Trying to find out about polo, the Sport of Kings, in Asia and China, is not as simple as you might think. Google “polo” and up comes, in no particular order: Ralph Lauren - fashion, not fields: polo shirts - clothing again: snow polo, elephant polo, polo pony and water polo. Very confusing.
But newspaper headlines last year heralded: “Polo power: China's nouveau riche flock to playing fields.” We read that: “Polo enjoys resurgence across Beijing and Shanghai as rich and powerful revel in opportunity to flash their cash.”
But a search for polo tournaments in China, 2013, throws up only a handful of tournaments. One is the snow polo in Tianjin. Correct me if I’m wrong, but where are all these splendid new polo events? Northern China in sub-zero temperatures in January may be novel, but does not sound like a high society show-off opportunity. Elephant polo in some remote place in India would be entertaining, but again, not exactly accessible. Both sound a bit short on sundresses and designer sunglasses, champagne and VIP tents garnished with hunky Argentinian players. Because, as everyone knows, Argentinians are to polo what Serbians are to tennis.
More searching throws up four polo clubs, two in Beijing and one each in Shanghai and Tianjin. The Sunny Times Polo Club, near the Great Wall, is a two-hour drive from Beijing. British newspaper The Guardian reported last year that visitors rolled up in a fleet of Jaguars and Range Rovers for British Polo Day, a series of weekend jaunts designed to push polo as a soft-power tool. "Polo is exploding in China," Ben Vestey, managing director of British Polo Day, the newspaper reported. "China is very much on the radar in a way that it wasn't two years ago."
Granted, it started off a low base, but even tiny Switzerland manages six tournaments in 2013. Apart from the Tang Polo Club in Bejing, which has three listed events this year: The Royal Salute Gold Cup China International Polo Open, The Tang Polo Cup and The Cartier China International Challenge, I can find only two other events, both in Tianjin: the winter snow polo and the Tianjin Maserati Metropolitan Polo Classic.
Genghis Khan Invented Polo
Polo is not new to China. It was once a Tang dynasty (AD618-906) sport, but died out. It dates back to Genghis Khan, who was partial to a rather more violent form of the game in Mongolia. Now it’s altogether more genteel. Xia Yang, founder of Sunny Times, told the Guardian he welcomes the resurgence. "Polo started in China, so I wanted to open the gate for Chinese polo," said Xia, a property developer. This sounds like the latest version of exclusive golf club-with-upmarket-housing tacked on.
But polo is much more expensive and exclusive than golf. For one thing, you need to be rich enough to be a “patron” and own and finance a whole team, with players, ponies and grooms, or be rich and able to ride a horse extremely well and fund your string of polo ponies and grooms and have excess time to keep fit, play and party. In places like Argentina, America and England polo really is the preserved of the super-rich. There’s a lot more outlay than a bag of clubs and a pair of bad-taste trousers.
"In the west, polo is said to be an aristocrat's sport," Xia said. "We don't have aristocrats in China, but we do have a lot of people who have got very rich very quickly. I want to encourage them to behave like gentlemen, and playing polo is part of that." The Tianjin Golding Metropolitan polo club held the inaugural Fortune Heights Super Nations Cup 2012. Professional teams from Hong Kong China, the US, England, Argentina and South Africa took part in a tournament hosted by the Federation of International Polo and the Tianjin Sports Bureau.
Their website shows it to be a palatial neo-classical facility. According to the Guardian, membership at the Metropolitan, which opened in 2010, starts at 380,000 renminbi, rising to 1.18m renminbi for the ownership of a polo team.
Facilities include a five-star hotel, 14 restaurants, bars, and lounges, a spa, and air-conditioned stables for imported horses tended to by expat grooms. But after the flurry of excitement last year, evidence of continued growth in mainland polo enthusiasm seems somewhat lacking. Is it just a fad for the super-rich to flaunt their wealth, or a canny play by property developers to window-dress high-end housing schemes?
Golf, red wine and Ferraris might be a safer bet if you’re banking on status symbols for China’s fun-loving newly wealthy.