Swimming & Diving

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The Game Changer: Mixed Duet in Synchronized Swimming

11 Aug, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
First FINA Gold Medal for U.S. Couple is Bad News for Russia After Years of Domination of the Sport, Good News for U.S. Clubs and Travel Teams

Synchronized swimming, with its jargon including sculling, flamingo and crane, is not a language everyone in the sports world speaks. But here’s one term everyone does recognize: game changer. And everyone saw that at the FINA World Championships, when the U.S. bested Russia in the first-ever mixed duet technical event.

And, say officials, it’s a game changer that has ramifications at not just the international level, but at the club level – which affects sports tourism.

Mixed duet, a new event this year in synchro, is a mixed-gender pairs competition. And when the U.S. duo of Bill May and Christina Jones won gold, it marked the end of years of Russian domination in synchronized swimming.

FINA voted for the addition of mixed-gender events in synchronized swimming and diving at the Extraordinary Congress in Doha, Qatar, in late 2014. Not surprisingly, Russia was opposed to it, complaining bitterly that men had no place in synchro, according to an article in Yahoo! News.

Synchronized swimming should be "a purely feminine sport" and introducing mixed competition is "mistaken," Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told Russian agency R-Sport. He even hinted that the introduction of mixed duets was the result of pressure from Russia's rivals. "Evidently, some kind of group of countries has pushed this through," he said.

Yeah, yeah. Tell that to the judges who awarded May and Jones 88.5108 points in the final, allowing them to edge Russia's Aleksandr Maltsev and Darina Valitova, who finished at 88.2986.(Next, May added to his medal haul with a silver in the mixed duet free with 2000 Olympian Kristina Lum Underwood, finishing second to the Russian pair.)

What might this mean for sports tourism? More interest in synchro internationally (who doesn’t want to see a new discipline – and who doesn’t want to see gold medal winners from the U.S.?) At the local level, it means an enhanced ability to recruit male performers, who now have a place in the sport.

And that means more members on local synchro club teams, which drive the travel market for the sport.

See where all this is headed? Right: increased economic impact, bigger audiences and positive publicity. And (hello) dominance over Russia.

Previously, male synchronized swimmers were forced to stage their own competitions away from the official FINA schedule or to perform at non-competitive shows. Many male swimmers, such as those competing in the men's group discipline, had no avenue for sanctioned medal contention.

“I feel that this event can be a strength for the USA,” said USA Synchro Executive Director Kevin Warner at the time mixed competition was approved. “I was told that our organization proposed this event several years ago, so we are very excited to have the opportunity to showcase one of our strengths to the world

The Yahoo! Article noted the inclusion of mixed-gender events “could threaten Russia's total dominance of a sport in which it has won every available Olympic gold medal this century. It also challenges gender roles in a country whose government has made a point of promoting images of traditional masculinity.

Olympic 100-meter butterfly silver medalist Evgeny Korotyshkin told Russian media at the time that he might cry at the sight of a male synchronized swimmer's ‘hairy legs poking out of the pool.’

However, Elena Markoch, a coach who has trained several of Russia's Olympic champions, said Russians will eventually warm to male synchronized swimmers with the passion currently shown to the country's male figure skating stars.”

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