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Synchro success demands style and endurance

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Eleanor Oldroyd Eleanor Oldroyd | 08:43 UK time, Wednesday, 25 May 2011

One of the delights of being part of the BBC's team at the Olympics is learning a whole new sport from scratch.

In my five summer Games so far, I've managed to glean at least a working knowledge of judo, shooting, fencing, gymnastics and modern pentathlon (to name just a few).

Clearly I'm never going to become an expert, but my aim is always to try and make unfamiliar sports accessible to an audience who only watches them once every four years, while at the same time not infuriating the cognoscenti who've devoted their lives to those sports, often without any recognition.

So for me, the road to 2012 began in earnest at the weekend, at Ponds Forge in Sheffield.

Synchronised Swimming. It's one of those sports which attracts a predictable response.
"What's with the nose-clips? And the lipstick? And the fixed smiles? It's an entertainment, not a sport, surely?"

The purpose of my trip to the European Synchro Champions Cup event was to give myself - and hopefully our audience on the Red Button - a rather more rounded view of an event which isn't always, it has to be admitted, taken all that seriously.

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Watch Great Britain win bronze in the freestyle combination event

All I can say, after my two days of watching some of the world's finest synchro swimmers, is that these are athletes who should be taken very seriously indeed.

As Britain's Commonwealth silver medallist Jenna Randall put it: "It's like running the 400 metres while holding your breath, and smiling at the same time."

Imagine floating upside down in the deep end of your local pool, for something like 40 seconds at a time. You're surrounded by seven other people, and you're having to scull with your hands and arms to stay in the same position. Now propel yourself upwards in the water, so your legs rise above the surface in a perfect extension. Your team-mates are doing exactly the same moves at the same time. Then spin downwards so your feet disappear under the water in perfect synchronisation.

It's just one of the many sequences which the top teams perform as a matter of course. When the swimmers surface, they may have just a few seconds to grab a breath, before plunging down again, and maybe using the remaining power in their legs to push a team-mate above the water to do a perfect back-flip.

They can't touch the bottom of the pool at any time and they have to keep their eyes open so they can stay synchronised with the others (no goggles allowed in the performance). Team routines last for around four minutes - and it has to look effortless (hence the smiling).

And if you're still questioning the nose-clips, just imagine doing all that with a load of chlorinated water sloshing around your sinuses.

The skill, stamina and grace of the top synchro swimmers speaks for itself. Sheffield was lucky at the weekend to host the top two nations in the world at the moment, Russia and Spain. Their dedication to the sport is astounding - the Spanish train for 12 hours a day, every day, and if their coaches feel their standards are slipping, they can end up repeating their gruelling four-minute team performance up to 14 times in a row.

It's hard to compete with such commitment, but Britain's synchro team are making huge strides. Based at the Army barracks at Aldershot, under National Performance Director Biz Price, and helped by funding from the Lottery and British Swimming's sponsors British Gas, Randall and duet partner Olivia Allison clinched silver in last year's Commonwealth Games.

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Olivia Allison and Jenna Randall explain the basics of synchronised swimming

The weekend in Sheffield brought fifth placed finishes for Team GB in the duet and team events, against their top European rivals. And Sunday was rounded off by bronze in the team combination, not an Olympic discipline, but cause for celebration nonetheless.

Canada, China and Japan will be the major nations added to the mix for London 2012, but a top-six finish is a realistic target - a huge improvement on 14th in Beijing.

There will always be some who will argue that any event which includes artistic impression in its scoring is not a real sport, but I would defy anyone to watch these dynamic, dedicated athletes in action and dare to claim they are anything other than real sportswomen.


  • Comment number 1.

    "There will always be some who will argue that any event which includes artistic impression in its scoring is not a real sport, but I would defy anyone to watch these dynamic, dedicated athletes in action and dare to claim they are anything other than real sportswomen."

    I'll take that dare...I'll even tell them to their faces.

    It's NOT a sport, and the reason why polls suggest over 70% of people couldn't give two hoots about the Olympics is mainly due to the inclusion of utter drivel like this.

    Taking part in, or even spectating, such an activity and being intelligent are completely mutually exclusive...

  • Comment number 2.

    Yep, what SoxSexSax said. Not really sport, more of a pastime. Each to their own but people aren't going to rushing to swap a 100meters ticket for the non-stop excitement of team water dancing.

  • Comment number 3.

    I can appreciate that synchronised swimming requires athleticism and skill, but that doesn't make it a sport. If it does, then surely professional Wrestling should also be an Olympic sport?!

  • Comment number 4.

    I completey agree with the above 3 posts.

    Yes, you might have to be super-fit to do this, and I'm not doubting how much skill and practice it takes, but this does NOT make it a sport. My flatmate is a professional dancer - extremely fit, and well drilled, but is dancing a sport? No. And it shouldn't be too! Fair enough, do synchronised swimming shows, like you would see a dance show (if you like that sort of thing), even have competitions, like trampolining competitions, but an olympic sport? No!

    Anything where you pretty much have to take part to understand who is better, and is based on opinion - judges scoring etc, should not be in the olympics.

    If they really are so athletic, why not try normal swimming, or something else, where you can compete and get to see who actually wins? I'm not a fan of normal swimming, but I can appreciate them, and see who's the best - the one that gets to the end first!

  • Comment number 5.

    Eleanor, I bet your favourite sports are all the ones that I wouldn't call a sport:

    Synchronised swimming, motor sports, shooting, show jumping, am I right?

    Anything using technology (that differs from person to person) or that relies on a judge's score, shouldn't be in the olympics.

  • Comment number 6.

    Dictionary definition of ‘sport’:

    an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.

    Synchronised swimming ticks all the boxes doesn’t it?

  • Comment number 7.

    I say get rid of silliness like this and bring back tug o war.


  • Comment number 8.

    "It's like running the 400 metres while holding your breath, and smiling at the same time."

    This would actually be more entertaining than synchronised swimming.

  • Comment number 9.

    Anything 'that is judged can't be a sport?' Well that is boxing, diving, weightlifting and gymnastics gone then.

    The sport is popular in many countries like US, Canada and Russia, just because it isn't popular in the UK doesn't mean it isn't popular anywhere. I take the points about the merits of the sport because it would seem you have to include cheerleading-which is one of the biggest sports at school/college level in the USA.

  • Comment number 10.

    While I have my reservations about sports that require judging I think we should go easy on Eleanor a little. She is a fantastic journalist whose knowledge of a wide variety of sports is excellent. I think it is admirable that someone would do so much background research into a sport that they know they will have to comment on in 14 months time (yes I know she's getting paid for it but still).

    From a personal perspective I used to dislike gymnastics, however since working in an office that overlooks a top class gymnastics training facility my opinion has changed somewhat. I now appreciate the intricacies and brute strength it takes to be a gymnast, yes this is because my knowledge of the sport has increased being in such close proximity to it but my enjoyment of the sport has increased.

    If Eleanor can use her experience in learning to understand a sport to convey real enthusiasm and knowledge for it whilst reporting on it then surely that is a good thing. If her enthusiasm for it then increases peoples viewing pleasure and even entices viewers to participate then even better.

    For more of my sporting views try my blog:

  • Comment number 11.

    I don't think anyone is judging Eleanor's journalism in the slightest. It's synchonised swimming that is issue. As with almost all of the repsondents so far, I don't believe this belongs in the Olympics, not least when the limited number of events that the IOC allows means that its inclusion excludes another event.

    Yes, it requires tremendous athleticism, skill, and dedication, but it's the subjective element of the judging, not the presence of judging itself, that I believe puts it beyond "sport". All those sports cited by #9 are reliant on judgements, yes; however they are almost exclusively objective judgements - did you land a scoring punch; complete the lift correctly; execute the somersault / pike / whatever correctly. Not are you a stylish boxer, did you impress everyone with the way you chalked your hands & approached the bar, etc. SS, along with rhythmic gymnastics, is a solid 50% about artistic interpretation. The fact that both are performed to music is a fair indication that they're as much about aesthetics as about athleticism, and says that they're in the wrong place.

    How many other sports REQUIRE music for the performance? The women's floor in regular gymnastics is the only one I can think of, and that's only one discipline of several. Sorry, girls, but I've always thought of you as ice dancers on a melted rink, and you really don't belong in the Olympics. Dancing is NOT sport. And dancing, in essence, is what you are doing, albeit in the water.

  • Comment number 12.

    I fully take your points, but I was attempting to show that because a sport is judged doesn't mean it isn't a sport. However, the judging in synchronized swimming is just as technical and subjective as in boxing( a sport which I judge). In boxing I still get informed from boxers, trainers and managers that they were the winner because they were the most aggressive/defensive/artistic/impressive/landing better shots etc etc.
    But you do make better points than most of the earlier commentators re sync swimming and the sport.

    You have to give credit to Eleanor Oldroyd that she has written a good blog, and whether you agree or not on the merits of sync swimming, she does have to commentate on the sport and be knowledgeable. She is also an excellent commentator like Barry Davies, she has to talk about many sports most people seldom watch, except once every four years.

  • Comment number 13.

    Never really paid any attention to this 'sport' before now and neither really thought about this in the 'is it really a sport' context and to be honest have probably mocked the sport in the past at some point. Having said that and watched the clip, the ability of these athletes (who tend to take part in 'sports') is pretty phenomenal and the shapes they make and movements they perform require such dedication to training, for which many us have will have no concept of.

    I get the whole first past the finish line mentality to the olympics, sure, but for those that think it is not a sport because performance is 'judged' I just think this is a little short-sighted. Can you honestly imagine an Olympic games without Boxing or Gymnastics or a winter Olympics without Figure Skating or in more recent times the excitement of the 'judged' Freestyle Skiing (Moguls and Aerials) and Snowboard Half-pipe. Judging does not make it an 'anti-sport'. Judges are there to assess technical aspects of performance, the execution of honed techniques and manoeuvres that require months and years of training, just like any other sports. the only difference is that the judges know what they are looking for, the lay-man watching on perhaps doesn't. More articles like this one might provide us with enough knowledge that by the time 2012 comes round we might actually be able to support our girls in a new and developing sport in this country as opposed to instilling so much national pride in sports where we continue to 'under perform' in. Amy Williams won GB's first winter Olympic gold for 30 years and I bet most pub quiz teams wouldn't even know which sport, yet Rob Green's blunder in South Africa was against which nation...? Chris Waddle blazed a penalty over in which year...? and England went out on penalties to who in WC2006...? Everyone knows these answers, yet still no gold...

    My point is we will all class sports in different ways, though mostly those in which we know most about or hold dearest to our hearts. When we have an opportunity to try something new perhaps as a nation we should just get behind it instead of shoving it to one side like the poor relation, who knows we might even be good at it... We all thought Chris Boardman was bonkers on his fancy bike... GB Cycling aren't doing to shabby off that now 20 years on (and don't get me started on the 'if it includes technology that is different for each competitor... like football boots, cricket bats, tennis rackets, oars, as well as bike parts...???)

    For me Synchronised Swimming is a sport... lets make it another to be proud of!!

  • Comment number 14.

    I cannot think of any sport in the world, Olympic or not, that does not in any way rely on subjective value, even for the most minute of details. Soccer, boxing, rugby, cricket, even track and field can be as subjective (if not more so) than figure skating, synchronized swimming, and snowboarding. Judges and referees aren't around just for window dressing, you know. Having been an Olympic fan for the better part of two decades, I have learned through watching the Olympics and related sports that it's not just what you do on the playing field that determines where you end up. EVERYTHING comes into play, from how strong your individual reputation is in front of the judges and the governing bodies, to what country you're representing.

    And even though synchronized swimming may have some questionable aspects, it requires more skill than many sports with a bigger profile. For instance, you not only have to be able to swim, you not only have to be able to present an artistic side, but you have to have excellent breathing control and endurance, and you have to contort your body to shapes that would put the majority of us in the hospital.

  • Comment number 15.

    Taking part in, or even spectating, such an activity and being intelligent are completely mutually exclusive... - SoxSexSax

    Just because you don't happen to like something is no reason to claim that anyone who does isn't intelligent. (Personally, I've got a masters degree in automotive engineering, but I also train as a synchronised swimmer, coach cheerleading [another sport which gets the same kind of bad press as synchro] and enjoy watching either when I get the chance.)

  • Comment number 16.

    Well at least synchronised swimming is finally enjoying the spotlight! I think it's great that people feel that they can express their opinions freely here on the BBC website. There is nothing wrong with a healthy debate.

    And now I will express MY opinion on synchronised swimming. Whether some people agree with it or not it IS currently an Olympic sport and unless there is widespread riots in the streets or a petition flying about that I don't know about, then it is likely to remain an Olympic sport.

    Like various others have stated on here, the fact that is judged does not make it any less of a sport. Swimmers are judged on artistic impression - this is true - but they are also judged on technical merit.

    We must also take into account that one of the routines that the team has to perform during a competition is a technical routine. This means that failure to complete or perform certain elements (moves) correctly results in penalty points which are deducted from their score. So there is method to the so-called 'subjective madness' of the judging.

    As well as being a fan of synchronised swimming, I am also a fan of football. Could we not argue that because of the lack of video playback during the game, a referee's decisions are somewhat subjective? Does a referee's opinion of a certain player e.g. Wayne Rooney, Craig Bellamy or Lee Bowyer (to name just a few players with an aggressive reputation) not play a part in whether a foul is committed by these players or not? Does it make a difference between a yellow or red card?There are too many disgruntled football fans out there for this to be untrue.
    However it is not my intention to question how another sport operates. Every sport and it's organisations have their flaws. Things can always be improved, but there will always be factors which can complicate the decision between who is the outright winner and who is in second place (in any sport), especially when these contenders match each other in talent.

    Synchronised swimming has received a considerable amount of bad press, but rarely is this from sports journalists. Journalists who know their stuff and have conducted enough research DO appreciate that synchronised swimming has earned its place among the other Olympic sports.
    Although I may not have changed your minds about this, I hope you may be a little kinder or perhaps more open-minded when you discuss this topic again. At the end of the day these girls have given up everything to compete for this country and I would have thought that that in itself is something we all should respect and appreciate.

  • Comment number 17.

    A sport is a physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively.

    Synchronised swimming falls under this. Yes it is a subjective sport and relies 100 percent on human decision, such as gymnastics which is one of the oldest of Olympic sports but the judging crietria is clear and 50 percent of the score is a technical mark.
    It certainly has an artistic element and there is a side to the sport which does reflect an association with dance for the artistic mark. However it is more acrobatic and gymnastic based skills within the water for the team and duet Olympic events.

    Its probably the most trained sport out of all sports, with elite athletes training around 50-60 hours a week as its so technical and physical. In my experience,anyone who has seen it live has gone away appreciating the extreme physical fitness, skills and dedication of the athletes and coaches. They train so many components of fitness such as endurance, speed, flexibility, co-ordination, strength where as many sports just have to focus on one or two mainly. It is the only sport where it is a neccessity not a choice to undertake extreme physical work whilst holding your breath for long periods of time.

    The make up comments and smiles just shows how uneducated people still are about the sport. The athletes reflect the music in their manner of presentation, so are definitely not smiling all the time. As for make up, I have seen some track athletes sporting far more!

    All sports have an element of subjectivity. Look at football and referees decisions which can affect results of the game.
    Even with technology, it quite often comes down to human decisions. Just some sports rely on more of this than others.

    The beauty of the Olympics is the amount of variety within the different sports. There is something for all to enjoy. Synchro is not everyone's cup of tea just like watching a marathon may not be interesting to some.

    I actually question why dance isnt considered a sport when you look at how they compete and their sheer physical fitness which would put some Olympic athletes to shame


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