Archive for August, 2012

The sports I enjoy watching in the Olympics are the unusual ones, the ones you don’t get to see everyday. And it doesn’t come any more unusual than synchronised swimming.

Lots of people tend to make fun of synchronised swimming. Possibly because of all they know of the sport is pictures like this:

Some say it’s not a real sport and even laugh at the athletes who compete in it. Those people either haven’t ever seen the sport performed, or they’re just mean-spirited haters. Today I got to watch it for the first time and I can tell you: it was a treat.

The main thing I learned about synchronised swimming is obvious when you think about it: it’s crazy hard. I say “obvious when you think about it” because it doesn’t occur to you right away, the athletes make it look so easy!

Consider the strength needed to lift your body that far out of the water, and the core strength needed to keep your legs upright and controlled. The athletes are not allowed to touch the floor at all, especially when one has to launch the other into a jump.

Each of the precise movements is exactly synchronised, but there is no time to carefully align them – each happens in rapid succession. This year the camera angles were really amazing, not just one above and one below water, but also a camera on the waterline across the pool (so it’s not affected by the splashes) can show the athlete’s entire body both above and below water.

You can see the proverbial duck’s legs paddling below the water – all the hard work needed to give the show of apparent effortlessness above the water. Even then, their immense strength means that even below the water they are often almost synchronised. The crazy thing I keep thinking about is how they hold their breath for so long! And when they do get a breath it is as they complete a fast, complicated above-water sequence, while controlling their facial expressions. They do such intense exercise with very limited breath… I’m exhausted just watching!


The women really do look like they belong in the water. My favourite moves are those too fast for your mind to understand how they did it before they’ve moved on to the next. Long, shiny legs move gracefully and powerfully, a sleek head and beautiful smile, then a splash and suddenly all has disappeared. At times, the athletes really look like water sprites!

I watched the “duets” (2 ladies) “free routines” which means that they can choose any music and any choreography and they’ve got 3.5minutes to show off as many skills as they can. This was pretty choice since it meant each routine was really different. My favourites were Italy, Spain, China, Russia and Canada.

Spain had really intense, flamenco-inspired moves, with matching slick black hair and red-flowered uniforms.

At the beginning of their routine each duo walks up (in freakish unison) onto a deck over the pool. Many choose to strike a stunning pose before a whistle is blown, their music starts and they have 10 seconds to enter the pool. This time on the deck is often used to set the tone and show the theme for the routine to follow. Here is the Spanish duet’s pose in the European Champs (I couldn’t find a pic of their Olympic one):

Sexy, non?

With the help of the commentator I could tell that the best routines were those that had “contrast” – fast intense bits and slow, subtle bits. I really liked the drama that was created when the moves matched the well-chosen music and how this often reflected the teams’ country of origin.

This theatricality was enhanced by the sparkly beautiful (and sometimes zany) costumes, complete with hairpieces (prickling with approximately ten million bobby pins to hold them in throughout the routine) and sometimes quite pronounced makeup. Each of these elements enhances the theme of the performance and while some may look really extreme, the commentators reminded us that it’s just like stage makeup – it’s for the benefit not only of the judges but those spectators way up in the stands.

It’s pretty shocking, then, to see the athletes without their getup.

These lovely ladies are Canadian synchronised swimmers Elise Marcotte and Marie-Pier Boudreau-Gagnon. They did their pre-Games training in utter secrecy in Spain, before revealing their comedy-themed routine yesterday.

Their theme was the English tradition of the Court Jester, complete with jester-hat themed hair pieces. Their music was kooky and filled with crazy, echo-y (almost creepy) laughter and comedic sound effects perfectly timed to match the swimmers’ movements – like a crazy “boing” springing noise as a single leg sprang from the water. Lots of their leg movements were wild, flapping around like manic Punch n’ Judy puppets, except that they were both perfectly in time. I liked the inclusion of humourous moves and also kind of slight-of-hand (and leg) movements that kept it so entertaining. (Is that a leg? Where’d that arm come from? Whose hand is that?)

Again, the underwater view reminds you that they’re upside-down for half of their routine. The stamina required to complete the 3.5 minute routine is considerable.

They looked like they were really having fun and the whole thing was really clever. One of the final moves involved one of the swimmers hitting the other on the head with an invisible club – Punch ‘n Judy styles – so that she made a crazy facial expression and sank beneath the water. Love!

Another really memorable duet was the Russians Natalia Ishchenko and Romashina Svetlana. Their theme was dolls – made obvious from their opening pose and clockwork movements on deck à la ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. Their uniforms were quite distinctive, too, with two slightly-spooky dolls on the front and their hair in childlike pink buns and a big pink bow.

Their movements were fun and childlike with apparently effortless flips, but also precise and exact in their clockwork-ness.

The obvious fun they brought to their routine was obvious and some of the moves were really cheeky. A lot of the teams used exaggerated facial expressions to match their music – not just the static, manic smiles we think of in synchronised swimming.

One team who’s theme was a little more “out there” was the duet from Brazil, Nayara Figueira and Lara Teixeira. Their theme was the Human Body and I really liked their soundtrack but their costumes were quite… different. They featured red and blue bedazzled, quite anatomically detailed, arteries, veins and a heart on the front, a sparkly gold skeleton torso and pelvis on the back, and a whole swimming cap embroidered like a brain. Yup. Different.

But they rocked it with their pearly whites. And their airtime.

One of the top teams in the competition, along with Russia, Spain and Canada were the Chinese duet of Xuechen Huang and Ou Liu. Like the Spanish, their theme was clear from the outset and was obviously inspired by their national culture.

You’ve heard of spirit fingers? Well the Chinese duet have dragon fingers! I thought it was a really cool motif throughout their routine and it really set them apart and gave them their own flavour.

Uniform-wise I also really liked the duet from Kazakhstan’s and also the Australians’. I loved the music and choreography of the Spanish, Italian and Japanese duets. Definitely looking forward to the finals tomorrow! Medals are tipped to go to 1st Russia, 2nd and 3rd China and Spain. I’d really like it if Italy could somehow get up there, too.

Maggie Hendricks has also written a great post entitled Wolves and Torches and Broadway Songs: Why You Need To Watch Synchronised Swimming.

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So just a few days in and already, as with any events of this scale, there have been some scandals – or perhaps “controversies” is a better word – at these Olympics.

First of all there was that mysterious woman who entered with the Indian team during the Parade of Nations but who was not part of the Indian contingent. Brazenly she walked right at the head of the team next to the flagbearer. Rumours were rife – had she bragged about her press pass on Facebook before the event? Who was she? What was she doing?

The Indians are understandably upset, with the acting chef de mission of the delegation Brig. P K Muralidharan Raja pointing out

The Indian contingent was shown for hardly 10 seconds in the TV coverage, and the entire focus sadly was on this lady instead of the athletes.

Apparently graduate student Madhura Nagendra was a volunteer involved in the ceremony who was told to quietly slip back into the stadium with the Indian team. …Fail!

Another Olympic controversy was caused not by a person or people but rather by the lack of people. Anyone watching the Olympics on TV must have noticed the number of empty seats at so many (even most) of the “sold out” events. With so many supporters clamouring for tickets, it’s not a good look to have half-empty stadiums.

With most of the tickets supposedly for sale to the public, a large number are reserved for media and press, Olympic officials, and athletes not competing in that event, who may decide not to show up.  Apparently many of the tickets were those allocated to foreign vendors who simply didn’t want to pay to return the unsold tickets.

It’s not a good look and Olympic officials and UK politicians alike are becoming increasingly frustrated.

While the Olympics are all about sportswomanship, achieving personal bests and setting records, one young woman sparked controversy when she did just that in the swimming pool. Ye Shiwen’s shock upset in the woman’s 400m medley is big news. Not just because she won, but the way that she came from behind and in 25m was a body length ahead of the next swimmer. She created not just a new world record of 4m 28.43s, but in doing so the 16-year-old Chinese girl beat the time of her male counterpart, 27-year-old American Ryan Lochte for the last 50m (the two lengths of freestyle). She also beat her own previous best by 5 seconds.

The controversy came, however, with the speed with which the doping question was inferred by the BBC commentator Clare Balding.  Just minutes after the race she asked

How many questions will there be, Mark, about somebody who can suddenly swim so much faster than she has ever swum before?

A storm erupted online with those defending Shiwen and those protesting that the drug question was justified considering the extraordinary circumstances. Olympic Village Deputy Mayor Duncan Goodhew is quoted as saying

I think it is very destructive and very irresponsible of anybody to accuse people until they are proven guilty.

The head of anti-doping at China’s General Administration of Sport, Jiang Zhixue reportedly stated

The Chinese athletes, including the swimmers, have undergone nearly 100 drug tests since they arrived here. Many were also tested by the international federations and the British anti-doping agency. … I think it is not proper to single Chinese swimmers out once they produce good results. … We never questioned Michael Phelps when he bagged eight gold medals in Beijing.

The Telegraph‘s Paul Hayward wrote an interesting article on the whole incident, “too fast for her own good in the swimming pool“.

(P.S. How cute is Shiwen?? XD)

Another woman who has been surrounded by uninvited controversy is joduka (judo fighter) Wojdan Shaherkani of Saudi Arabia, who was told that wearing a hijab was banned during competition for safety reasons. 16-year-old Wojdan was considering withdrawing and not competing at all if the ban was upheld. As you can imagine, controversy ensued.

Happily, common sense has since prevailed and a compromise has been reached with specially designed Islamic-compliant headgear being commissioned.

One really heart-breaking controversy was the fencing timing debacle at the end of the women’s épée semi-final between South Korean Shin A-lam and German Britta Heidermann. At the end of the match A-lam thought she’d won when the clock hit zero and the score was 5-5, because she had “priority” meaning that she was the winner in such a situation. However the clock was reset to one second amid vehement protests from the South Korean coach. Somehow during that second Britta scored a hit which apparently gave her the win. A distraught A-lam wept and declined to leave the piste, believing that to do so would jeopardize her appeal.

Amid slow-claps and jeers from the audience, A-lam waited, weeping, for 75 minutes (delayed the two medal competitions) before Britta’s win was upheld and she was escorted from the piste by two officials. Just minutes later she had to return to fight for bronze, which she lost 11-15 to world number one Sun Yujie.

Afterwards, through an interpreter A-lam said,

I think it’s unfair. The one second was over – I should have won. The hour was really difficult, but I thought if I got a yellow card [for leaving the piste] I might not be able to fight for bronze. I’m very sorry for the spectators. They spent a lot of money and I just don’t understand how this could have happened.

In the aftermath, Korean Olympic Committee President Park Yong-sung has stated,

I spoke to the FIE today. They never expected this kind of thing to happen in the last second, three attacks. Their timekeeping machine is only in seconds, not points of a second. … Because of this system design they could not handle the situation correctly yesterday, that they admit.

Since then, the IFE has decided to do something to commemorate A-lam’s ordeal (and, I guess, the fact that she was robbed!)

The International Fencing Federation said in a statement the medal would be awarded for her “aspiration to win and respect for the rules.”

I just think the whole story is really gut-wrenching. Imagine watching the clock be changed then sitting crying in front of 8,000 people, with everyone insisting you’re a loser. Brave woman!

One controversy of these Olympics involved online social networking, and an abusive twitter message sent to Great Britain diver Tom Daley. Reportedly Daley has said that his dad, who passed away due to a brain tumour last year, “gave me all the inspiration that I’ve needed”.

I’m doing it for myself and my dad. It was both our dreams from a very young age.

Unfortunately Tom and partner Peter Waterfield just missed out on a medal with a fourth-place finish in their 10m synchronised diving event. Afterwards twitter user Reece Messer posted a malicious message, taunting Tom about being a disappointment to his father.

Apparently he also threatened to drown Tom and sent other abusive messages. 17-year-old Reece was later arrested after a complaint from a member of the public, invoking much controversy about “free speech” and whether the police should have the power to “censor” online communication.

A technological gaffe has also sparked international controversy at the Games: when North Korea played football against Colombia in Scotland the pre-game graphics showed the South Korean flag next to the players’ name and photograph. The players walked off the pitch and the game was delayed for over an hour.

It’s kind of like someone said “What’s the worst that could happen?”…

A slightly less serious incident was the nude snow angel performed by a man during the men’s cycling road race.  Following the cyclists, helicopters filming the race also caught the apparently naked man lying on a roof alongside the track making an invisible snow angel.

Reviews of the footage reveal the man was actually wearing a pair of speedos and lying on a New Zealand flag – that’s right, he’s a kiwi! What a proud moment for us all. 29-year-old Nick McAvoy has lived in London for a couple of years, and according to his father,

his son had seen the helicopters hover over his Fulham flat before, so thought he’d give them something to look at when he heard them approaching again on Saturday.

Naturally. Go NZ!


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