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Why is swimming so unpopular? (Part I: appearances and clothing)

Image credit: http://www.wigglestatic.com/
Image credit: http://www.wigglestatic.com/

Stepping out of the Sport Village changing rooms, I anticipated meeting the deafening roar of a wild and ecstatic crowd, and struggling to fit in with the scores of athletes and champions who had turned up alongside me to compete in the University of York Swimming Gala. Instead, I was met with quite the opposite.

Teams were slim in number. On my team there were five of us, two girls and three boys. When it came to relay races, the girls had to perform their relay twice. The rule that UYSWC members could only compete in one event, with respect to fairness, was quickly lifted to avoid empty lanes in some of the races, and breaks were given to allow the competitors to recover. In the crowd were about ten people, most of whom left after an hour or so.

Why had so few people turned up to compete? Why was the audience so small? For me, swimming galas have always been events that the school or college community has brushed under the carpet or largely avoided. Consequently, competitions and arguably the sport as a whole has never received much press.

It used to be the same at my old school. Everyone dreaded our head-of-house announcing that the swimming gala was coming up and swimmers were needed to represent our house. As the register was going round, people would be keenly voicing their apprehension or saying that they would be busy on the day. Out of those that did put their names down to compete, some mysteriously misplaced their swimming kit on the day. It would be the same for water polo events too. Somehow swimming events received more reluctance than Sports Day, which is quite baffling! Seeing how small the teams were at York made me ask why swimming so unpopular.

I think the main reason why people avoid swimming is because we feel embarrassed to do it, more so than other sports. For a start, we wear less in swimming than in many other sports and pastimes. There is no ‘uniform’ or kit to wear like in football or rugby, and the clothing that swimmers wear is clearly far more revealing. All the ‘vital areas’ are covered up but otherwise we are showing our bodies to the world, and skin-tight garments only help reveal the shape and width of our bodies, something of which many people are unfortunately ashamed. Arms, legs and often hair is on display, and understandably few people feel comfortable with it. You’re always worrying about how you appear to the rest of the pool users. Do I look fit? Do I look like I know what I am doing? The ‘physical contact factor’ surely exists when you go to the pool, and it’s going to be skin-on-skin, which does unnerve people. Lots of people have parts of their body of which they are embarrassed. Many people turn to inconspicuous swimwear, wear caps and do not remove their goggles from the minute they leave the changing rooms, all in an effort to achieve anonymity. It feels unsettling when people collide, either without noticing it as they walk around the poolside or by mistake as bodies crash into each other in the water.

One might think that the scary aspect of it is showing our bodies to strangers, but galas like these involve students at the school or university. It feels highly embarrassing to put yourself in those skin-tight clothes and to present yourself to your friends. We fear that our friends will suddenly see how we really look underneath our layers, and betray us and make a judgment about how skinny, fat, unfit or whatever we look. The fear of mockery is paralysing.

Girls suffer the most in this. We live in a society in which many girls are unfortunately feeling the pressure of the unnecessary need to have ‘the bikini body’. Many girls feel that if they don’t have that body, they can’t be seen in a swimsuit. At my school, it always seemed peculiar that none of the rugby squad or their ‘jock’ friends were able to take part in the house water polo competition, but all of them remembered to turn up bang on time and watch the brave girls who had decided to play. What a coincidence! No wonder the majority of the girls declined to play.

In my opinion, it’s perfectly normal for us to be conscious about our appearances, especially in the kind of garments that swimming entails. But I believe that we should remember that the shape of our bodies is in no way an indication of what is most important – our character, our personality and what we are there to do. I get nervous when I have to go on show in this kind of environment, but really the focus should not be on whether or not I look strapping in ‘jammers’ (I hate the technical lingo), but rather on whether I can beat the others in the competition and win points for my college. Only lewd people put the attention on what we’re wearing. We should remember that we’re there to compete and have fun; both can be achieved by rising up to our crude critics who concentrate on the wrong thing and ignoring them.

Despite all this, swimming might not be unpopular just because of how we appear. In the second part of this article I address the main reason for which people end up swimming – competition – and why this contributes to the unpopularity of swimming, as a sport and as a leisure activity.