Column: What’s in a name? A lot for synchronized swimming

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — OK, folks, there’s a dark cloud hanging over sports, a pressing issue that can’t go unchallenged.

No, we’re not talking about corrupt officials or doped-up athletes.

This is something even more troubling.

They’ve changed the name of synchronized swimming.

What would Martin Short say?

He may not be a very strong swimmer — remember that lifejacket he wore in the hilarious “SNL” skit from the 1980s? — but it was always his dream to compete at the Olympics.

In synchronized swimming, that is.

Not artistic swimming, which is the sport’s new moniker.

In one of its typically perplexing moves, world governing body FINA found time during the world championships in Budapest to dramatically rebrand a sport that already faces an uphill battle for acceptance from a large swath of the population who see it as nothing but thick globs of hair gel, elaborate suits and over-the-top deckwork (which is very important, you know).

Let’s get serious for a minute, as hard as that may be.

FINA’s decision totally demeans these amazing athletes (try swimming upside down while doing calisthenics and holding your breath up to 30 seconds), gave little thought to their input (which seems almost unanimous in opposing the change) and could actually make it easier to boot the sport out of the Olympics if there’s ever a serious effort to pare down the bloated program.

“This makes it sound like more of a show,” American Bill May said Friday in a telephone interview, back home after earning a pair of bronze medals in the mixed duet events at Budapest. “That’s not what we want people to equate synchronized swimming to.”

But it sounds like that’s exactly what FINA had in mind.

Cornel Marculescu, the organization’s powerful executive director, said the change was made at the prodding of television networks, sponsors and even the International Olympic Committee, all of which felt a new name might lead to increased popularity for a sport that draws scant attention outside the Summer Games.

“Artistic is the word that probably expresses much more what’s happening in the water than synchronization,” Marculescu said, before quickly adding: “The sport will not change. We’re talking about the same sport. There is no change whatsoever. Just the presentation is going to be different. Instead of synchronized swimming, it’s going to be artistic swimming.”

Then he got down to the heart of the matter, the very image of the sport that May and all those who love it so much want to avoid.

“It’s like a show,” Marculescu said. “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.”

That doesn’t mean the decision is going over well.

When USA Synchro — for now, that remains the name of America’s national governing body — posted a story about the change on its Facebook page, nearly 60 people left comments. They were unanimously opposed to calling the sport artistic swimming.

“A huge step backwards for this amazingly challenging sport,” Sara Lukens Myers wrote. “It harkens back to ‘Water Ballet.’ It seemed we were poised to finally receive the credit that the difficulty of this sport deserves for its athletes who are arguably equal to the world’s best in any sport. But now this silly name diminishes their accomplishments and is an insult to the sport of Synchronized Swimming.”

A petition has been launched to persuade FINA to backpedal on its decision, though it seems unlikely to have much of an impact on an organization that just re-elected a top official linked to a bribery scandal.

“Stupid, Stupid, Stupid,” Terry Eckstein wrote on Facebook. “‘Synchronized Swimming’ accurately and completely described the sport. ‘Artistic Swimming’ could be holding up a picture while swimming — it means nothing. Whoever pushed this name change through must really hate the amazing athletes of Synchronized Swimming. I, for one, will still refer to the sport as Synchronized Swimming and I urge everyone else to do so too.”

Marculescu shrugged off the outrage as the normal response to any radical decision.

“People have different opinions. That positive. If you have different opinions, you can progress,” he said. “If you only have one opinion, you talk one second and then die.”

While May believes that FINA meant well, he pointed to the financial hardships it will cause for local clubs that are the lifeblood of the sport. Just having to change their logos will cost money — money that many of them already struggle to generate.

“Their funding comes completely from within,” May said. “Now they’ve got to change all their advertising, all their outfitting. That’s a huge burden to put on a small club. I came from a club like that. I know what exactly what it takes to raise money. Doing fundraisers. Selling candy. All that, added to your travels and your competitions, it’s a huge thing.”

For those who love synchronized swimming, this is no laughing matter.

“I appreciate the fact that FINA wants to evolve the sport and help it grow,” May said. “I don’t think this is the way to do it.”

Even Martin Short would agree with that.


Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at or at . His work can be found at


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