Shrinking and Pinking: Shifting Sports

New shifts in sport have been all over the news lately. Danica Patrick is the first woman to shift into the pole position (the top qualifier) at the Daytona 500. And while the International Olympic Committee's unexpected and shocking decision to drop wrestling from the summer Games impacts more men than women, it's telling that women's wrestling was only recently added a few years ago. Lolo Jones is another summer Olympian facing a shift in sport. The hurdler announced in the fall that she was going to try her hand (or legs, I should say) at bobsledding. After making the team as a pusher, she actually won a gold at the World Championships late last month!

Lolo Jones competing in bobseld, Martin Meissner AP

It'd be pretty amazing to see her in Sochi after London; and hopefully no fourth place this time around.

Another London Olympian just made a sport shift as well. Canadian synchronized swimmer Tracy London has retired from her sport, but picked up a new activity. What is it? Pole dancing!

Photo by Celia Lavinskas

London and her company emphasize the health and acrobatics associated with pole dancing, and de-emphasize the other connotations. At least she isn't Suzy Favor Hamilton, right?!

While I usually emphasize female athletes here who are fighting or breaking barriers, male athletes often have to deal with difficulties and tough, sexist sports connotations as well. Here where I live in Massachusetts, male gymnasts were shocked when high school gymnastics was cut from the roster of approved sports. Even more shocking was that the spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, Paul Wetzel, spoke derisively of it as a "girls' sport." His comments provoked a backlash-- but not enough of one to help save the sport, which will likely become a club endeavor.

Just goes to show that shifting (of attitudes) still needs to happen when it comes to male sports as well. Given his thoughts on girls/boys sports, I'm guessing Wetzel won't be rooting for Danica Patrick in the Daytona though (he might like London's "pole" position better)... But I will!

Shrinking and Pinking: Athletics in a Post-Post Title IX World

The XX(X) Olympics were an enormous success for women-- especially the Americans.  If the US women had been their own country they would have placed fifth in the medal count standings.  Even more noteworthy is that 60% of the all the US' medals came from women and 2/3rds of the American gold medal haul were won by the females on Team USA. Of course a year from now we're not very likely to care as much about our amazing female athletes.  As this piece from Fortune explains, female athletes are hot commodities every four years, but in between even the professional basketball players suffer.  According to the author a lot of this has to do with the fact that marketers aren't quite sure what to do with non-traditional female bodies, which helps explain why Gabby Douglas and the Fierce Five are doing so well. (Side note: My favorite tidbit from this article is that the first sports bra was made in 1977 by a grad student sewing two jock straps together!)

While I completely understand why we need to focus on developing women in sports (it's striking that today, for the first time ever, two women were invited to join Augusta National Golf Club), I also found it somewhat disturbing that in the Olympics there are now only two sports where only one sex participates-- synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.  In both cases these are female-only sports.  Now if men did not want to participate at the highest levels that would be one thing, but the fact is that there are male synchronized swimmers and they aren't allowed to compete at the highest levels (per documentaries like Sync of Swim, which I reviewed last fall).  Men also participate in rhythmic gymnastics, though with a more martial arts-like focus it sounds different enough to be less of a concern.  If these last two sports were male only I am sure we would see more of an outcry that the female sex was excluded.

Sure, the numbers in sports like synchro and gymnastics in general skew female.  That is also true for a sport like football, though in this case men dominate.  This year for the first time ever a female, Shannon Eastin, refereed an NFL game.  Perhaps in sports where the numbers are so lopsided the way for the opposite to really participate is through officiating and judging, or perhaps coaching (if you watched women's artistic gymnastics you know that the head coach of the Team USA and most of the athletes' primary coaches are male)?  I'm not sure this is a fair trade-off for those who want to compete themselves but in cases where parity isn't possible due to numbers perhaps this is a way to include both sexes.

I understand that most "serious" Olympic sports fans think synchro and rhythmic should be excluded anyway (despite this wonderful New York Times article on how athletic synchronized swimming really is), perhaps because they are so feminine and competitively marked as such due to the subjective nature of judging, but does it both anyone else that the fact men are excluded isn't given the same amount as concern as when women are excluded?

Sync or Swim: Reviewing the Trials, Tribulations, and those Nose Clips

No, those girls aren't in white face. They have just slathered on sunscreen to protect their skin from the sun as they spend upwards of eight hours a day training outside in a swimming pool. And, no, they aren't addicted to Jell-O. Instead,they are buying boxes of gelatin in order to slick back their hair during competitions. This is the sport of synchronized swimming and it is the subject of a great documentary, just released to DVD-- Sync or SwimThe film, originally released to festivals in 2008, follows the selection process and the competition at the 2004 Olympics.  As one of the swimmers explains, "synchro" is not a glory sport. There aren't any big endorsements.  The Olympic experience is the pay-off.

The director, Cheryl Furjanic, does a great job showing the everyday dedication required to be an elite-level synchronized swimmer.  Every swimmer must work at the local Bingo hall once a week to raise funds. Many give up jobs, or have parents who give up jobs, and move across country to support their dreams. All while spending upwards of 8-12 hours per day physically training.

And, while many often make fun of synchro for the glitz and make-up associated with competitions, the daily reality is glitz-free.  During training, and even Olympic Trials , no glitz is in evidence as all the women don similar black suits and white caps with only a number identifying them.  Sure there is a focus on "looking good," which means being attractive and competing with a smile, but synchro requires that these women be tremendously strong and flexible athletes.  Sync or Swim helpfully explains the key elements in a routine (like the "egg beater" and the "heron"); turns out that in a typical synchro routine swimmers complete four laps of the pool while performing.  In breaking down the training the DVD reminded me of one of my favorite (though often unappreciated) sociology books-- Daniel Chambliss' Champions: The Making of Olympic Swimmers (for a shorter summary of one of the key concepts in the book, check out his article "The Mundanity of Excellence").

Just as Furjanic breaks down the training and elements she also, wisely, chooses to give the viewers some context and history.  Synchronized swimming was originally known as "water ballet" and "ornamental swimming" when it started in the 1920s. As the sport became more technical, with rules and judges' scores, the name change occurred (again, I can't help but point out the timing of when this competitive structure started, and how that coincides with other competitive activities prior to WWII-- see an article I wrote on this here). Popularity came after the 1939 World's Fair and the rise of Esther Williams. Williams was originally a speed swimmer, but due to WWII no Olympic Games were held and she was recruited to join the Aquacades, which helped her land a movie contract, and the rest is history. Synchro became an Olympic sport in 1984 (before that it had been an exhibition event) and the US dominated the medal podium until 1996. Since then Russia, Japan, and Spain have proven to be strong competitors.

Chris Carver tells much of this history in Sync or Swim. Carver is a formidable woman, coaching the swimmers from high above.  All the coaches tend to sit above the pool, looking down, and they use a microphone to bark commands and corrections that can be heard underwater as well. With her ubiquitous voice head coach Carver seems a God-like figure.  She also reminded me of the director in A Chorus Line, who similarly uses a microphone to control his charges from a disembodied high perch.

Carver is also featured in another recent documentary about synchronized swimming-- 2008's Synchronized Swimming, released by PBS as part of their "The Pursuit of Excellence" series (I must tell you, if you haven't seen the Ferrets episode that is part of this series, you are seriously missing out. It is a real-life/too-much-to-be-believed version of Best in Show... but with ferrets).  Though this came out before Sync or Swim, it takes place after the main action of it.  In this documentary Carver is no longer Olympic head coach; instead she is coach of the Santa Clara Aquamaids, one of the top synchro clubs.  Also featured in both docs is Anna Kozlova.  In Sync or Swim she is a competitor (winning two Olympic medals), and in The Pursuit of Excellence episode she is a coach of the Aquamaids.  (A nice touch in the 2011 DVD of Sync or Swim is that the bonus features give you a 2010-11 update on where the swimmers and coaches are now-- and many of them have gone on to great personal and professional success in and out of synchronized swimming [particularly noteworthy is how many have received top-notch higher educations].)

While Sync or Swim is definitely more comprehensive and edited better, which also means telling a more compelling story with lots of drama (including the story of one swimmer who was involved in a tragic car accident that leads to jail time), I did like that The Pursuit of Excellence episode discussed boys in the sport of synchro whereas Sync or Swim was  mute on this issue.  One talented young man is featured, and his dedication is all the more admirable given he is not currently allowed to compete in major international events, like the Olympics.  Though, if you can only purchase or view one, my vote goes to Sync or Swim, for its superior editing, narrative arc, and contextualization of the sport.

On a final note, in The Pursuit of Excellence episode, coach Chris Carver does *guarantee* that at least one of the young swimmers featured will someday make an Olympic team. I did a bit of digging and couldn't find that any of the "stars" made the 2008 team. Can anyone confirm if any are up for next summer's 2012 London Games?  Based on the timeline in Sync or Swim, the training squad should already be taking shape (note Trials are this November).