French swim into hot water with synchronised Holocaust

For most people, synchronised swimming is an innocuous sport, which involves young women gesticulating and smiling madly in the middle of a swimming pool. But now, the French Olympic team have brought a darker side to the sport with a move which has caused outrage in France.

Of all the themes they could have chosen for their Olympic programme, they have rather controversially plumped for the Holocaust. For four minutes in an Atlanta pool this summer, they will act out a routine, which depicts the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the Second World War.

Fortunately, the eight swimmers on the national team will not be donning either Hitlerian moustaches or jack boots. Nor will they be goose-stepping around the edge of the Olympic pool. They will however be re-enacting the arrival of Jews in concentration camps to songs from the ghettos and the theme music of Schindler's List.

"I chose this theme because it allows us to convey emotions," says national trainer, Odile Petit. "After all, our sport is one of expression." However, even the president of the French Swimming Federation, Francis Luyce, acknowledges that he was "a bit surprised" when he first saw the programme at the French Championships in Amiens in March. "I heard a few comments from the audience which showed the programme was not unanimously appreciated," he said. "I understand that this is a sensitive subject, but it is not meant to be a provocation."

Naturally, the idea of an aquatic Shoah has not gone down well with everyone. One spectator was led to express his "profound revolt" after watching the programme. "How great was my amazement when I discovered half a dozen young girls wearing caps and nosepegs, swimming around in the sweet blue water of a swimming pool, simulating the sorting out of deportees as they got off trains at the entrance to Nazi camps," he wrote to the French Swimming Federation. "You have accomplished the most advanced act of desacralisation."

Ms Petit does not see what all the fuss is about.

"The Duchesnays skated a programme which represented torture in Chile," she said of the French skating stars. "This theme is closer to us and affects us more. Our message is an appeal to fight against racism. If we had chosen to evoke the circus, there would have been no problem, but we would not have been able to express ourselves with so much force."

Two weeks ago at the European Cup, the French beat the Russians for the first time in seven years.

The theme has not upsetjudges. This may be because the audience did not understand what was going on. "The symbols are not obvious to understand," admits Ms Petit. "Swimmers who were not aware of the theme did not know what it was about." Maybe it's not that expressive after all.

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