Split Decisions: Synchronized Swimming and Cultural Bias

Attitudes toward synchronized swimming suffer from a sort of schizophrenia. Americans love to follow synchronized swimmers during the Olympics—the topic trended hours before the event started in the 2012 Games.

U.S. 2012 Olympic Synchronized Swim Team, April 2012. AP Photo/Matt Dunham. http://www.klewtv.com/sports/Photos-Olympic-synchronized-swimming-quals-148116795.html?tab=gallery&c=y&img=5

The grace, glamor and style on which synchronized swimmers are judged have captivated viewers since the sport debuted at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Even sports purists don’t deny the strength, flexibility and stamina that synchronized swimming requires–Olympic routines are four minutes long, three minutes of which are spent underwater.

Yet the smiling poise, precision, and theatrics that audiences love make the sport an easy target for mockery and ridicule. On the surface, synchronized swimming may not resemble sport in the traditional sense: televised coverage of the Olympics captures athletes in most sports perspiring, their muscles bulging with strain and faces contorting with effort. Their grimaces and grunts offer tangible proof of exertion.

In contrast, media coverage of synchronized swimmers reveals long limbs, pointed toes, and ever-smiling, theatrically made-up faces. Judged, in part, on the appearance of effortlessness, they mask exertion and exhaustion in unnaturally perpetual grins.

Preliminaries of the freestyle duet technical routine, day 1 synchronized swimming, 2012 Olympics. CNN website: http://www.latestcnnnews.net/2012/08/london-2012-synchronized-swimming-photos/

The sleek hairstyles and colorful cosmetics required of the swimmers make it easy for viewers to confuse the athletes with beauty pageant contestants and pave the way for ridicule. The fact that synchronized swimming is considered by FINA an exclusively female sport further undermines its legitimacy as a “real” sport.

Some critics, like the Facebook page “Synchronized-Swimming-is-NOT-a-Sport” carry little authority. Others hold more influence. During the 2008 Games, Hannah Beech, writing for Time magazine’s World section, advocated removing synchronized swimming from the Olympics. Acknowledging the arduous effort required of the swimmers, she concluded, “But effort — and a discreet set of nose-clips — doesn’t make it worthy of being an Olympic sport.” http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1834475,00.html#ixzz22gSjLbsC
Beech complained that in synchronized swimming, the “girly bits overshadow the athletic parts.” Fair enough. But instead of questioning why the sport’s official rules insist on showcasing women as eye-candy—downplaying their athleticism and emphasizing their appearance—she proposed FINA drop synchronized swimming altogether and open a “real” sport, like Olympic boxing, to women.

That solution would solve little and underscores a larger issue: sports historically associated with masculinity—boxing, football, and baseball—are commonly perceived as more authentic. Yet most athletes acknowledge that synchronized swimmers train exceptionally long and hard. After sweeping the duet preliminary freestyle routine on Monday, the Russian gold medalists Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashin told interviewers that they train often for ten hours, nonstop. Despite the cosmetics and costumes, they epitomize hardcore athletes.

Yet in America, sports associated with or dominated by women—swimming and gymnastics—are trivialized. Why? Male team sports generate more revenue. And today in America, sport is defined not only by athleticism but by the ability to fill a stadium with paying spectators.

Aware of this basic fact, some—like the owners of women’s beach volleyball teams—take the approach of sexualizing women athletes. Needing to make a profit, why wouldn’t they? Simply put, sex sells. While emphasizing women’s bodies will, in the short term, generate spectator interest in a sport, it’s akin to wrapping a severed artery with a Band-Aid. At best it offers a temporary solution at worst it exacerbates the cultural problem of gender bias.

Cultural associations of “real” sport with masculinity and money hurt promising athletes. The US excelled in synchronized swimming in the 1980s, winning nine Olympics medals, five of which were gold, in 1984 alone. But the American team didn’t qualify to compete in London.  Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva are the only synchronized swimmers representing America in the London Games. As of Monday they stood 10th in the duet competition. America should be proud that they qualified but where might they stand if the sport were taken more seriously here?

Gender bias in sport has other detrimental effects. Since FINA classifies synchronized swimming as exclusively female, men cannot compete in those Olympic events. And yes, despite the gender bias, men do compete in synchronized swimming—even in America where they are taken even less seriously than women.

Out to Swim Angels practicing, 2012. http://www.outtoswim.org/index.php/synchro

How, in the 21st century, can a decision to exclude athletes from participating based solely on gender by justified? Some answer with numbers, claiming that there simply are not enough male synchronized swimmers in the world to hold a male event. Perhaps.

But others question this rationale. In London, prior to the Games, “Out To Swim,” an aquatic club for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people and straight people, protested  FINA’s exclusion of men from synchronized swimming. The Out to Swim Angels—the group’s synchronized swim team—sent a letter to FINA protesting men’s exclusion and politely demanding that the rules need be changed prior to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

We’ll find out what happens in four years.