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In synchronised swimming at the Olympics, the idiosyncratic meets the intricate.
One team wore bathing suits decorated with a picture of what appeared to be an owl dressed in a tuxedo. Another began its routine with the athletes lying, inert, by the side of the pool. And in an homage to the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, a third team, the synchronised swimming duet from Italy, tried to imagine how it might look to descend into madness while performing intricate leg manoeuvres upside down in an Olympic swimming pool.
"We imagine there is a mirror, and she is getting ready, and then she goes crazy, " said Giulia Lapi, one of the Italian twosome, said of the artist. "She had a serious accident and she was covered in plaster and had to paint using a mirror. "
Kahlo was not the only one going crazy in the Aquatics Centre this week during the duet part of one of the more peculiar sports on the Olympic menu, the synchronised swimming competition.
The Russians dominated from the start. Made up to look like sinister adult-size dolls with exaggerated painted-on eyelashes, they won the final on Tuesday with an intricately scary routine - all staccato kicks and aggressive slashing arm movements - set to the theme song from the 1977 horror film "Suspiria", in which a young dancer realizes that her ballet school is being controlled by witches and that there is no escape.
Even when you have seen it on television, it is hard to appreciate the full experience of live synchronised swimming. For one thing, the swimmers do everything synchronistically, including walking to the edge of the pool, which they do in an oddly exaggerated way, like mimes in bathing suits. Then, when they get there, they affix their nose plugs and perform short dance routines - this is called deck work - that generally end in a kind of unexpected tableau vivant, with them posing together in an artistic flourish.
The sport requires the athletes to stop breathing for long periods of time, and they sometimes pass out. "It's like running a sprint for three and a half minutes while periodically holding your breath, " said Mariya Koroleva, who competed for the United States. "It gets pretty scary. Your mind and body get completely numb, and you lose the ability to think because, basically, you don't have enough oxygen. "
In a hopeful move that seemed designed to appeal to the TV audience back home, Koroleva and Killman performed in the final to a medley of songs beginning with "Olympic Fanfare, " which John Williams composed for NBC during the Los Angeles Olympics. Their bathing suits had pictures of Olympic torches and Olympic rings on them.
Just as the narrative the Americans expressed with their routine seemed to be "We win the Olympics, " (they did not, alas;they came in 11th), so did many of their competitors' routines follow particular themes.
The British pair, for instance, wanted to suggest "the ravens in the Tower of London, " said Jenna Randall of Britain. "You know, things like hunting its prey, flying, playing around. "
Some routines depicted epic struggle between opposing forces and involved the athletes (gracefully) wrestling, for lack of a better word, with each other, in an endless battle for supremacy that made it look as if they were trying to drown each other. The French went with "Swan Lake" and the traditional duality-of-nature struggle, while the Czechs decided "to show the fight between the classical and modern styles of music, " said Sona Bernardova, a Czech swimmer.
The music was as idiosyncratic as everything else. The Australians' song was called "Spanish";the Spaniards' song was composed by someone from Argentina. The Russians, wearing suits decorated with silhouettes of Michael Jackson, performed their technical routine to the Jackson song "They Don't Care About Us".
The Brazilian duet also matched costume to music. Performing to a piece called "The Human Body", by Arnaldo Antunes, they wore suits that appeared at first to be decorated with pretty red patterns but on closer inspection turned out to be spangled depictions of the human circulatory system (there were bones on the back).
Perhaps because there is so much nonathletic activity surrounding their sport, the athletes sometimes have trouble convincing skeptics of how very difficult it is. It does not help that it requires them to wear waterproof makeup so thick it can be seen from the shallow end of the pool and to shellac their hair with melted cooking gelatin before each competition.
"It's hard, " said Alzbeta Dufkova, one half of the Czech duet. "Everyone's always saying, 'Oh, my god, what is this sport?' "
Sick of having their athletic abilities questioned, the pair once invited a Czech journalist who claimed to be super fit to join them in the pool for practice. They generally have two water training sessions a day, for atotal of six hours, in addition to other things like weight training, gymnastics, ballet and running. After 30 minutes, the journalist was all but crawling out of the water. "He was so exhausted and tired, he could not go on, " she said.
One other thing about synchronised swimming: it has to look effortless. And the athletes have to smile the whole time.
Not just smile;they beam like gameshow contestants who have just won something. They smile when they have swallowed water. They smile when their teammates kick them in the head. They smile when, as Koroleva said, "our arms are burning, our legs are burning, our buns are burning and we get this strange intense pain and cannot control our bodies. "
In a practice that is perhaps unique in the competitive sports world, they also smile after their routines, as they wait for their scores. Even figure skaters are allowed to look upset about being knocked out of the Olympics. But the synchronised swimmers just go on beaming.
"If you really look at people closely, " Killman said, "you can see that sometimes, the grin kind of falters. "
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