Water polo at the 1988 Summer Olympics as usual was part of the swimming sport, the other two being swimming and diving. They were not seen as three separate sports, because they all were governed by one federation — FINA. Water polo discipline consisted of one event: the men's team competition.
In the preliminary round twelve teams were divided into two groups. The two best teams from each group (shaded ones) advanced to the semi-finals. The two numbers three and four played classification matches to determine places 5 through 8, with the earlier result taken with them. The rest of the teams also played classification matches to determine places 9 through 12.