Why Can't Men Compete In Olympic Synchronized Swimming?

By: Daniel Villarreal

With men now presenting bouquets and medals, women punching women in boxing and two women competing for Saudi Arabia (a country that has only allowed male athletes in the past), the London games are one step closer to gender equality.

But two Olympics sports remain closed to men: rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming.

Men's synchronized swimming often conjures up the image of the 1984 Saturday Night Live sketch in which Martin Short and Harry Shearer performed a ridiculously simple and overly dramatic synchronized swimming routine in the shallow end of a pool; two men (one soft-spoken and the other mentally handicapped) with the laughable dream of one day competing in the Olympics.

But in reality, there are men's synchronized swimming teams all around the world.

Toronto has a competitive men's team called Toronto Synchro and San Francisco's LGBT and straight-friendly Tsunami Tsynchro team (pictured below at left) has won firsts at every Gay Games and IGLA championship since 2004.

There's even all-male teams in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Ukraine, and the Czech Reupblic as well as two recent documentaries about Japanese and Swedish teams called Waterboys (2001) and Men Who Swim (2010), respectively.

Britain's only all-male synchronized swim team, Out To Swim Angels, hoped to join the Olympics this year.

However, the governing body for worldwide aquatic sports competition, La Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) maintains synchronized swimming is for women-only, forbidding male synchronized swimmers from competing at the highest levels and keeping younger competitors from receiving collegiate scholarships in the sport.

The reason, according to a June 2008 Details magazine interview with president of United States Synchronized Swimming and Olympic official Ginny Jasontek is, “We cannot allow men in a women’s sport. Men don’t compete against women in gymnastics.”

As a result of such views, Bill May—an award-winning synchronized swimmer from California—was barred from competing in the 2004 Athens Olympics because of his gender-he later went to become the only guy performing aquatic stunts in the Las Vegas Cirque Du Soleil show O.

Similarly, accomplished California teen Kenyon Smith (pictured right) tried out for the 2008 Beijing games--soon after advancing to final team cut, Smith got disqualified just for being a guy.

Smith identifies as straight but has been called gay by gay and straight men alike who consider synchronized swimming "a woman's sport." He has also met young boys in the sport who want to quit over such taunts.

Online articles about aspiring teenage German synchronized swimmer Niklas Stoepel (pictured upper left) have also insinuated that he's gay or effeminate. A British site called him a a "fairy" and an ESPN article said, "We cringe a bit at the notion of a male athlete whose pre-game routine consists of leg shaving and picking the perfect sequined costume," concluding, "Give Stoepel the shot to synch swim… sans the sequins."

However, both the ESPN article and another in the San Francisco Bay Guardian did note that, "The sport of synchronized swimming is, like dance, about graceful movement and beauty in action as much as it is about strength, power, and dynamism. It takes a strong man, or woman, to compete in the sport, and only those in top condition excel."

Stoepel adds that national level judges him score him more strictly than his female competitors. May once got booed at a meet after beating one of his female rivals and a female competitor of Smith's complained that she and other female athletes simply can't match mens' physical abilities, making head-to-head mixed gender competitions inherently unfair.

But the proliferation of men's teams around the world could help change those perceptions, and even pave the way for a male-inclusive space with mixed-gender two-person teams or all-male teams in future Olympics.

Sanela Nikolic, the coach of the British Out To Swim Angels team told The Independent, "In this modern world, it is time to move beyond the arbitrary preconceptions we have of certain types of sport."

"Synchronised swimming is one of the last few examples of a discipline not open to both men and women. A whole generation of athletes needs to be created to compete at Olympic level, and this will take time. It may need to start out as a demonstration sport to raise its profile, but the issue of placing rather arbitrary gender restrictions on Olympic sports must be challenged."

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