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This is a sentence I thought I’d never write: The Olympic event I’m most looking forward to is the men’s water polo competition.

Covering the FINA Men’s World League finals in Long Beach, Calif., in July exposed me to a sport I had only passing interest in before. In my first taste of elite-level water polo, I was amazed at the skill and athleticism of these athletes. As someone who can barely tread water, watching these guys from six countries swim, pass, shoot and play defense was impressive. Under the water, there was more contact, pulling, grabbing and pushing than under the basket at an NBA game or a circuit party; these guys really go after each other, which is why they all wear double Speedos.

They were also amazing out of the pool. Each team had its own warm-up robes, which put any terry-cloth bathrobes to shame. The Hungarians wore bright red, the Greeks in white and the Serbs in red, white and blue. But the classiest were, of course, the Italians. With their impeccably designed royal blue robes, open to expose well-developed bronze chests, the Italians looked like they’d be equally at home strolling down the catwalk in Milan.

Most impressive in the pool in Long Beach was Hungary, and with good reason. The Hungarians are the New York Yankees of the water polo world, winners of seven Olympic golds and the favorite in Athens. As one USA water polo rep told me, Hungarians come out of the womb with their arm cocked back, ready to shoot. Even my untrained eye could tell they were the class of the event, and it was no surprise when they beat Serbia and Montenegro to win the world final and the $100,000 prize. And it was cool afterwards to see the winning players hugging and kissing each other. I know it's a European thing and not gay, but it's always nice to see men comfortable enough to show affection to each other.

The Olympics featured 12 men’s teams and eight women’s. The U.S. men are among the Top in the world, but will struggle to win a medal. The American women, though, are a gold medal favorite, with their biggest competition coming from Hungary and Russia. With NBC spreading its coverage over several networks, water polo should get a lot of exposure.

Covering one tournament automatically makes me an expert, so here are my men’s picks: Gold—Hungary; Silver—Greece; Bronze—Serbia and Montenegro.

I hope these terrific images by Brent Mullins give you a sense of the action that makes the sport so compelling to watch. Enjoy!

Photos by Brent Mullins
Copyright 2004 / Outsports.com