Polo, a sport of princes and playboys, millionaires and maharajahs, is taking a more democratic turn in France -- maybe.
Baron Elie de Rothschild lost an eye playing polo when he got hit by a ball, a one-chance-in-a-million accident, but he has kept both his sense of humor ("I always knew that sport would cost me an eye") and his dedication to the sport.
As president of the Polo Union of France, he feels it is a matter of do or die for polo today.
"Unless we do something about it," he said from his bank's office framing Montmartre's Sacre Coeur church, "the sport will die. The problem with polo is that it's still associated with Rubirosa, Aly Khan and now Prince Charles. But all that is out. Already, the quality of polo has dropped because of lack of interest from the general public.
"It's not longer a question of wealth and prestige and a nice cup of tea in a 'My Fair Lady' setting. One has to stop this business of polo being confidential and elitist."
A rough, challenging, difficult and exciting sport, polo goes back to Persia and the eighth century, where it was played by tribes fighting over a yak-skin baloon or pulu.
The British Army picked it up in India from the maharajahs and introduced it to the Western world. In France, it has had its ups and downs, the ups coinciding with the golden, pre-World War II, pre-taxation era. One of the most noted downs was the folding of the French cavalry, which, with its easy access to horses, contributed a lot to the sport.
The baron hoped to attract the general public by opening the Polo of Bagatelle's games this summer.
"Mind you, we've always been open to the public," the baron said, "but let's face it, we didn't advertise it much."
So all that changed: There is a big sign on the road to Bagatelle advertising the game and a little man in a booth to collect the 10-franc fee. But the entrance is on the other side of the field, near the Surene bridge, and the public sits on wooden stands, right across from the pretty clubhouse with its tables and parasols. While the purists will tell you that the stand is a better spot to watch the game, it is still not as chic as the tea-party and let's-have-the-latest-gossip lawns that, despite the baron's arguments, is still half of the game's attraction.
A deeper way of getting people involved in polo is having more people playing it -- a feat which has been achieved in the United States, "where there is a polo revival, with 10,000 players as against 200 in France," the baron said. "All we have to do is follow their example, and most notably, that of my friend Bill Ylvisaker."
The turnaround apparently came with the introduction of paddock polo, a game played on a much smaller if less-manicured field. That means the horses get less tired (which cuts down their numbers from four to two per player per game) and that also cuts down on field upkeep, so that backyard polo can be played most everywhere.
"Already, there are improvements in France too," the baron said, "for a lot more people ride. We have 30 clubs and five teams that have played polo at La Courneuve," not exactly a chic area, located as it is in the Paris redbelt suburbs.
Young men playing polo in France have also learned to cut down on expenses by pooling their resources. The only polo lords left in France are Guy Wildenstein and promoter Robert de Balkany. The latter has not only his own team but his own polo field in front of his chateau near Paris.
Even if it becomes a popular game "it will never be as cheap as petanque" (a bowling game from the south of France), the baron said, "but it need not be more expensive than tennis or golf."
In the meantime, polo is still a long way off from the crowds that attend football games or the races. In May, for the season kickoff, the organizers made an effort not only by opening the games to the public but also by putting together a strong team, consisting of the best-players in Paris.
The sun was shining, and the field, surrounded with century-old trees (the club house datesback to 1895), was idyllic. Not enough, however, to have the common folk fighting to get in -- and the grand total of admissions came to 34. At that, a close look at the stands showed that, despite the no-cup-of-tea ambiance, those were quite substantial-looking people, including a group of teen-agers in very chic riding clothes.
On the club side, things have not changed much through the years. The crowd had a large percentage of distinguished, if slightly short-tempered, old men in custom-made blazers and signet rings who did not take too well to the number of toddlers. But the young men, in tweeds, narrow ties and cashmere seaters, all looked like President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's establishment sons, and the girls wore their tight-as-tight-can-be jeans with the latest Cartiers. As for the youngsters, they ran around with miniature mallets but never for a minute forgot their hand-kissing manners.
The talk consisted mainly of, what else, polo and polo players, including Prince Charles, who has played in Deauville (THE place for professional polo in France) and was not considered such a hot player, with a 3 handicap. "But then, people don't dare push him around too much," said one of the most rugged players.
The only faintly democratic note was when the announcer asked everybody to please go walk on the field and push the turf back into place. They all got up, on the chic side, slowly followed by the others from the non-chic stands. But even so, there was not much democratic mixing there, and it was very much each to his own turf.
Actually, an organizer explained that while they are opening polo to the public, they are not making its access very easy by having the nearest parking lot two miles away.
The only people who could be, and often are, interested, he said, come from the only camping ground in Paris, which happens to be just across the road.
"But they're not bums," he added.
"They come from all over the world to visit Paris, its beauties, its monuments. They're educated and some are quite wealthy. There's a lot of Bentleys and Jaguars around."
Democratic? Who said democratic?