Fix Our Sport: An Open Letter From a World Championship Athlete

First of all, let me say one thing. At the beginning, I was very positive about the new artistic swimming rules. One of the biggest problems of our sport were the predictable rankings. Those were not only bad for the public, but also for us, the athletes. So when a new system was announced, promising an objective way to score the routines that would lead to more unpredictability, I was thrilled and excited.

No big change comes without troubles though. After many competitions in various World Cup legs, and the Fukuoka and Doha World Championships – especially after the women’s solo free final here in Doha -, I think that some of those problems are evident enough and need to be talked about.

I still want to stay positive. The system right now is broken, but it is still more promising than whatever we had before, which was basically nothing. So, here are my two cents about the biggest challenges that our sport needs to face to get back up from the muddy situation it is in right now. And with it, some ideas on how not to see anymore the – I’m sorry for it – ridiculous show we are seeing at these World Championships.

First thing: the entire scoring scale, from 0 to 10, must be used. For me, the biggest problem is the same we had before these new rules: the application of the scoring and evaluation sheets. We have these beautiful charts where all the heights are shown in along with the maximum score they can be associated with. As athletes, we study them and painfully train daily to reach the required standard.

But then, in competition, those are basically ignored by the judges. No 3.5s were given for half-calf verticals. No difference in the scores was seen between 5.5 and 9.5 thrusts. No 4.5s were given to lifts that were at that level on the paper. No deductions were applied when necessary. The scores mostly float between 6.75 and 8.5s, and we athletes are just adapting to the situation, putting more and more R7s in our routine because it’s convenient. And because if we don’t, then we put ourselves out of the competition.

This is a simple problem to solve: just actually apply what the charts say. No one would perform ten R7s in a row down to the knee in every single hybrid if that didn’t mean roughly 80 points in execution. It would not be convenient anymore, and we would start to look for maximum execution again.

The same applies to the Artistic Impression scores. As I said before, we put tons of R7s because it’s convenient. But if the artistic value of doing that was recognized accurately for what it is – around 1.5 and 3.5 -, that would not be so convenient anymore. The poor impact of the artistic impression panel on the results right now is not a consequence of wrong factorization coefficients, but a consequence of how we get scored.

This also would be a simple problem to solve. If we want to, we could just use all the scores from 0 to 10, including the so scary 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s. Just like in diving, where for example it is easy to see 0.5s for evidently missed dives.

 

Third thing: the basemark system is disrespectful to the athletes’ work. Why in the world an athlete who successfully performed 19 difficulty elements out of 20 should be penalized the same as another one who performed just one movement out of 20?

The basemark system was believed to put a limit to the DD, but that will never work. Because, as soon as the execution scores are not being used from 0 to 10, the DD will always be the only thing that counts.

So, for us, it will always be better to “try and risk” than not to try at all. Basemarks have shown themselves just as a useful way to stress athletes and coaches, and to randomize the rankings by putting a totally-unrelated-to-the-performance-influence on the scores.

This also has a very simple solution: if an athlete misses one movement, it’s okay not to credit them in that movement, but please keep the other 19 untouched. This is a matter of respect: let us be evaluated for what we actually swim. It’s a matter of respect for all of the hours we spend in the water daily to accomplish that.

Fourth thing: tolerance. To not have any degree of tolerance in angles and rotations means just one thing. That everyone, in every single hybrid, in every single routine, has at least one basemark. Degrees of tolerance are applied in other sports because of the structural differences that exist between different human beings: hips rotations, shoulder and back misalignment, head, or appendixes twists from the body axis. To not accomplish a 360° twist for less than 45° is not a mistake: it is a random statistical fluctuation and should not mean that you are completely out of the game and that your entire hybrid is cancelled. Again, here the problem stays within this basemark system, and removing that could make this little non-sense more acceptable.

Fifth and last thing: put a time limit on the technical controllers’ reviews. If an error needs minutes of reviewing to determine whether or not that one hybrid deserves to push an athlete off the podium, it means that that error was not so much of an error.

Basemarks should not exist, but as soon as they exist, they should be applied only for evidently-missed-movements. So evidently missed that they need no review! If a movement needs to be watched again for minutes and minutes, killing the athletes’ and coaches’ mental health in the process, it means that it wasn’t so evidently missed. Evidently.

Those are, to me, the biggest and most urgent problems to solve to save not only our sport, but our physical and mental health.

The new rules promised more opportunities to more people. They aimed to give to everyone objective values to work with, to help the athletes to improve and to get more satisfaction from this unique and unrepeatable experience that is to be part of a national team, competing around the globe.

But right now, they are failing. Very badly. The way we are applying the new rules are making the competitions too random and unfair, producing distorted results, and giving an overall worse experience for athletes and coaches. At least, for the ones who are still trying to swim higher than knee level.

It is time to start a conversation here, now, in Doha, with us athletes and everyone involved.

 


Cover photo: Giorgio Perottino / Deepbluemedia

7 comments

  1. So interesting to read for once from an athlete’s point of view. I’d like to respond, but let me emphasize I’m just a recreation swimmer in a country that doesn apply the new rules nationally (and doesn’t even have a national team).
    I completely agree with the first two points. You don’t have a scoring system for no reason. Apply it. And if things just aren’t good, show that in your scores.
    Then there is the issue with basemarks. I can agree with the author that it’s very all or nothing now, and not always sensibly so.
    I however think that completely abandoning the basemarks would be a mistake, because it would only make the rush to the highest DD stronger. Only applying basemarks for obviously failed attempts makes sense, but then there still need to be deductions for missed parts (as in suggestion 3). Maybe not for every small thing (as in suggestion 4), but there are definitely elements that should be awarded something between a basemark and the original DD. However, doing that would take even more time to review. Now it’s a yes or no decision, and having to look at every part of every hybrid would take even more time. Considering suggestion 5, that might be even worse than it is now. It’s also less fun for the audience. So maybe it would be best to keep the basemarks in place for now, but indeed considering suggestions 4 and 5, with a little bit more allowance and a maximum amount of discussion time. Because hopefully, if suggestions 1 and 2 are applied, rushing to DD’s that are going to lead to basemarks will be less common anyway.

    I’m curious to see different insights, I think it’s good to talk about it.
    Because yes, it’s better than it was, but we shouldn’t take the downsides for granted.

  2. I agree 10000000000%. Want to add one thing, the level of tolerance should be the same on all athletes. We see athletes getting basemarks for being off by one degree (in some cases not even off at all!) and then we see those who clearly didn’t complete a rotation and won’t get a single BM!?

  3. Fairness in judging was at the cornerstone of the new rules / the new name change / the new fairness face of Synchro – and yet last worlds I spotted ( along with everyone watching I’m sure) a significant synchronisation error. Was this team penalised? No. It was a popular team with the public’s backing. Other teams with minor errors were judged to have more errors. Judges do spend a long time discussing on the TC desk. This is their job. Applying the rules fairly and without bias is lesson one of judging. Of course there is bias, of course judges make allowances. Judges should be looking at the underwater footage and seeing the surface splits presented as -6.5’s and giving them such – but they don’t. The charts that the athletes, coaches and judges all study – should be applied. We have all probably sat judging, competing, spectating at events and thought – that is at such and such a hight out of the water, maintained through the figure, why has that score been given? Because judges will abandon the height chart and look at the effect it has in the water; young age groups won’t get high scores “ because they can’t get the scores of the older senior athletes” short athletes won’t get scores of taller athletes, because “ they aren’t as high out of the water” because the judges haven’t seen where the water lies on the athletes leg: ie mid thigh or hip. One of the higher score explanations in the artistic table is to have variety; again under the new rules, in routines, we are not seeing variety, surprises, memorable performances, or keeping the judges , spectators engaged with the athletes performance. It should score low for repetition of hybrids, repetition of moves, simplicity of basic moves, simple arms and these scores for artistic impression are in the 3 to 4 range. Which judge at a worlds championship will be brave enough to do this? None- they would not be invited back! They would risk not being invited to judge again. Bravery in judging is what we should be asking for. Who has changed the rules, from relatively straightforward judging, to complex and absurd has not issued bravery in judging as a key in judging. Seeing 2 minutes of R7’s is a 3.5 as artistic impression and judge it as such. If the athlete is at top of thigh for all those rotations judge it as 9. The two balance each other out. The previous system did allow fairness if judged accurately. Should we be asking if it is the judges that need changing? Synchronisation errors should be easy to witness and mark – and yet some obvious errors are not noted. Artistic impression is straightforward; how does this make you feel? Bored, excited, overwhelmed with the beauty / power/ emotion of the swim, was the athlete engaged with the judges/ audience / did the athlete “own” the pool. These are straightforward – could the world of synchro be brave enough to have random judges not from synchro but from ballet, art, architecture and have them judge?; there will not be expectations from recognised judges in the synchro community, placing their reputation and repeat invitations on the line, not judging the athlete from country X who everyone thinks will win, scoring a 9 and athlete from country Y who everyone thinks “really?” scoring a 6.
    Coaching cards is driving coaches away from the sport, creating formulaic routines to gain the highest difficulty score, but creating soulless empty routines. Someone I know told me “a figures competition is like watching paint dry”, routines have also become like this. To draw in an audience, to keep the public engaged in the sport and keep a profile; instead of having journalists saying “is synchro swimming still a thing?” as I was asked recently – then yes we as a community need to be heard. If the free routines become so technical, so dull it becomes like watching paint drying – we will make the sport very inaccessible to the spectator, the general public will not turn onto these sporting events, WA not making broadcast freely available inhibits access to all; the public don’t seek it out, it becomes unwatchable and the public don’t “care” if it gets taken off the Olympic list, the death of the sport is subtlety initiated. Make the sport accessible to the spectator, review the rules, be brave with your judging, score it as you see it, score it as you feel it, these athletes, coaches, families, put their lives into this beautiful sport. Judge it bravely

  4. Summer 2022 is the last time I enjoyed watching a competition, looking for such innovations, clapping for the teams that were gradually moving up the rankings, showing consistency, technical improvement, innovative choreographies.

    It was the last time because when the new system was introduced in 2023, I immediately hated what I was watching.
    Bear in mind that even though I used to swim, I am talking from a viewer’s perspective. I have some knowledge and preexisting love for the sport, sure. But mostly, I’m a regular human who likes to watch synchro during the Olympics and who is just fascinated with these athletes’ ability to defy physical laws.

    Unfortunately, the rules of this new system are vastly complex. I’m pretty sure that whoever works full time in a non synchro-related environment has no time to read endless spreadsheets and take brain space to think about factorization issues. Therefore, because I rely on what I see and know from the sport… I don’t understand a lot of these new rules. Indeed, when the judges attribute a penalty or deduction, it doesn’t show on the screen as the routine goes on. We discover that one swimmer who seemed to manage a clean swim has been awarded a penalty. Why? We’ll never know. In other instances, messier routines with what seems like a lower level of execution aren’t awarded the same amount of penalties — or sometimes not even penalized at all. Why? We’ll never know exactly, and no one will tell us — not even the commentators who are usually as clueless as we are, given that they don’t have much more information than we do.

    Crazy that, as a viewer, I can’t *see* what’s happening. But precisely. It’s about what I see, me, the audience member whose numbers World Aquatics and all the people involved in making these changes have been trying to rise.

    I am sorry to all the athletes (whom I still believe are incredible and deserve the world and all the medals just for choosing one of the most unrewarding sports in history) but what I’m seeing right now in Doha, what I saw in Fukuoka, or even in other World Cup legs… Is no good. It is boring. It is repetitive. It is unwatchable. And for the first time in many years, I haven’t paid attention to any of those routines. Because, believe it or not, I am bored, dumbfounded, and also pretty angry.

    Wasn’t the prime goal of this new system to be more engaging with viewers? Then, explain something to me: why on earth did the people involved ever think that we would enjoy such a standardized, flavorless, stressful and rage-inducing show like the one that happened in Doha???
    Here we are, watching the same moves being performed, not leaving enough room for the athletes to even do these moves correctly so that it looks like a messy series of splashes. And to think it used to look so clean….
    I feel like this system is gradually causing the contrary of what it initially intended to do. Had they intentionally tried to jeopardize this sport, they wouldn’t have gone about it any other way.

    I’ve never seen those swimmers so exhausted. I’ve never seen so many tears of defeat. And yet, most athletes said before that the judging method was unfair. Well, clearly, from a viewer’s perspective, it seems like it is surely as unfair as before — if not more. Why is a routine that is obviously not the *best* being granted the world medal that another routine so clearly deserved? Where did the mistakes happen? I’m telling you: I know the sport probably a bit more than the average viewer and I wouldn’t be able to tell you for the life of me WHERE a lot of these base marks come from. Angles are 57 degrees instead of 60? WHO. CAN. SEE. THE. DIFFERENCE. And is that even a real mistake ???? In artistic swimming a mistake is being too low on your hybrids, lacking synchronization between swimmers, or forgetting a move.
    Ah, precisely, forgetting moves. I’ve never seen such ENORMOUS mistakes (like a swimmer getting completely lost in the middle of a hybrid). In 2022, the routines were almost perfect. No swimmer ever got lost in the middle of the routine. In Doha, I’ve seen it happen on at least 3 or 4 occasions. And by athletes whom I KNOW are SO GOOD. Athletes who have won World medals. Because they are GOOD.
    The athletes haven’t changed between the flawless and pristine routines of 2022. They’re still the same, good athletes. So my impression as a viewer is that they get lost because no move is different from the other anymore. And because their stress levels are higher than they have ever been.
    I honestly cannot bring myself to watch one more rotation, splash, rotation, split, splash, rotation, splash. I cannot bring myself to watch the tears of the Austrian soloist or the Portuguese duet. It breaks my heart to see them feeling this way. It makes me angry to see ugly, uninteresting routines stepping on the podium — with the athletes knowing very well that this isn’t the sport they fell in love with, the one they dedicate so many hours in the pool to. And I can’t even blame the coaches: when a team or a duet or a soloist has an artistic element…. Well it doesn’t reflect in the overall score, not even in the AI score, and they get punished even more severely than the others.

    Viewers are not stupid. I personally do not like being taken for a fool. What I’m seeing is a blatantly superficial attempt at making the sport exciting — and an even more blatant FAILURE.
    Because what makes a sport exciting is the unattainable quest for perfection in execution. It’s a high jump athlete soaring in the air and seemingly being suspended mid-air. It’s a gymnast’s perfect vault. It’s the beautiful glide of rowers on smooth waters. It’s artistic swimmers drawing mesmerizing patterns on the blue surface of the pool. And the ones who are supposed to win are the best. The ones who manage to get as close as possible to that perfect gesture. That perfect synchronization. That perfect line.
    I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but here is it: I honestly do not care one bit if the same team always wins.
    As long as it’s the best team.
    As long as the judges reward what they are supposed to reward — artistry, technical prowess, clean execution – and reward it CORRECTLY.
    As long as it doesn’t leave me confused, wondering how they managed to make this sport even more unfair than it was before.

    Before, it was beautiful at least.

    • Perfect statement: “I honestly cannot bring myself to watch one more rotation, splash, rotation, split, splash, rotation, splash. ”

      I felt like I was watching the same movement, same hybrid, same routine over and over and over again – across all routines (tech and free) – and that was when you could see something in between all the white water. The athletes are incredible!!! However, the movements are repetitive and seem to have stifled creativity and their true talents.

      I’ve been connected to SS for 50+ years. Don’t like what I’m seeing any longer.

  5. I so agree with you. My daughter did synchro for many years and we loved watching the Olympics etc. to see the beauty of the routines. I too am bored by the rotation, splash repetitions. Sometimes, to me it looks like they do the splash because of losing rotation. I know it isn’t but it doesn’t look artistic at all. There is very little done with the upper body out of the water, it’s actually more interesting to watch what’s happening under the water. I really hope that artistic swimming becomes artistic because right now it isn’t

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