Where Did ‘Synchronized Swimming’ Go?

More than 30 years after its Olympic debut, the sport was rebranded as “artistic swimming”—a controversial move that athletes fear could backfire.

Two Japanese artistic swimmers wearing pink-and-orange suits compete at the Tokyo Olympics.
Tom Pennington / Getty

If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you may have noticed that synchronized swimming has a new name. In July 2017, the International Swimming Federation, or FINA, announced that the sport would be called “artistic swimming,” effective immediately. Not everyone was a fan—to put it mildly.

“‘Artistic Swimming’ sounds like something society ladies did with their bosom friends at garden parties or after tea in the early 20th century,” wrote Jessica Lewis, one of more than 11,000 people from 88 countries who signed a petition against the renaming at the time. “Synchronized swimming is a REAL sport for REAL athletes.”

The change may seem minor to outside observers, but it has unleashed a furious debate over the sport’s identity and future. The majority of those within the world of synchronized swimming, or “synchro”—one of two women-only Olympic sports—had no inkling that the change was coming. Within days, Kris Harley-Jesson, a former synchro swimmer who has coached national teams in Europe and North America, had launched the aforementioned petition. Thousands of public comments written in multiple languages poured in, including from current and former swimmers and coaches at all levels of the sport.

Their concerns were numerous—that athletes did not appear to be consulted in the decision, that removing the word synchronized would erase the very essence of the sport, and that the financial cost of rebranding would fall to the teams themselves. But the biggest concern, by far, was that the term artistic would detract from the athleticism of the sport, which has always faced an uphill battle to be taken seriously. As one commenter wrote, “Synchro swimmers had a hard enough time convincing others that their sport is a real sport and is hard to do, without it having a ridiculous name.”

The change, according to multiple sources, including former FINA Executive Director Cornel Marculescu, came at the behest of International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, who thought a different name could better serve the sport. But regardless of the original impetus (the IOC declined my request to speak with Bach), synchro has lost the identity it had for more than eight decades. Now many athletes worry they could also lose the respect they spent so long earning from skeptics.

The name “synchronized swimming” dates back to the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair, where an emerging style of swimming made its mass debut. In the 1920s and ’30s, swim clubs across the United States were experimenting with floating patterns and swimming “stunts”—movements that prioritized form and group work over individual speed. Katharine Curtis, a physical-education instructor at the University of Chicago, added music from a poolside gramophone as a way to synchronize swimmers with a beat and with one another; she called her innovation “rhythmic swimming.” When the World’s Fair came to town, Curtis was asked to organize a show. She gathered 60 female swimmers and, under the name “Modern Mermaids,” they performed three times a day all summer, accompanied by a 12-piece band. When the radio announcer Norman Ross described the spectacle as “synchronized swimming,” the name stuck. Curtis saw competitive potential for this new swimming style and, in 1939, oversaw the first meet between teams. Within two years, synchro gained full acceptance by the Amateur Athletic Union, officially cementing it as a competitive sport.

While Curtis and others were moving aquatic performance in a more athletic direction, the American impresario Billy Rose saw an opportunity to link the chorus-girl aesthetic popularized by the Ziegfeld Follies with the rising interest in water-based entertainment. In 1937, he introduced his famous “aquacades,” variety shows featuring—according to one souvenir program—“the glamour of diving and swimming mermaids in water ballets of breath-taking beauty and rhythm.” The swimming champion Esther Williams was the face of Rose’s San Francisco production; she went on to launch her Hollywood career, becoming an international sensation in the ’40s and ’50s by starring in MGM’s aqua-musicals, swimming-themed films with elaborately choreographed water ballets.

By mid-century, synchronized swimming was a growing international sport with Olympic ambitions. Technologies such as underwater speakers and nose clips enabled swimmers to spend more time in difficult upside-down sequences (called “hybrids”) rather than in the geometric floating patterns associated with Williams’s films. Leaders within the sport took steps to distance it from its water-ballet cousin, discouraging theatrical costumes and props and making scoring more technical and less subjective. They organized Olympic exhibitions, starting at the 1952 Helsinki Games, to raise awareness of the sport.

Olympic induction seemed to be just around the corner. But longtime IOC President Avery Brundage wanted nothing to do with synchro, repeatedly dismissing it as “aquatic vaudeville.” Not until after his retirement did synchronized swimming join the Olympic program, making its debut at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Today, artistic (née synchronized) swimming has evolved nearly beyond recognition from its early years. Routines and movements are faster, lifts and throws have become ever more acrobatic and daring, and athletes spend many more hours per day in training. At the same time, scoring continues to evolve. Virginia Jasontek, the honorary secretary to the FINA Technical Artistic (formerly “Synchronized”) Swimming Committee, told me that a new deduction-based system is in the works alongside changes to make scoring difficulty and synchronization more technical.

Ironically, despite synchro’s efforts to move away from its show-biz origins, the IOC wants to highlight its entertainment value. “Today, sport should be a show,” Marculescu told me when I asked why the IOC pushed for the name change. “If sport today doesn’t provide this interest for television, if they don’t create a show, they lose ... viewers around the world.” He pointed out that synchro already has this audience appeal through its use of music and underwater footage. In exchange for changing the name, Marculescu added, the IOC said it would “keep it in the [Olympic] program and not reduce the number of swimmers”—an ever-looming threat, as cuts have to be made somewhere to add new events.

When Marculescu tasked the FINA Technical Synchronized Swimming Committee with proposing an alternative name to be voted on by the organization, the committee pushed back, according to Jasontek. “But then [Marculescu] came back to us a second time and said, ‘I really need you to come up with another name.’” Jasontek said the TSSC “fought hard” for a year and a half, but eventually decided that if the goal is to grow the sport and keep it relevant, it was better to lose the sport’s long-established brand than the good graces of FINA and the IOC. After debating a few names, the TSSC ultimately landed on artistic swimming, hoping it would align the sport with artistic gymnastics, an Olympic powerhouse, while also nodding at the sport’s artistry, which the IOC clearly valued. Not to mention that “artistic impression” is one of the three major scoring categories, along with “execution” and “difficulty,” and counts for a larger share of a routine’s total score than synchronization.

When the name change was brought for a vote at the 2017 FINA general congress, it passed quickly, says Judy McGowan, the president of USA Synchronized Swimming at the time, which she believes was by design. Normally, she told me, important issues specific to a single FINA discipline are first raised for discussion or a straw vote within that sport’s own technical congress. That way you have people who understand the sport voting on the issues that affect it, and not, for example, high divers voting on water-polo rules. But in this case, the vote was sent straight to the general congress, a body of delegates from across aquatic disciplines representing 176 countries—many of which don’t have synchronized swimming.

“I think the congress thought that if the FINA leadership thought it was a good idea, they should go along with it,” Jasontek said. One of the very few synchro delegates who was present, Lori Eaton, says the vote happened so quickly that there was no chance for deliberation and that most people around her didn’t even understand what had happened. Although general-congress meetings typically move swiftly, Eaton told me, “This one had a different feel to it. It’s like somebody said, ‘Hey, this is happening ... Let’s get the votes and be done with it.’”

For Harley-Jesson—who says neither FINA nor the IOC responded to the petition—the way the change happened comes down to “elitist men” at the IOC and FINA “old boy’s club” making unilateral decisions without consulting those with “the most skin in the game.” Her sentiments were echoed by many of those who signed the petition as well. “Once again the male dominated sports bodies want to control women’s sports,” one commenter wrote.

And yet, despite acquiescing to the IOC, the number of synchro athletes invited to the Olympics may still be cut. Although the same number of artistic swimmers—104—went to Tokyo as were in Rio, the IOC has currently allotted only 96 slots for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Jasontek hopes the number may still be negotiable, but the disappointing reduction comes at a time when the sport is trying to expand and bring men into the Olympic fold. Mixed-gender duets were introduced at the 2015 FINA World Championships, in Kazan, Russia, and many are pushing to see the event added to the Olympics, which would open the door for men to compete at the highest level of the sport, but would also require more athlete spots.

A handful of countries have refused the new name, the most prominent being Russia—the winner of every Olympic synchronized-swimming gold medal of the 21st century. Most other countries, however, have had little choice but to conform. The U.S., which has fallen behind in the sport and missed qualifying a team for Tokyo by a fraction of a point (though the country did send a duet), was a longtime holdout. But last year, the national governing body for the sport officially changed its name to USA Artistic Swimming. Adam Andrasko, the group’s CEO, who oversaw the transition, pointed out the importance, particularly for a “judged sport,” of showing “alignment and solidarity with the international federation.” But more significant, Andrasko told me, the change presents a rebranding opportunity and the chance to show “how much more powerful and athletic” it has become.

Other athletes are also trying to be optimistic. Bill May of the U.S., who won the first mixed-duet technical world championship with his partner, Christina Jones, hopes that the shift in focus toward the artistry of the sport could also pave the way for new events vying for spots in the Olympic program. He gives the examples of the highlight routine, made up nearly entirely of the acrobatic throws and kaleidoscopic formations audiences love, and the mixed duet, unique for its dramatic interplay between the swimmers—both of which are about much more than people synchronizing in the water. “I think the name change is really going to help drive these new events and further the evolution of the sport,” May says.

For the athletes competing in Tokyo, artistic swimming is still, at its core, the same sport for which they have trained so hard—regardless of how it appears in the program. “I liked the old name, but the changes have already been adopted and it is unlikely that anything will change,” wrote the Russian Olympic gold medalist Alla Shishkina, who is competing in her third Olympiad. “Now it is not so important for me what my sport is called, the main thing is its essence. Grace, beauty, synchronicity, complexity, strength—this is what I have loved for many years.”