Polo, With a Big Difference

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 10, 2006

CHIANG SAEN, Thailand -- During America's debut in the extra-wide world of elephant polo last week, frustrated U.S. captain Kimberly Zenz nearly screamed herself hoarse.

The prime pachyderms toting the rival Italians were dominating the opening match, while Thong Kao-- Zenz's languid charger -- seemed more interested in turning the grassy polo field into an afternoon snack. But as the ball skidded dangerously close to the Italian goal posts, something suddenly seemed to stir from deep inside Thong Kao. She hurled her three-ton bulk toward that ball like Barbaro on steroids.

From the sidelines, international playboys almost choked on their gin and tonics. British aristocrats looked up from their Rolexes, cocking eyebrows with bemusement. For a moment at the King's Cup Elephant Polo Championship -- one of the circuit's Big Three -- it seemed the upstart Yanks from the Washington area might finally charge onto the scoreboard.

Then something really did stir from deep inside Thong Kao. She let rip a hail of dung that left the pursuing Italians dodging for cover.

And just as Zenz yanked back her mallet, Thong Kao accidentally stepped on the polo ball, squashing it into the ground and suspending play. It marked the first of many lessons for a team of rookie Americans who came to the emerald hills of the Golden Triangle this week for a crash course in one of the world's most surreal sports.

Lesson No. 1: You are only as good as your elephant.

For a game thought up in a bar by two wealthy Brits vacationing in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in the 1980s, the competitive nature of the elephant polo circuit can be quite sobering.

In a colonial atmosphere recalling the savage gentility of the British Raj, the sport has evolved over the years into a gathering where the idle rich face down extreme sportsmen and novice adventurers vie against the downright crazy. Three times a year -- in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nepal -- the prize is bragging rights and a fine bronze trophy.

This year, the Capitol Pachyderms -- three women and two men ages 25 to 30 -- made their entrance into this exclusive old boys' club like the perky Reese Witherspoon in "Legally Blonde" strolling into stodgy Harvard.

Though a brainy bunch speaking 11 languages among them, none of the Americans had ever played elephant polo. They do, however, share an intense sense of competition, not to mention high-speed Internet access -- which explains how they discovered the sport (and one another) and traveled across the world to hit an orb a bit bigger than a baseball while sitting on top of an elephant.

Over the course of the seven-day tournament that ends Sunday, rigorous debates ensued over rules. Strategies were jealously guarded. It is ostensibly all about having a bit of fun, of course. And so it is, as long as you win.

"After all, this is also about national pride," quipped David Wildridge, an Oxford-based airline pilot playing on one of two teams from Britain. "This year, we finally have the Americans coming, and from Washington, no less. They shall be like lambs to the slaughter."

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