London 2012 Medal Round-Ology: Women's Water Polo

Jul 30, 2012; London, United Kingdom; United States goal keeper Betsey Armstrong (1) blocks a shot against Hungary in the first quarter in the women's preliminary round during the 2012 London Olympic Games at Water Polo Arena. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

As the second weekend of the 2012 London Olympics approaches, it's time for the other team sports to join soccer in moving into elimination play. In every one of these sports, save field hockey, the majority in the field will remain alive for gold, silver, and bronze. However, the sport that's the subject of today's post, women's water polo, takes that format to the extreme.

The men's and women's water polo fields at London 2012 remind us of how all team sports used to be set up at the Olympics up until very recently. In each case, the men's tournament featured more teams than the women's (usually 12, except for 16 in soccer, compared to 6 to 8). This actually remains the case with hockey in the Winter Games, though curling has even participation. As the International Olympic Committee has moved toward gender equity in the Olympic program, the field for women's teams sports have gradually expanded. Basketball and volleyball both moved to 12 teams in 1996. Field hockey and handball got there eventually -- both added a pair of teams in 2000 and two more in Beijing. Meanwhile, women's soccer started with eight teams in 1996 and 2000, picked up two more for an awkward 10 teams in three groups format in 2004, before balancing things out at a dozen in '08.

Women's water polo, meanwhile, is an emerging sport that still stuck in the single digits. The first Olympic tournament, Sydney 2000, featured just six teams, with two more added for Athens. Eight years on, that remains the total number of qualifiers. An added wrinkle is that all eight qualifiers will advance to medal round play. Curiously, 16 teams qualify for the men's and women's water polo tournaments at the World Aquatics Championships, and before you jump to conclusions about competitiveness, both tournaments have their far share of lopsided results.

Given that no one is being eliminated on Friday, the final group games are simply for seeding purposes. Note that 2008's gold medalist, Netherlands, did not qualify this time around. Neither did 2011 World Champion Greece.

Note: In water polo, teams earn 2 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, and no points for a defeat.

The highly competitive Group A features the Beijing silver medalists from the United States (3 points), who currently sits behind Spain (3 points) on goal difference, thanks after the two played a 9-all draw on Wednesday. Hungary (2 points) is also very much in the hunt, thanks to a one-goal loss to the Americans on Monday and a midweek win over China (0 points) by the same margin. The slight edge for position A1 goes to the U.S. women, who face a Chinese team (2:40 p.m. ET), who appears to be the weakest in this group, even though they won the silver medal at the 2011 World Championships, which happened to be in Shanghai. Spain faces Hungary in the group's early game (10:30 a.m. ET), but given the Hungarians' knack for finding themselves in close games, the contest should be fairly dramatic.

Australia, bronze medalists four years ago and champions from Sydney, and Russia, who claimed third at Worlds last year, (4 points each) will play for the top spot in Group B (1:20 p.m. ET). Meanwhile, Athens 2004 champion Italy (0 points) will be heavily favored to claim position B3 when they take on Great Britain (0 points) in the first game of the day (9:10 a.m. ET).

Here's how my predicted quarterfinal bracket looks, moving from top to bottom. Knock-out round action begins Sunday.

(A1) USA vs. (B4) Great Britain
(B2) Russia vs. (A3) Hungary
(A2) Spain vs. (B3) Italy
(B1) Australia vs. (A4) China

Given how competitive seven of these eight teams are (apologizes to our gracious hosts), the medal round should be quite intense. It's definitely possible that the United States team finally grabs its first gold (the Americans own two silvers and a bronze from the previous three tournaments), but they'll be sternly tested in the process.

UPDATE: In Group A, Spain (5 points) held their edge at the top by dispatching Hungary (2 points) by two goals, while the USA (5 points) earned the second seed with a close win over China (0 points). Australia (6 points) took group B with a three goal win over Russia (4 points), while Italy (2 points) condemned Great Britain (0 points) to fourth position.

The final bracket looks like this (with my incorrect picks crossed out).

(A1) USA Spain vs. (B4) Great Britain
(B2) Russia vs. (A3) Hungary
(A2) Spain USA vs. (B3) Italy
(B1) Australia vs. (A4) China

The quarterfinals are on Sunday; the semifinals follow on Tuesday; and the medals will be decided on Thursday.

For more expert water polo coverage, visit SB Nation's The Skip Shot, edited by friend of the blog Jeremy Mauss.

Who are your picks for the medals?

Follow Mr. Dobbertean's Olympic thoughts on his personal Twitter account.

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