[an error occurred while processing this directive] Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
Student Papers
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Lords of the Underwater Dance: Men in Synchronized Swimming

Rebecca Rouse

In today's sports culture, the desegregation of traditionally male-dominated sports seems a natural move in the context of American society's growing dialogue on women's rights. However, one aspect of gender equality in sports which remains practically unaddressed is the issue of men's participation and acceptance in traditionally female-dominated sports. There exists a serious "cultural roadblock" (Arnold 1998) that effects men competing in sports which are traditionally associated with women and, in some cases, a legal roadblock as well. One of the most shocking examples of sex discrimination in a sporting event is faced by male synchronized swimmers. Men were until very recently not allowed to even participate in synchronized swimming events in the Olympics and other internationally recognized competitions such as those associated with the Federation Internationale de Natacion Amateur and the Pan American Games. Many opponents argue that, in a male-dominated society, issues such as the discrimination against male synchronized swimmers are simply irrelevant. However, it is important to remember that gender equality means equal rights and opportunities for both men and women.

Male synchronized swimmer in action

It is hard for many to even accept synchronized swimming as a sport. It has a 'frivolous' reputation, is included as parts of Hollywood musicals and Las Vegas shows and is viewed by many as pure entertainment rather than athleticism. Indeed, synchronized swimmers have problems being taken seriously on a variety of fronts. For example, "in 1996, the French Olympic team was banned from using a routine in which swimmers attempted to portray the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust" (Arnold 1998). The issue becomes even more complicated when the idea of men involved in synchronized swimming is introduced. To many it is a feminine sport, reminiscent of the underwater dancing of Esther Williams and of smiling young women in coordinating bathing suits. Men appear in synchronized swimming only as a joke, such as in the popular Saturday Night Live sketch from 1984 which features actors Martin Short and Harry Shearer in lifejackets, bathing caps, and nose plugs performing an obviously ridiculous routine. "Men have never done synchronized swimming in a sanctioned competition in this country. Officially, it's got like a zero acceptance rate... Men's synchro isn't even in the '88 Olympics yet," acknowledges one character. "That's okay, because we could use the time," he then spoofs. "'Cause I'm not... I'm not that strong a swimmer" (Guest et al, 1984). This is the only exposure that many Americans have had to the idea of men participating in synchronized swimming, and it is introduced as a piece of comedy. It is a piece of comedy that comes back to haunt those male athletes who would seek to make men's synchronized swimming a mainstream and socially accepted event.

Harry Shearer and Martin Short as synchronized swimmers in a 1984 Saturday Night Live sketch

For Bill May, synchronized swimming is no joke: "He's heard it all, from comments about Martin Short's synchronized swimming skit on Saturday Night Live to the more positive spin about getting to hang out with all those girls" (Arnold 1998). A California resident in his early 20s, May is a member of the Santa Clara Aquamaids, an accomplished and well known synchronized swimming club. He is also the club's only male member. Although he has won synchronized swimming's Grand Slam at the 2000 Jantzen Nations, finished first in duet at the Swiss Open and French Open last year, and was named the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Athlete of the Year in 1998 and 1999 (Ziemer 2000) he was still barred from many international competitions until September of 2000. "'I basically see myself as any person who wanted to try synchronized swimming,' [May told ABC news]. 'When I first joined, I thought, 'This is a great sport and it's fun.' He did not have visions, he says, of becoming a pioneer, of making a statement, of going where few men have ever gone. But he hopes other men follow his lead" (Ziemer 2000). Indeed, as May looks forward to competing in the 2004 Olympics as part of a coed duet with partner Kristina Lum, many more men are taking steps to finally become involved with synchronized swimming. Men's synchronized swimming is even starting to gain respect and recognition outside of the United States. May and Lum were invited in 1998 to visit China and "demonstrate the idea of a mixed synchronized swimming pair in [that] country" (Arnold 1998), leading many to believe that the sport is beginning to develop rapidly in many areas of the world. However, even as legal restrictions on male synchronized swimmers are being lifted, cultural prejudices remain.

Bill May with fellow Aquamaid Kristina Lum

At the very least, men synchronized swimmers are something that mainstream America is not used to seeing, if not something that people consider inappropriate. Bill May's synchronized swimming club, the Aquamaids, and other synchronized swimming groups have received many promotional opportunities, such as appearing in an Aerosmith video and in advertisements for Mervyns and Comedy Central. However, May himself was not given the opportunity to appear in these ads and was specifically not invited to participate in the Aerosmith shoot (Arnold 1998). Male synchronized swimming is often associated with homosexuality, with no actual grounds for that association. The most obvious example of this stereotype is the film "Waterboys," a Japanese production which was released by Miramax in the United States last year. The piece is often labeled part of the gay and lesbian film genre and tells the story of an all-male high school synchronized swimming team. Directed by Yaguchi Shinobu, the film is a comedy which is described in almost all its reviews as homoerotic. "No one will be surprised to hear that, in a film in which boys walk round as much as possible in small tight swimming trunks, there is a wealth of gay allusions between the lines," states the web site of the International Film Festival at Rotterdam. These stereotype further hinder the acceptance of male synchronized swimming in an already homophobic popular culture, and inhibit such athletes as Don Squire, coach of the Cyprus Club in Carmel Valley, and his partner Del Neel: "Squire calls the competitive synchro world 'very political' and 'very sexist'; he claims that he and his partner... have been snubbed over and over because 'two gay men coaching in a women's sport is just not that politically popular with U.S. Synchro'" (Arnold 1998).

A scene from 'Waterboys,' a 2001 film directed by Yaguchi Shinobu

Too often issues of sexism against men get ignored in American popular culture, especially in American sports culture. The issue of men's participation in synchronized swimming is a good example of the struggles that men are currently going through in order to ensure that gender equality in the sports world applies to everyone.


Arnold, Gina. "Synch Different," Metro Publishing Inc., http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/09.10.98/cover/synchroswim-9836.html, September 10, 1998.

Guest, Christopher, et al. "Synchronized Swimmers," http://snltranscripts.jt.org/scripts/84aswimmers.phtml, originally broadcast October 6, 1984.

"Waterboys (Review)," International Film Festival of Rotterdam, http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com/2002/en/film/10522.html, 2001.

Ziemer, Tracy. "Out of Sync: Male Synchronized Swimmer Barred from the Olympics," http://abcnews.go.com/sections/sports/DailyNews/billmay_000901.html, 2000.

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