On July 22 in Budapest, Hungary, members of the FINA General Congress voted to rename the sport of synchronized swimming to artistic swimming.
When I learned in Budapest that the name ‘artistic swimming’ had been approved, I and many of the people around me felt completely caught off guard. Rumors had been floating around for some time from the TSSC that a name change could be an idea, but we were never really given any reasons as to why, when or how it would be done, and what it would bring to the sport. Next thing we knew, it was approved.
A petition was immediately launched online and garnered nearly 11,000 signatures, showing that the community did not approve and felt it was left out of the loop regarding the name change.
So, how did it all pass then?
During the FINA General Congress (not to be confused with the Technical Congresses where the new rules for each sport are discussed by experts), every country sends two people with a right to vote. These designated persons can represent any sport, and are not necessarily ‘synchro people’. 176 countries are represented, meaning each country gets two votes, even countries who do not even have a synchro team.
Before the start of congress, a booklet becomes available to each person with every proposal that is going to be voted on that day. On each proposal, there is a recommendation from the FINA Bureau, basically saying whether it agrees with what’s suggested or not. Usually, the votes tend to follow these recommendations.
The ‘artistic swimming’ proposal was buried deep in the middle of many other issues to vote on, and the voting goes extremely fast. There are numerous issues to vote on one single page, and many pages to get through. A call for discussion is open before the voting takes place, but it is very rare that it actually does happen since it all goes fast and there are many things to be voted on.
The voting for our new name thus happened very quickly and was voted on by many people who weren’t related to synchro, who maybe didn’t even realize the impact of their vote, and who maybe simply weren’t even interested in it.
And just like that, we became artistic swimming.
When asked for justifications after this perplexing decision, FINA gave very vague and woolly answers: “While diving events are synchronized, we felt that artistic is a more appropriate name for this event,” FINA vice-president Sam Ramsamy told insidethegames afterwards. “It brings it into line with artistic gymnastics and will be better understood by the public and the media. This should help us rebrand and enhance its popularity.”
FINA’s Executive Director Cornel Marculescu implied some influence and pressure from the IOC: “[…] and also from the (International Olympic Committee) to give another dimension to synchro not to be only synchro swimming but to be a very artistic sport.”
Marculescu also had this to say about synchro in a different interview: “It’s like a show. Today, sport needs to be show. Otherwise, there is nothing you can do. As you see with the swimming event here, what we have done with all the video, all the lighting, it is to present swimming in another way. This is a reality of today.”
My initial reaction was disappointment, as we fight constantly for the sport to be seen for what it is: grueling, difficult, athletic, complex, technical. I felt, and still do, that ‘artistic swimming’ is demeaning and takes us back to the origins of the sport when it was called ‘water ballet.’ I felt all the work we have done over the years to emphasize the athleticism of the sport was discredited, reduced once again to a show and flower caps. Yes, our sport is artistic, but it is so much more. Marculescu and Ramsamy have claimed that it’s just the name changing and not the sport itself. But so much of our sport IS in its name…
I also felt cheated that something so big could get voted on so casually and by people who have no idea what it takes to be a synchronized swimmer. Finally, I felt it was unnecessary, and was baffled that this was considered the most pressing issue to vote on regarding our sport. What about gender equality, judging bias, developing the sport in other nations?
To this day, I have many questions left unanswered. What was the point? Will this really make a difference? What happens when you take away the word “synchronized,” which is the very essence of our sport? Should we be changing our rules? How do we adapt without ‘synchro’?
Besides, have any studies be done to prove that a name change would benefit us, that the sport would become more popular with the public? What is the new marketing strategy that will indeed make our sport more accessible with this name? I want stats, numbers, surveys.
Who is going to handle the rebranding of thousands of clubs and federations around the world? Who is going to pay for the new logos, the new apparels, the new advertising that all these federations and small clubs already struggling for money will have to handle?
The reality is, this happened rather quietly and under our nose. But realistically, nobody outside our synchro world even knows it happened. The general public has no idea we aren’t even called ‘synchro’ anymore.
The very different reactions then and still to this day amongst the federations are what is the most disheartening to me. Some nations are absolutely refusing to use the new name, others have quietly accepted it, and some others have absolutely embraced it from the start.
The Russians were extremely vocal against it right from the start, and even the Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko spoke out against it. In September, the Russian federation confirmed it would continue calling the sport synchronized swimming.
USA Synchro and the Synchronized Swimming Federation of Serbia are among some of the other federations that will keep their current names. Other federations have just quietly gone along with it, just changing the name of the sport on the federation’s website but not expressing anything publicly.
I truly appreciated the Russians for speaking out, and I wish more federations had, especially when it was obvious from the number of signatures on the petition that people disliked the new name. Many former and current elite swimmers also signed it and expressed their feelings against the name.
So what do we do when a change divides our community instead of uniting it?
In short, we adapt. It is likely we will continue calling it ‘synchro’, just like people involved in artistic gymnastics simply call it ‘gymnastics’. Either way, it’s done now, and with or without explanations, we have to accept it. I am only waiting to be shown that it was a great decision, that it will indeed increase our popularity and recognition, that it will improve our coverage because it is all I truly want for synchro. While part of me remains dubious and skeptical, I also choose to be hopeful.
What is certain is we need more transparency from the top, but we also as a community need to be more involved in the politics of our sport so we feel like we have a voice in decisions like these over time.
In the meantime, we rally, and continue to do what we’ve been doing all along; we keep fighting to show the athleticism and difficulty of the sport. We continue advertising our sport at the grassroots level, we continue attracting more people into it and educating the general public about it. We continue talking about the competitions and highlighting the athletes, coaches, and judges. And most importantly, no matter what we’re called, we continue to support, appreciate or be synchronized, artistic, athletic, poised, technical, determined, talented swimmers.