There's No Polo at the Polo Field. But There Is at Dolores Park
Cliff Bargar wanted to know if there was polo played at the Golden Gate Park Polo Field. There's not, but there is bike polo played at Dolores Park. (Ryan Levi/KQED)
The Golden Gate Park Polo Field in San Francisco is probably best known as the home to music festivals like Outside Lands and massive concerts like those during the Summer of Love in 1967.
Bay Curious listener Cliff Bargar has been to many of those music festivals, which made him wonder if there was ever actual polo, with horses, played at its eponymous field.
"If polo was happening, I'd probably check it out at least once," he said.
Alas, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department said there hasn't been polo at the Polo Field in a very long time. Instead, it's mostly home to youth and adult soccer leagues and music festivals.
But fear not, polo fans. There is a thriving polo community in San Francisco. Cliff and I just had to go about 5 miles east to Dolores Park to find it.
We walked up a set of stairs from 18th Street between Dolores and Church streets, across the street from Mission High School. On our left were tennis courts. And on our right was a multi-use blue court that at that moment had six people riding around on their bikes and hitting a small ball with mallets.
This is bike polo.
The rule book is 17 pages long, but the basics are pretty simple: teams of three play against each other, and the first team to score five goals wins.
Matt Upmeyer started playing bike polo five years ago when he was a bike courier in San Francisco.
"I was going on a bike on my regular route, and I ended up finding bike polo just down in the Mission," Upmeyer said. "It looked interesting, so I stopped by, and not 30 seconds went by and they were like, 'Hey, come on try this out.' I was kind of addicted after that."
He said it was "scary as hell" at first, but he eventually got the hang of it.
The game looks more like hockey than it does horse polo. For instance, in horse polo, players aren't allowed to cut someone off who has the ball because it would be dangerous for both the rider and the horse. But that's fair game in bike polo.
The players even wear hockey or lacrosse gloves to protect their hands, in addition to other protective gear.
"Most of us have a real job that would not like us to break our fingers, so protecting your hands is probably the most important aspect of it," Upmeyer said.
Bike polo has its origins as a grass sport founded in Ireland in the late 19th century. In 1908, it was featured as an exhibition sport in the London Olympics.
Hardcourt bike polo, like what's played in Dolores Park, got its start in Seattle in the late 20th century and quickly spread. Today, it's played competitively all over the world, with the 2017 World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championship being played in Lexington, Kentucky, last October.
For Upmeyer's money, the court in Dolores Park is one of the best in North America. It was built in 2015 with sports like hardcourt bike polo in mind, and you can find pickup games here several nights a week.
"A lot of bike polo players are kind of renegade," he said, "so we're usually trying to steal a tennis court or a basketball court and it's hard to find time. Having this multi-use court here has been a huge help to the community."
When he's not playing on this court, Upmeyer said it's pretty easy to find a bike polo match to play in wherever you travel.
"You can find it online and say, 'Hey, I'm coming into Tokyo. When do you guys practice?' " Upmeyer said. "Or Seattle or New York City, Boston, Miami. Literally all over."
Sam Bell started playing in 2009 while she was studying in Australia and has since played all over the world. Last summer, she traveled around Europe playing bike polo, including a memorable stop in Lyon, France, where she played in a tournament for women and transgender players.
"It was a pain to get up this really steep hill [to the courts], but the view up there was beautiful," she said.
She said the community of bike polo players, both here and internationally, is one of the things she loves most about the sport.
"It's kind of like family," she said. "You give them a hard time, but it's all love and hanging out. [I've made] friendships with people that I'll hang out with for a long time."
So should we expect to see our question asker, Cliff Bargar, pedaling into a game any time soon?
"I find this a lot more interesting than horse polo, to be honest," he said, "[but] I'm not sure yet if I'll be back with my own bike ... but I'll definitely consider it."