Russian mastery in synchronized swimming yields double gold

August 19, 2016 GMT

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Russia’s dominance of synchronized swimming remains unchallenged after it captured the team gold Friday to preserve a 16-year winning streak.

Russia has won every Olympic gold medal on offer in the sport since 2000 and Friday’s victory was never in doubt. A near-perfect score in the free routine meant none of the other competitors could possibly match the Russians’ total, allowing them to begin the celebrations early.

Russia performed its routine to dramatic string music, wearing costumes depicting angel wings. The idea was to seem “like a prayer,” said Natalia Ishchenko, who along with Svetlana Romashina became a five-time Olympic gold medalist, matching former Russian great Anastasia Davydova as the most decorated synchronized swimmer of all time.

“I think it’s the best program in the history of synchronized swimming,” Ishchenko said. “We joked before the competition that there are five Olympic rings and we need five Olympic medals.”

Russia’s opponents have come and gone — the U.S., a former power in the sport, has not even competed in the team event at the last two Olympics — and few have even come close to contending for Olympic gold. It’s hard to match the country’s combination of top training facilities, state funding and choreography experience drawn from the Russian ballet tradition.

On Friday it wasn’t even close. Russia won with 196.1439 points, with China taking silver at 192.9841 and Japan the bronze at 189.2056. The second- and third-place finishers were almost an afterthought for Ishchenko, who said of them merely that “we always respect our opponents a lot and they help us to be better.”

Russia is already looking to the 2020 Olympics and the next generation of its swimming dynasty. Careers in the sport tend to be short, with the exception of the veterans Ishchenko and Romashina. Teammate Maria Shurochkina estimated that about half the team would not be around for Tokyo, but Russia would nevertheless be “strong, the best in the world.”

A possible obstacle to Russia’s hold on the sport would be the introduction of male synchronized swimmers to the Olympicsl. Mixed-gender duets debuted at last year’s world championships to strong opposition from Russia, which won one of two titles in the new discipline but lost out to the U.S. for the other.

Ishchenko said she was against the inclusion of mixed duets in the Olympics, fearing the long-established women’s duet could be removed to make way.

“It’s a tough question,” she said. “The female athletes in classical duets perform on a higher level. Now I think there are only three countries in the world at a good level in the mixed duet.”

Even so, Russia has already spent years training a mixed pair in case of an Olympic change, and it would be brave to bet against another Russian gold-medal sweep in 2020.