Changing China

Giant on the move

A weird and wonderful water ballet

August 22, 2008

synchronised swimming

When I told my editors I wanted to cover synchronised swimming at the Olympics they laughed. When I said it again they looked slightly embarrassed, like I was pushing a bad joke too far.

I had to ask several more times but I finally convinced them and two weeks later, I was watching two sequin-strewn contenders splash around in perfect union to an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black.

I have been fascinated by what is probably the Olympics’ most mocked and maligned sport since I first stumbled across it when channel flipping during a lazy summer day in the eighties.

Even in the decade that taste forgot it seemed bizarre but anyone who doubts the athleticism involved should try holding their breath upside down, underwater, while doing leg kicks and manoeuvring across the pool. Then come up with a smile on your face.

The swimmers train up to 10 hours a day, six days a week, in gymnastics, weights, dance, and of course swimming. They also have to learn how to paint gelatine on to their hair to stop it slipping out of place, perfect the art of applying waterproof makeup and learn to smile, smile, smile even when in lung-busting agony.

Then there is the baffling question of where it came from. Other esoteric Olympic events — rhythmic gymnastics, trampolining, BMX — have obvious sporting roots. You can imagine the elite athletes as kids who liked cartwheels and ribbons, jumping up and down or biking like crazy.

But coordinated leg kicks in the pool? According to the U.S. synchro Web site it all began as ‘water ballet’, performed in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome.

The Olympics hardly seems a logical next step.

Having finally watched the swimmers’ almost miraculous coordination live and interviewed several of the athletes, none of it makes any more sense to me than it did two decades ago.

I’m as in awe of their abilities as I am baffled by the sport they have chosen to dedicate their lives to. But if I’m allowed back to another Olympics, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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