Swimming and its Olympic-sized hangover

Once the Olympic games are over, swimming is one of the main sports that struggles to recapture public support.

Hungarian Jakobos told Al Jazeera that without big audiences swimming feels like training [AFP]
Hungarian Jakobos told Al Jazeera that without big audiences swimming feels like training [AFP]

This weekend marks the return of top class swimming to Europe following the Olympics, with Stockholm gearing up for the third meet of the FINA World Cup.

So far the circuit has failed to re-capture the atmosphere seen in London – where swimming was a hot ticket.

At the first two World Cup events, in Doha and Dubai, empty seats reigned supreme.

The situation is very disheartening to the swimmers, with Hungary’s Zsuzsanna Jakobos telling Al Jazeera “It’s very special to compete surrounded by a huge crowd. Without that, it only feels like practice or training”.

The lack of spectators could be down to how swimming is viewed by the public.

Simply put, it is seen as an Olympic sport that people only care about during the summer games, according to former US national team swimmer, and writer for SwimmingWorld.com, Jeff Commings.

While Commings stops short of blaming FINA for this, he does not mince his words when talking about the role of national swimming associations.

“It does not help when their public missions are to win Olympic medals and little else. And they do not do enough to maintain the interest in swimming that is there once the Olympics are done. The general public tends to forget about the Olympics, and the Olympians, after about three months”.

Untapped potential

The lack of initiative taken might seem puzzling to some. Swimming appears to have enough ingredients to make it a lucrative spectator sport beyond the Olympics.

It has plenty of action, with athletes competing at peak physical levels, and the races are often decided by milliseconds.

Furthermore the sport seems have a number of potential stars, that if marketed well, could attract more youngsters to the pool.

In Chad le Clos, the sport has unearthed a gem. While he would not look out of place in a pop group like One Direction; at just 20, he already has an Olympic Gold medal after beating Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly in London.

In addition, Jakobos and her Hungarian counterpart Katinka Hosszu, have arguably enough glamour to be the Maria Sharapova and Anna Kournikova of swimming.

Commings points out however, that without the right exposure, this counts for little.

      With the right marketing, Chad le Clos has looks and talent to boost sport outside of Olympic years [AFP]

“Football, basketball and baseball are on television all the time, and the media shows kids how rich those athletes are. Swimming, on the other hand, doesn’t offer the same lucrative salaries as the pro sports, and therefore, it is not as interesting”.

So what can the sport do to avoid swimming from being, as Phelphs one said, a once-every-four-years sport?

The comments of Commings suggest that more competitions are needed. Talking about the US as an example, he said “it’s a tough battle to showcase the sport when there are very few competitions during the year to put on television and keep it in the minds of the general public”.

Another way to engage people more could be through using social media effectively. Spectators, at home or by the pool, can often feel disconnected from the competitors.

You can barely see the swimmers faces as they exert themselves, and it’s also difficult for swimmers to celebrate crazily like football players when half their body is underwater.

Through tools like Twitter and Facebook, swimming associations can possibly develop strategies to connect the competitors with the public, and build stronger bonds.

Commings feels that if anything is to be achieved, then the steps cannot come from the authorities alone. He feels “Athletes needs to get behind issue of promoting the sport more”.

Le Clos and Jakobos seem to have latched onto the idea. The young South African has nearly 80,000 Twitter followers, while Jakobos has over 20,000 likes on Facebook.

In the meantime, FINA will be hoping that the meet in Stockholm will quell any ideas of an Olympic hangover.

Commings believes it will a draw larger crowd than the first two events. But whether this could trigger a wave of public 
interest for the rest of the circuit remains to be seen.

There is plenty of swimming to come in the remaining part of 2012, with five more World Cup events following Stockholm.

There’s even the FINA World Championships coming up this December in Istanbul. Swathes of empty seats there would certainly be a disaster.

But the elements for success are potentially there. The bigwigs governing the sport certainly have some thinking to do.

For now however, the fans can play their part at the very least. That would certainly be appreciated by the swimmers themselves. Take it from Jakobos. “A big audience always gives a special mood to races, and it probably helps us swim even faster”.

Source : Al Jazeera

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