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Thursday, September 28, 2000

Some sports really do need to be questioned

 SYDNEY -- Just about the time Maria Kisseleva was discussing the deep thought that went into the design of swimsuits and the painstaking research before selecting the music, we jumped on the ankle express and legged it out of there.

 This was synchronized swimming. A question intrudes: Sync or swim?

 Swim, one guessed by the half-full Olympic swimming pool for the event final. The gold medal won by Kisseleva and partner Olga Brusnikina is not the first here won in semi-anonymity.

 Trampoline, archery, various shooting, sailing and a crowd of other down-market spectator sports scarcely get a nod in their home countries, let alone at the biggest athletic show on Earth.

 And to this somebody will want to add a demonstration sport next Olympics. What, hopscotch?

 This is not to knock those sports, all of which have their merits. Trouble is, those merits are appreciated almost exclusively by the folks in them. It sure cannot be easy to do your precision thing underwater for minutes at a time, then pop up with a frozen smile waving in unison like mermaids signalling a passing freighter.

 Canadians Claire Carver-Dias and Fanny Letourneau did some pretty tricky stuff en route to a fifth-place finish behind the Russians, silver medallist Miya Tachibana and Miho Takeda from Japan and the bronze-winning French duet of Virginie Dedieu and Myriam Lignot.

 And they did it with what apparently was a creative departure from the norm, rivalling the artistic risks figure skater Toller Cranston once took in figure skating.

 So another question imposes itself: Is this sport or art?

 The Canadian duo opted for art. Carver-Dias said afterward they were compelled to follow the dictates of their creativity so their routine, entitled Madness, was a bit cracked.

 "Maybe in a couple of years we'll be considered pioneers," Carver-Dias said.

 Synchronized swimming, occasional victim of such nicknames as Ballroom Drowning or Bathtub Ballet, tells a story, you see. In Madness, there's a darkness, Carver-Dias explained, followed by voices and giddiness, such as her partner chatting directly to Carver-Dias's foot.

 All very profound, undoubtedly. But for the unwashed, nobody's routine seems to tell a story other than a shipwreck or flood.

 None of this is to say there's anything easy about it. Remaining upside-down in water minus a scuba tank for minutes at a time is a day well off the beach, not on it. Particularly when you have to flash a convincing grin after surfacing with lungs screaming.

 Like figure skating or ballet, new moves are a finite thing, so you'd better get the regular ones down to a precision unmatched by porpoises.

 But art or athletics? When does tap-dancing, croquet, stand-up comedy and hide-and-seek get a shot at the Olympic medals?

 It has been said before and it will be said many, many times again: The Olympics are too big and one of the reasons is there are too many sports.

 One answer is to move some to the Winter Games. Another is to run them as Summer Games in a different time frame to help fill up the seats left empty by those off watching the traditional sports.

 It could put everything in sync.