a­tion here,” said Nadia Khawaja, 18, af­ter play­ing a match.

It con­trasts with parts of the coun­try un­der Is­lamist in­flu­ence where girls are not al­lowed to at­tend school and women are not al­lowed out of the house un­less cov­ered from head to foot and ac­com­pa­nied by their fa­ther, hus­band or a brother.

Founded in 1886 by a Bri­tish mil­i­tary of­fi­cer, the club is one of the old­est in the world. De­spite the rise of vi­o­lent at­tacks and po­lit­i­cal ten­sion here, the sport con­tin­ues to flour­ish at the club.

“For me, polo is a lifestyle,” said Ahmed Mawaz Di­wana, 38, a vet­eran polo player and mem­ber of the club. “It’s an ad­dic­tion; I can’t let go of it.”

The La­hore Polo Club has 225 mem­bers, 75 who are ac­tive. A staff of more than 400 — in­clud­ing horse train­ers, groomers, groundskeep­ers, kitchen work­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors — keeps the club run­ning smoothly.

Al­though the an­nual mem­ber­ship fee is only 12,000 Pak­istani ru­pees — less than $200 — club Sec­re­tary Ir­fan Ali Hy­der said polo oth­er­wise is “a very ex­pen­sive sport.”

Mem­bers who play reg­u­larly must have at least four horses ready for ev­ery match. Lo­cally bred polo horses, which com­monly take a year to train, cost on av­er­age be­tween $5,000 and $10,000. Im­ports can run up to $50,000.

No one is cer­tain about the pre­cise ori­gins of polo, but his­to­ri­ans think the game ini­tially was played by no­mads in Cen­tral Asia be­fore its in­tro­duc­tion in Per­sia 2,500 years ago and later China.

Mughal dy­nasty founder Babar helped pop­u­lar­ize polo in In­dia dur­ing the 15th cen­tury, and the Cal­cutta Polo Club — the old­est ex­ist­ing polo club — was es­tab­lished in 1882.

To­day, polo is played in 80 coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to the Fed­er­a­tion of In­ter­na­tional Polo.

De­spite its glam­orous im­age, polo is of­ten a rough-and-tum­ble ven­ture, which is not sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing it was played by the likes of Alexan­der the Great and Genghis Khan.

In 1210, the ruler of me­dieval In­dia, Qu­tubud­din Aibak, was killed while play­ing polo on a field in La­hore.

“It’s a very dan­ger­ous sport, but it’s a big high with a fast horse,” said Mr. Di­wana, who was nurs­ing a bat­tered and ban­daged wrist from an in­jury sus­tained dur­ing a match last month.

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