Host City: Helsinki, Finland
Venue(s): Helsinki Swimming Stadium, Helsinki
Date Started: July 25, 1952
Date Finished: August 2, 1952
Format: Preliminary single-elimination tournament qualifying, followed by several series of round-robin pools.
There were problems from the start of the 1952 water polo tournament. Originally some of the first round matches were to be played in open seawater venues at Uunisaari and Humallahti. However, this had to be abandoned because the water temperature was too cold to allow competition at those venues. The change required that all the matches had to be re-scheduled and shifted to the outdoor fresh-water Olympic Swim Stadium, [Helsingin Uimastadion].
The Netherlands had won the 1950 European Championship, after having placed fourth at the 1948 Olympics. Italy was the defending Olympic Champion, with the always strong Hungarians back. The first round groups were won by Italy, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Belgium. The Netherlands placed second to Yugoslavia in Group C, and would be eliminated in the semi-finals, eventually placing fifth. But it was controversial. In the semis, the Dutch team defeated the Yugoslavs, 3-2. However, Yugoslavia protested some referee's decisions and the match was replayed, with Yugoslavia winning that match, 2-1, eliminating the Netherlands.
This original match was set up for a problem from the start. The referee was Belgian Fons Delahaye, a veteran who had officiated at the 1928 Olympics. Before the match Yugoslavia requested of FINA that he be removed, concerned that he would be biased towards the Dutch, but this was not done. After the Yugoslav protest the issue was heard by the FINA Water Polo Board, led by Dutchman Jans de Vries, who abstained from the meeting because it involved the Netherlands. The Board recommended to the Jury d'Appèl that the protest be denied, but the Jury d'Appèl decided otherwise and upheld the protest, requiring the match to be played again with another referee. The Dutch team considered withdrawing and returning home, but eventually elected to stay and play.
The final round came down to Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy, and the United States. Hungary and Yugoslavia won both their matches in the round, and their semi-final tie was carried over, giving them identical final round records of 2 wins and 1 tie. But Hungary won the gold medal on goal differential, Yugoslavia taking silver. This would be the first of many Olympics in which Hungary and Yugoslavia would prove to be the two strongest teams in the world. They repeated their 1-2 finish in 1956, with Hungary winning medals through 1980, in a stretch of winning water polo medals at 12 consecutive Olympics, and Yugoslavia winning Olympic medals in 1964, 1968, 1980, 1984, and 1988, with gold medals in 1968, 1984, and 1988.