The male synchronised swimmer barred from the Olympics

Tony Paterson reports on the male synchronised swimmer fighting for equality

Niklas Stoepel has to shave his legs and wear bathing suits embroidered with sequins in order to take part in his favourite sport.

Yet, despite the derision of schoolmates who call him names, the 17-year-old is one of Germany's leading synchronised swimmers. He has walked away with a string of national trophies in a sport that – to his dismay – is almost completely the preserve of women.

His ambition is to be a member of the German synchronised swimming team when it competes in the 2012 Olympics in London. But although hardly a day has passed in the past decade when he has not been training in a pool, there is little chance of his realising his dream.

For when it comes to international competition, synchronised swimming is a women-only sport. The Federation International de Natation (Fina), the world body which oversees the discipline, refuses to alter what many claim is an extraordinarily backward, if not sexist, attitude to the sport.

"I feel as if I am being discriminated against," Niklas says. "I believe that officials just don't want to see any men taking part in this sport." To combat what he sees as anti-male prejudice, Niklas has gone public in the hope that media exposure will effect change.

The discipline can be traced back to the Romans and ancient Greeks, who began using male swimmers to perform water gymnastics in flooded amphitheatres. The sport resurfaced as "ballet in the water" in the late 19th century, with the first known competition in Berlin in 1891. At the turn of the last century, the participants were mostly male.

Yet soon afterwards, the sport began to take off as an exclusively female activity. One of the highlights was a performance by the Australian Annette Kellerman, pictured, who, in 1907, performed spectacular underwater ballet in a glass tank in New York.

By 1934 the term "synchronised swimming" was being used to describe the water ballet performed by an American all-women team called the Modern Mermaids. Yet it was only in 1984 that the sport was officially admitted to the Olympic Games.

Synchronised swimmers, like Niklas, wear nose clips to keep the water out during underwater somersaults. During competitions, they wear often elaborately decorated swimsuits and perform to the sound of music played to them through loudspeakers above and below the water. Like actors, competitors sometimes wear heavy eye make-up to dramatise their performance.

Like any male ballet dancer, Niklas sees dressing up as the necessary theatrical prop that goes with his sport. He started synchronised swimming at age seven, when his cousin Leona took him along to a training session at his local swimming club in Bochum. Now he trains for up to five hours a day. He says that although he was once laughed at by his schoolmates for taking part, he is now respected for his commitment to the discipline.

In Germany during the national competitions in which he is allowed to compete, the only problem appears to be the judges. "Many of them are stricter when it comes to awarding me points than they are with the female competitors," he said, "It's not fair, but I still haven't given up my dream of one day competing in an international championship."

The last time that the ban received attention was during the Sydney Olympics in 2000 when the American Bill May was barred from taking part although he had fulfilled all the necessary qualifications.

The world's senior swimming officials seem unable to provide a convincing answer as to why the sport is not thrown open to men. An attempt to gain an explanation ended in what looked like bureaucratic buck-passing earlier this week when Ulla Lucenius, the official responsible for synchronised swimming at Fina, said it had not received enough requests from swimming clubs around the world for a rule change to be considered.

The German Swimming Association spokesman Peter Purtz said his organisation would not be pushing for change. "It is not discrimination. It's like ski jumping. For years that was a male-only sport," he said. "You should not be asking us why men are not allowed to take part, you should ask Fina – they make the rules."

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice