Forget Soccer! Rome Switches To Polo For The Cure

The sport of kings teams up with the Komen Foundation to erase the stigma around breast cancer in Italy.

Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole and once it has done so, he/she will have to accept that his life will be radically changed.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

We may be moving to the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’re far from out of the woods when it comes to other diseases. Indeed in 2020, the World Health Organization estimates that almost 20 million new cases were diagnosed worldwide; of these, breast cancer was by far the most diagnosed form of the disease.  Of the nearly 2 million cases of breast cancer that year, 50,000 were found in Italy and the overwhelming majority were women. And these are not mere numbers: they are parents, friends, sisters, or even daughters afflicted by this insidious disease.

However, there is plenty of cause for hope in breast cancer research: advances in the last decade have been so significant that there is a more than 90% chance of being cured when the disease is detected at an early stage. This is due in no small part to the tremendous work of the Komen Foundation, which has dedicated the last four decades to building global communities of survivors and investing in research to treat and eventually cure breast cancer. The now-iconic pink ribbon is the symbol of an organization that has, to date, raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research in countries around the world.

The Komen Foundation has been active in Italy since the early 2000s, with chapters all over the country and more than one thousand programs aimed at education, assistance, and resources. The Foundation’s flagship event the ‘Race for the Cure’, an educational and fundraising event that culminates in a 5 km charity run, is held in seven different Italian cities every year. However, in the last few years, the race has had a bit of competition for the most engaging charity event in Italy, thanks to the tireless efforts of Marco Elser and his team.

Marco Elser, founder of Polo for the Cure. Photo courtesy of Marco Elser.

Polo for Cure transforms the game of polo into both a vehicle for breast cancer awareness and an occasion to let female athletes and entrepreneurs shine. Organized by Elser and hosted at his Acquedotto Romano Polo Club of Monte Compatri in Rome, the event unfolds over four days and features parades, parties, and of course, plenty of polo. We sat down with Marco Elser to find out how polo became a part of his life and why he decided to use this as the medium to honor those who have been afflicted with breast cancer in Italy and beyond. Along the way, with his signature charisma, he recounted the history of the ‘sport of kings’ and why it may soon be dominated by female players.

*Responses have been lightly edited for clarity. 

This is the first all-female Polo tournament supporting the Susan G. Komen Foundation. How did you come up with the idea of using polo to raise awareness about breast cancer research? 

Marco Elser: We’ve been organizing charity polo matches for many years to support the work of Operation Smile which we called ‘Polo del Sorriso’. Besides raising hundreds of thousands of Euros, we brought visibility and awareness to treatable facial malformations like cleft lip and palate that afflict children in particular. We would like to do the same now for women’s breast cancer. We have family members and close friends who are survivors, so we wanted to do our part to support research and treatment. We believe that an all-female polo tournament, the first of its kind in Italy, is a new and empowering way to raise awareness in society.

How would you like to see the conversation around breast cancer awareness evolve, and how do you hope that this event can help move that conversation forward? 

ME: Breast cancer can affect anyone, tall or short, rich or poor, regardless of one’s nationality, religion, or age. Early detection and diagnosis are key for treatment. The Susan G. Komen foundation has been educating millions of people worldwide and Komen Italia has been organizing Race for the Cure events for over twenty years. We would like to further that mission through this initiative.

Parade through the historic center of Rome. Photo courtesy of Marco Elser.

How is the Polo tournament organized and where will it be held? 

ME: The tournament will begin on June 28th with a parade from Piazza del Popolo to via Condotti (the main arteries of the center of Rome), and will star all the female polo players on horseback. The players will be accompanied by the Lancieri di Montebello (the Eighth Regiment of the Italian Cavalry). As it will take place on the eve of the Feast of the Patron Saints of Rome (Saints Peter and Paul), the city will be full of spectators, and it should be an unforgettable experience for them as well.

Will the event include other activities outside of the tournament?  

ME: Happily, every hotel and restaurant we contacted enthusiastically supported Polo for the Cure, whether by offering to host dinners, cocktail parties, special events, or simply by spreading the word. The women’s luxury store Fendi and the Eden hotel will host a cocktail for the players after the parade, and the Saint Regis hotel will be hosting a cocktail a few days later. But the big event will take place on July 2nd at the Acquedotto Romano Polo Club, where there will be an exhibition of the Lancieri di Montebello, acrobatic airshows, fireworks, and more. As the club is located near the last stop of Rome’s newest METRO C subway line, the Mayor of Monte Compatri (who also enthusiastically endorsed the event) will provide a free shuttle service every 30 minutes to and from the metro.  A young group of professional tour guides called Petites Promenades has also offered to take the players on special visits to Rome’s finest palaces and to donate all profits to Komen Italia.

Polo for the Cure will takes place at the Acquedotto Romano Polo Club. Photo courtesy of Marco Elser.

What do you hope to achieve in terms of visibility for both your organization and the cause of breast cancer awareness, particularly in Italy? 

ME: Komen Italia has done a stupendous job bringing awareness to hundreds of thousands of Italians, and our objective is to quite simply expand this as far and wide as we can. If just one woman was able to get an early diagnosis of breast cancer and have it treated in a timely manner, all of our efforts would be amply rewarded!

Polo is often seen as a luxury sport, but this is a chance to share it with a much wider audience. How would you like the sport to be understood by those just getting to know it? 

ME: Many people don’t know this but polo is the oldest sport in the world, tracing its origins to over 2,500 years ago in Isfahan, Iran. In the 1920s in the United States, tens of thousands of spectators would come to watch polo matches, and the advances in equine performance over the last seventy years have been phenomenal. The best analogy I can give is the speed of Formula 1 cars after WWII and today. It is night and day! Seeing these horses literally fly on the green field of Bermuda grass is exhilarating.

But it will be even more extraordinary to see a great female athlete riding. The coupling of horse and rider is an incredible thing to see, as they really do become one living thing. Polo for the Cure will be a great opportunity to have the general public acquaint itself with this adrenaline-filled, exciting sport in a way that also shows the skill of so many talented women.

The thrill of a polo game up close. Photo courtesy of Marco Elser.

Sports and health seem to be naturally linked, but we are only beginning to develop networks to support athletes. What more could sports associations do in particular to support the health and well-being of female athletes? 

ME: Women in sport is becoming much more important to CONI, the Italian sports committee, and polo has actually been very progressive in this respect. Italy’s female polo team won the European Polo Championships last year and finished fourth in the World Championships in Argentina in April 2022. I hope other sports follow suit.

The old Latin adage “mens sana in corpore sano” is also very appropriate here. A healthy body and a healthy mind are invariably tied together. In the sport of polo, where horses can reach speeds of over thirty miles an hour and still remain agile, it is fundamental to be both physically and mentally fit. Polo players have tremendous willpower and are able to make split-second decisions, which is what makes matches so exciting to watch!

Will the funds that you raise be donated to a specific goal? How can people get involved or support you if they can’t get to the event? 

ME: The funds raised will go to Komen Italia to continue their incredible work.  Across Italy, they perform hundreds of thousands of preventive tests every year; worldwide, those numbers are in the tens of millions. Breast cancer is a scary diagnosis to receive, but it is often treatable and that’s due in large part to the awareness that the Komen Foundation has brought to men and women around the world.

If people can’t make it to the event, they can always donate to Komen Italia or their country chapter, because it really does make a difference. We are expecting over one thousand people at Polo for the Cure and we are so proud to be part of a force of millions across the world who support the fight against breast cancer.

For more information on Polo for the Cure, visit the website of the American Club of Rome at https://www.americanclubrome.org/events-1/polo-for-the-cure where you can also purchase tickets to the July 2 event at the Acquedotto Romano Polo Club. Proceeds will go towards Komen Italia, the Susan G Komen Foundation’s chapter in Italy.