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."

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain