Wrath of the waterboys
A male synchronised swimming team from London is furious at the Olympic Games' ban on men
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday, covering Sarah Cassidy’s maternity leave. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 06 May 2012
At a central London sports centre, six hairy legs emerge from a swimming pool in time to a beat before coquettishly disappearing again. This is Britain's only men's synchronised swimming team – the Out to Swim Angels – and they want to know why men are barred from the sport at the Olympics.
The group of men in sequinned trunks has set out to disprove claims that this year's Olympic Games has broken down the last bastion of sporting sexism. London 2012 organisers claimed this would be the first Games which made all sports available to men and women, but the Angels disagree. Men are still barred from competing in synchronised swimming, despite the fact that members of the team have won international events at the highest level.
Last year the Angels took home a gold medal at the Eurogames in Rotterdam, but they want the next generation to have a chance at Olympic glory. Richard Snow, 34, an interior designer and founder member of the team, said: "Originally there weren't many sports women could compete in, so having synchro for women only was about letting them have more sports [of their own]. But times have moved on and the rules should be reversed. I feel sad that men can't compete. Bit by bit we hope we can break down the barrier for men. Hopefully that will mean teams start including boys from a young age."
America has twice seen men succeed in international contests only to be knocked back for Olympic qualification because it is a women-only sport. Californian Kenyon Smith was one of the most accomplished synchronised swimmers in the US ahead of the 2008 Games in Beijing, but he was barred from entering. Four years earlier Bill May, who had won many awards and competitions in duo performances with women – including the 2000 Grand Slam – was barred from the 2004 Olympics in Athens because of his gender.
In Britain, men's synchro lags behind. When the Angels began training in 2010, they had to progress through the same entry-level examinations that young girls pursue to get swimming badges. Mr Snow said: "There was this line of seven-year-old girls and then next to them this 6ft hairy guy. We felt very silly."
Founded in 2010 as part of Out to Swim, a gay swimming club based at the Queen Mother Sports Centre in Victoria in London, the team has become accomplished quickly. Under the tough tutelage of Sanela Nikolic, a former Yugoslav champion who also competed for the UK, they now hope to enter women's contests. Tapping a beat out on the pool ladder, Ms Nikolic, 39, barks out rhythms and instructions: "Five, six, seven, eight... Point your toes Emmanuel!" The men kick their legs obediently, dive under water and pull each other around by the ankles in an increasingly complex routine.
In training, the team wear standard trunks, but for competitions they have specially adapted pants with sequinned angel wings on the back. Their next competitive swim is against a men's team in Paris at the end of this month.
Ms Nikolic believes that the time has come for men's synchro to be accepted. "In this modern world, it is time to move beyond the arbitrary preconceptions we have of certain types of sport," she said. "Synchronised swimming is one of the last few examples of a discipline not open to both men and women. A whole generation of athletes needs to be created to compete at Olympic level, and this will take time. It may need to start out as a demonstration sport to raise its profile, but the issue of placing rather arbitrary gender restrictions on Olympic sports must be challenged."
Derde Exposito, 32, who is originally from Cuba, is the club's star. "Synchronised swimming for men is quite common in Cuba; they call it aquatic ballet. My favourite move is the 'ballet leg', where you stick your leg out of the water. It's the most stylish."
Ronan Daly, no relation to the similarly surnamed diver, is the tallest and burliest of the team. Standing at 6ft 4ins and beginning to show his 45 years, the gardener confessed: "Most people can't believe I do it, but it's great fun. I told my partner as a joke that the only time I'd consider swimming was if the club did synchro, then when they started doing it I had to give it a go."
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