How synchro has changed
Over the last decade, a huge metamorphosis has taken place within synchronised swimming. This has occurred for three main reasons: the sport has become increasingly popular worldwide – about 100 nations have regular programmes in this discipline; the performances have dramatically changed, as new figures and movements, and a new event - the combination - have made synchro more spectacular; and, last but not least, the top-three hierarchy at the three major events – Olympic Games, World Championships and World Cups – has significantly evolved. We could say that all these three items are deeply connected – more participation leads to more interest, more interest leads to more stars - but let us take a look into the last topic and recall the evolution since 1973; the date on which the first edition of the FINA World Championships was launched - the first major competition for synchronised swimmers worldwide.
When the synchronised swimmers competed in Belgrade, in that distant year of 1973, this sport was formed by a “restricted” club of countries. North America was naturally at the top of the world hierarchy, as the discipline primarily developed in this region of the globe. But another country was excelling in synchro at the time: Japan. And for 25 years, USA, Canada and Japan shared the medals at FINA’s major competition! United States had an advantage in the number of gold medals (13), but Canada (8) was always a strong contender. The Japanese were constantly on the podium, but did not get any title during that period – their first world championships gold only appeared in 2001, at home in Fukuoka (in the duet event).
But Perth 1998 (the eighth edition of the championships) brought a dramatic change in this hierarchy. Thanks to Olga Sedakova and her teammates, Russia embarked on a domination that is still a reality to this day and opened a new era in the sport. USA, Canada and Japan were not alone at the top of the hierarchy and the Russians, traditionally very attached to artistic disciplines, introduced a sense of perfection in the routines never seen before.
Consistent nations, such as Ukraine, Greece, Brazil or even Great Britain (the latter evolving very quickly, namely thanks to the organisation of the Games in 2012 in London), could have their final word in the years to come and enlarge the “club” of nations with medals at Olympic Games, World Championships and World Cups.
Meanwhile, in 1984, synchronised swimming made its entry into the Olympic programme, at the Los Angeles Games. With an irregular programme until 2000 (when duet and team were definitively chosen as Olympic events), the podiums during those 16 years reflected what was happening at the FINA World Championships: USA, Canada and Japan got all the Olympic medals at stake (1984-1992 – solo and duet; 1996 – only team), proving that this sport was until then reserved to an elite selection of countries. But in 2000, in Sydney, the Russian “armada” (confirming what had happened two years before in Australia) breached this “wall” and got the two titles on offer, a situation that would be repeated in Athens 2004 and at Beijing 2008.
So, Russia became the fourth “player” in 1998 (concerning the World Championships) and 2000 (at the Olympic level). And what about the rest of the world? At the Games, with only two events on the programme, the renovation was harder to accomplish, but already in 2000, France was the fifth nation with an Olympic medal, thanks to a bronze in duet, and last year, at the “Water Cube” in Beijing, two more countries were on the podium for the first time in this discipline: Spain (two silver) and China (bronze in team). The Olympic “club” of medallists now comprised seven nations (as opposed to just three before 2000).
At the World Championships’ level – held every two years and with more events on the programme – things evolved faster. In 1998, Olga Sedakova enchanted the world, but Virginie Dedieu (FRA) also conquered the judges and spectators with her elegance (Russia was then the fourth and France the fifth nation with world medals). In 2003, a sixth country finally made its entry in this reserved “club”: Spain. At home, at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona, Gemma Mengual and the rest of the Iberian team got three medals; a situation that was reinforced in all the following editions of the competition. In 2009, in Rome, signs of development continued further, with the first awards at this level for China and Italy (the Europeans, thanks to the inspiration and talent of Beatrice Adelizzi, conquered a bronze in the solo free final). Again, and following the evolution in the Olympic Games, there are now eight countries with medals at the World Championships – when there were only three before 1998!
With few exceptions, this progression was also felt at the FINA World Cups. From the first edition, in 1979, USA, Canada and Japan have dominated the operations until 1991, with one notable minor failure in 1987, when Muriel Hermine (FRA) medalled – bronze – in the solo event. In 1991, and then more consistently since 1993, Russia has made its entry on the scene, and in 2006 Spain got its first medals in this competition. The next edition of the World Cup, in 2010 in Changshu (CHN), should see China on the podium of this event for the first time.
As we can judge from this evolution, the improvement in quality and in talent is growing fast. Consistent nations, such as Ukraine, Greece, Brazil or even Great Britain (the latter evolving very quickly, namely thanks to the organisation of the Games in 2012 in London), could have their final word in the years to come and enlarge the “club” of nations with medals at Olympic Games, World Championships and World Cups. Spain or China had been in the “shadow” for so many years and are now at the top of the world. Their example is certainly a motivation for an emergent group of other countries worldwide.