Some sports have to go, don't they?


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - The place was packed. The scores were spectacular. The American gold medalists cried for the cameras, and their industrial strength makeup didn't smear so much as a smidgen.

The evidence is in and the verdict appears inescapable: It looks as if we're stuck with synchronized swimming.

The Olympic Games go on and on and on, growing like a weed, expanding like an amoeba. More than 10,000 athletes are competing in Atlanta, and Sydney organizers say they are prepared for as many as 15,000 competitors four years hence. The Australians are adding tae kwon do and triathlon to the program for the 2000 Games, and the International Olympic Committee has yet to announce any subtractions.

Something has to give eventually, but many of the more obscure Olympic sports survive because they are deeply entrenched and politically adroit. The silly newer ones simply refuse to die.

A sports spectacular


Beach volleyball did a booming business in Atlanta. Women's softball attracted scalpers. Rhythmic gymnastics, which has no more business in the Olympics than knuckle-cracking, found itself an avid audience. Synchronized swimming was shown in prime time.

Sports you wouldn't normally cross the street to see have played to sellout crowds in Atlanta. More than 9,000 spectators attended archery on Friday.

Synchronized swimming makes for slightly better television, but Friday's on-the-scene spectators did not have the advantage of an underwater camera or a play-by-play announcer. They were expected to surmise that the American team was trying to imitate an orchestra, ''playing'' their legs like violins.

Not one in a hundred could have understood what was going on, but no one had any difficulty reading the scoreboard. Except for a stubborn Swiss judge, the U.S. team received nothing but perfect 10s on both technical merit and artistic presentation.

That pretty much clinched it. However silly, synchronized swimming is another American success story. It leaves the Olympics when NBC says so.

''I was part of the Olympic debut (of synchronized swimming) in 1984,'' said U.S. coach Gail Emery. ''I kind of compare the progress of this sport (since then) to the locomotive and the supersonic transport.''

This reflects the power of the Olympics as a marketing tool, and the expansionist sentiments of IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch. What began as a glorified track meet has been transformed during Samaranch's watch into an all-encompassing sports spectacular. He has given us team handball and mountain biking, and soon - coming to an Olympics near you - ballroom dancing.

Atlanta's Games actually sprawl into 13 cities, four states and the District of Columbia. The alternative is to start cutting back on the amount of competition, but don't expect the fencers to fall on their swords. Nor is the antiquated discipline of modern pentathlon, said to be on the IOC's endangered list, likely to go without a fight.

''The modern pentathlon has a long tradition and history,'' said actor Dolph Lundgren, hired last year by the U.S. pentathlon team to help raise the profile of the sport. ''I think it's more interesting, say, than the long jump. . . .

''Not all the sports are high-profile, and that's what sets the Olympics apart. Instead of just seeing basketball and baseball, they can see synchronized swimming.''

Learning new things


There is something to be said for the Olympics providing a forum for sports that don't usually fit into the mainstream. There is something else to be said for the extraordinary abilities of athletes who seldom perform for spectators. Elite synchronized swimmers, for example, must be able to swim 75 yards underwater without coming up for air.

When synchronized swimmer Nathalie Schneyder met the eminent sprinter Michael Johnson this spring, their conversation quickly turned to training.

''He said he worked out between two and four hours a day,'' Schneyder said. ''I said, 'Oh my gosh, we train six to 10 hours a day.' I think it opened his eyes.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Aug. 3, 1996.