Synchronised swimming, the unified movement of multiple swimmers in time to music, has its origins in theatrical water ballets of the late 19th century. Despite being one of the very few disciplines featuring only women – the other is rhythmic gymnastics – in fact, it was men who first took part in the sport.
The first performances in 1891 in Berlin, and in 1892 in London, featured men only. However, the sport’s big boost came from travelling water shows, and in particular the acrobatic performances of the itinerant Australian Annette Kellerman in her glass tank.
Synchronised swimming first took on a competitive nature in 1930 – five decades before it entered the Olympic programme. In 1952, the International Swimming Federation (known by its French acronym FINA) took control of the sport and established a series of rules proposed by Canada, the United States and Argentina, countries where the discipline was very popular.
Synchronised swimming was performed at the Games between 1952 and 1968 as an exhibition sport, as well as at the Buenos Aires 1951 Pan-American Games. It entered as an official Pan-American Games competition at the following edition, in 1955 in Mexico City, but it only joined the official Olympic programme in 1984, in Los Angeles.
The competition format is simple: duets or teams of eight swimmers give a short performance in the pool to the sound of music. Judges evaluate the athletes in different areas, including choreography, difficulty, synchronisation and execution of movement. Points are lost if competitors take too long to enter the pool, make deliberate use of the bottom of the pool, or fail to execute the obligatory part.
In the duet event, each pair performs an obligatory technical routine and a freestyle routine, and the points awarded for both are added together to select duets for the final phase, in which the swimmers perform their own freely chosen presentations. In the team event, there are only the two initial routines and the winners are determined by the sum of the two scores.