The Joy of the Olympics: Artistic Swimming

This is the sport previously known as “synchronized swimming.” The organization in charge changed the name in 2017, apparently to bring it in line with artistic gymnastics, though not everyone was on board with the change (the Russians were especially vocal). Like that wing of gymnastics, it’s for women only at the Olympics. There is a men’s event at the world championships, but that hasn’t made its way to the Games as yet. Ironically, the sport was originally male only when it began in the late 19th century.

But it eventually became female dominated, popularized by the likes of Australian Annette Kellerman. She was a predecessor of Esther Williams, in being a swimmer/actress whose films often included aquatic themes. In 1907, her performance of water ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome helped promote the new sport. Later, Kellerman became the first actress to appear nude in a major Hollywood production, 1916’s A Daughter of the Gods. Perhaps sadly, competitors at the Olympics are apparently required to wear costumes.

Other requirements seem to include marching on like a penguin, all stiff-arm and stuff. I’m not sure where that came from. But I suspect it was a prank that got out of hand, the result of a rules writing session which spilled over into the pub. It’s moments like those which probably explain why the sport has had some difficulty being taken seriously over the years. The same probably explains why it’s the only event where competitors are marked on maintaining eye contact with the judges. Well, until lap-dancing gets into the Olympics, anyway. / Korean Culture and Information Service (Photographer name), CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

To be honest though, the routines basically did feel like I was watching a moist version of Showgirls. The forced smiles, turned on with the flick of a switch. The sharply pulled-back hair. The exaggerated gestures. Yeah. There’s a movie to be made, about two artistic swimmers, forced to pair up against their will. But much like Vegas dancers, it’s easy to overlook the physical demands required. Like an iceberg, there’s an awful lot going on beneath the water, and the split-level shots, showing the action both above above and below were particularly impressive in proving this.

There is a credible argument to be made that the four-minute routine is actually the most physically demanding event in the Games. To compete at the highest level, you need the power to propel your colleague out of the water, into the air (without, please note, touching the bottom of the pool). The flexibility of a gymnast. Stamina like a long-distance runner. Lungs of a dolphin. And a pain threshold to stand the chlorine in your eyes, because goggles are not permitted – remember that eye contact thing? Oh, yeah: and concussions are a real, everyday risk, due to the energetically flailing limbs, in close proximity to heads.

Especially in the team event, I imagine them backstage, with their slicked-back hair and matching costumes, going all West Side Story on each other, engaging in finger-snapping and knife fights. I would therefore suggest, do not fuck with a synchronized swimmer. Smiles or not, those bitches are hardcore.