August 08, 2012
On the seventh floor of Miami's Raleigh Hotel - a design gem in the South Beach Art Deco District - there's an oceanfront Esther Williams Suite in honor of the famous MGM water ballerina. There's also that distinctive scallop-edged pool; the very same pool that served as the setting for Williams' glitzy aquatic film shoots.
So what, you ask, does any of this have to do with sports?
It was Esther Williams who popularized the Olympic sport of synchronized swimming in the 1940's through elaborately orchestrated pool scenes in Hollywood films such as Bathing Beauty (1944), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), and Jupiter's Darling (1955). This hybrid sport of swimming, dance and gymnastics requires precision, teamwork and endurance as well as tremendous physical strength and exceptional underwater breath control. And yet, it's taken eons, it seems, for the sport to earn its due respect.
In the 1980's, comedians Martin Short and Henry Shearer spoofed synchro (the sport's nickname amongst athletes) with a hilarious spot on Saturday Night Live featuring the two men lumbering about - their arms flailing clumsily in the air - in a community pool. In 1952, there was a minor exhibition of synchronized swimming at the Helsinki Games but it didn't become an official Olympic Sport until the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Even then, only solo and duet competitions were contested and the solo was merely added to fill television time after the Soviet boycott. Since 2000, both duet and team competitions have been officially featured at the Olympic Games.
But the crusade doesn't end here. The latest debate in the synchronized swimming world is whether or not men should be allowed to compete (at present, synchro is one of only two Olympic sports - alongside rhythmic gymnastics - for women only.) Britain's only male synchronized swimming team, Out to Swim Angels, have written a letter to the International Olympic Committee and the International Swimming Federation arguing that men deserve to compete in synchronized swimming, too. They're asking that the rules be changed in time for the Summer Games in Rio in 2016.
Truth be told, the sport does seem a bit girly to me. Then again, aren't the Olympics all about equality?
Tell me, what do you think?