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Competitive Swimming: Sport or Sport Entertainment?

Feb 13, 2014  - SwimNews Editorial

Competitive Swimming, as it has been practiced for the past century owes both its existence and current form to the birth of the modern Olympic Movement in the late 19th century. De Coubertin's Olympics were in turn an outgrowth of the organization and ethos of Sport that had taken place at British male boarding and military schools decades earlier as they prepared their students to administrate their empire. The modern Olympics, as did its ancient counterpart, promoted participation in organized events that recognized athleticism and physical dexterity.

The 2 Olympic movements, even though separated by over a thousand years, even shared a political agenda. The ancient Greeks wanted to promote their martial culture; while the modern games’ European founders sought to inspire its citizen spectators with idols of “Muscular Christianity”. Notably, the modern Olympics added to western culture sporting values: The equality of effort to result; team play; fair play, and the celebrating of excellence of men.

In this environment, Swimming, Diving and Water Polo grew, thrived and evolved over the last century from an endeavor practiced by the moneyed aristocracy of old Europe to the mass participation activities that many of us enjoy today. Waves of economic growth and its resultant expansion of leisure time among average people allowed each successive generation to become more involved in Sport both in education, in play and in life.

Where there is time and money there is business: Professional Sport

Running perhaps a half century or so behind the Olympic Movement was professional sport whose entrepreneurial founders realized that there was money to be made in all of that participation and popularity. There is no need to recite the history of Pro Sports here as we can see its result every day. The letters NBA, NHL, NFL, and the English word Premiership are recognized in every language and in nearly every country on earth.

Professional Sport and its ancillary businesses are so much a part of modern life that it is rare NOT to see its reach on a billboard, a television, or a smart screen wherever we are in the world. The decisions that we make on everything, from the clothes that we wear and the food that we choose are not so subtly affected by the reach of Professional Sport. Of course, this explosive dominance was made possible by the steady growth in mass media and particularly following the Second World War through the 1960s and 70s.

Where Does Swimming Fit In?
In the sometimes competing but always symbiotic relationship between formerly amateur and Professional Sport, swimming traditionally tipped towards the former camp. Swimming’s emphasis on training; on fairness in competition through a set of rules; and on recognizing steady individual improvement and record breaking made it a natural for mass participation and as a partial mirror of education.
Professional Sport in its early incarnations was more interested in group activities like regional (tribal) loyalties and spectator festivals that could be exploited for money. For decades there was plenty of room for both of these sides of Sport to grow with their separate value systems intact. Over the years however, the lines began to blur between these 2 sport categories. The Cold War caused nation states to insert themselves into Olympic sport with disastrous results.

Meanwhile, Professional Sport and its corporate facilitators so dominated the media and the marketplace, that amateur participants and the sporting federations who organized them, could not help but notice the financial success of their rich relations.

Excellence and the Two Michaels

The one thing that both branches of Sport had in common and still share in is the celebration of excellence and to a significant extent, the team focus of that excellence. Swimming and other Olympic champions are of course recognized for their direct achievements most notably gold medals and world records; but it is the representation of their country that gives their wins an extra intensity and lasting legacy.

Michael Phelps' ultimate Olympic achievements will not soon be forgotten, but over the decades, the flag raising ceremony will be more a part of that collective memory than any of his actual times. Likewise, his boyhood idol Michael Jordan is remembered for his championships won for the Chicago Bulls not for his statistics in scoring, or rebounding. Gretsky, Russell, Pele and Messi, are a part of history for what they did for their teams as much as what they did for themselves. That is why they are transcendent.

 Of course in both cases there are the climactic images in the heat of competitive battle that we all remember, but over time it has been the winning that matters. Oddly enough, even the money earned by our Professional and Olympic athletes doesn’t seem to be an important measure of their legacy. Were the basketball fans of the 1990s really measuring Michael Jordan’s success by his salary value? In 2014 does anyone remember how much money Jordan made either in a calendar year or over his career? Everyone knows that Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian of them all, has made his fair share of money. His bank balance, however, will not matter at all to how he is remembered as a champion.

Corporate Control?

Swimming, and the Olympic Movement that often provides underlying support, has the corporate sponsors we would expect, mostly apparel and equipment, with food, utilities, and transportation subsidizing national teams in many countries. Many teams and competitions also have media corporate sponsors. In our last editorial, What happened with the suits anyway? we outlined the fateful impact of the role of apparel makers in swimming.

At the 2004 Short Course World Champs, swimmers started marching out with corporate logos plastered over their National team sweat suits. Over the next decade the corporate creep extended to a permanent Yakult logo on one side of the cap, replacing a swimmer's national flag. What will the next 10 years bring? And at what cost do we bring these “partners” into our swimming family?

While the 1500 free for women and the 800 for men would be welcome Olympic events to swimming purists, it is the 50s of stroke that will make for good television, and in turn, better value to corporate sponsors. As we seek to fill bigger stadiums and arenas fitted with temporary pools more and more times a year, what else will swimmers and coaches have to sacrifice? The training for a 1500/800 won’t be all.

The Internet, Social Media, and Swimming as Sport Entertainment

For that matter, what will swimming as a Sport look like in the next 10, 20, even 50 years? The latest revolutions in mass media’s 21st century growth have changed modern life in many ways. We shop online and we communicate to all of our friends simultaneously without uttering a sound. Our new and powerful devices entertain us, help to educate us, and point us to our destinations with the swipe of a screen. So far, nearly 20 or so years of mass internet use and less than a decade of social media have not drastically changed the way swimmers compete or the balance of power among swimming’s big players.

What is changing is the relationship between those who participate in swimming and the people who support them and follow their exploits. These changes may in turn allow outside interests that previously only organized, facilitated, and disseminated the results of swimming competitions to harness the changes in our society gain financially and become more powerful than the athletes that they purport to serve.