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Museum Musings: Swapping horses for bikes

'While bike polo is not overwhelmingly popular in the area today, in 1989 there were mountain bike polo championships held in Whistler.'
Eric Crowe (left) and Jim Warren fight for control of the ball during a mountain bike polo game at Myrtle Philip School.

There are many competitions and races that take place during Crankworx, which is back in Whistler for the end of July, however, one bike-related event that you’re unlikely to come across is mountain bike polo. While bike polo is not overwhelmingly popular in the area today, in 1989 there were mountain bike polo championships held in Whistler.

Although the horses are replaced by bikes, bike polo is similar to the traditional sport of polo, in which the aim is to drive a ball through the goal of the opposing team using mallets. Traditionally, bike polo is played on grass courts, but over time hardcourt bike polo has become more popular. Though the rules vary depending on where the game is played, it appears to be consistent that players must hold the mallet in the right hand and their handlebar in their left and have no parts of their body touching the ground in order to touch the ball or attack an opponent.

The Whistler Question provided two different accounts of how the sport began: in the June 16, 1988 edition, it claimed that the sport was invented in 1987 at a mountain bike competition in Colorado; in the August 3, 1989 edition, the Question reported that a group of windsurfers from Quebec created the sport when there was no wind and they came across some friends playing croquet.

The more widely accepted history of bike or cycle polo is that it was adapted by a retired cyclist named Richard J. Mecredy in Ireland in 1891. It was a demonstration sport at the 1908 Olympics in London, and saw a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s.

Mountain bike polo came to Whistler in the summer of 1988. Games were played on Sunday evenings at Myrtle Philip School (then still located in Whistler Village) and there were plans to form a local league. That first summer must have gone well, because they were still playing in 1989 and even had plans to host a championship tournament.

The “World Mountain Bike Polo Championships” came to Whistler from Aug. 17 to 20, 1989, coinciding with Labatt’s Can-Am Challenge held on Blackcomb Mountain. There was some controversy between the organizers from Quebec, who wanted to hold the matches on a gravel field at the bottom of the Wizard Chair, and the local players, who preferred the grass at Myrtle Philip School where they had been playing each Sunday. The local players won out, and eight teams competed for the top spot on the school field. Though most of the teams came from Canada and the U.S., there was reportedly one team from Australia, kind of—it was made up of Australians who were living in Whistler.

In the end, Whistler’s Mountain Mutants placed first, winning various prizes including a mountain bike, a pair of television sets, answering machines and, of course, Polo-Ralph Lauren gift certificates. According to Neil Collins of the Mountain Mutants, “Everyone had fun, but it was pretty competitive; we trashed a fair number of wheels, bikes and bodies.”

Bike polo is still played in cities around the world today, though its popularity waned again after its 1980s surge. There are currently (as far as we are aware) no mountain bike polo teams in Whistler, and it seems unlikely that it will be featured in Crankworx anytime soon.