Next month the world’s athletes gather in Beijing, what we used to call Peking, for the XXIX Olympics, this iteration bearing the slogan “One World, One Dream.” One outstanding American athlete had a dream to compete in these Olympics, but will not be doing so. It’s not because of drugs, steroids, or anything like that. Rather, it’s because he is a man.
His name is Kenyon Smith and he is 18 years old. His sport is synchronized swimming, one of the three Olympic sports that excludes men. The others are softball and rhythmic gymnastics. For the record, Olympic baseball and boxing still exclude women, which troubles me not at all.
As the Wall Street Journal noted back in March, Kenyon swims with the Santa Clara Aquamaids, a team that includes his older sister, Layla. Some observers may mock the sport, but there is no denying that it is difficult and demanding, much like anything one does underwater and upside down. Kenyon tried synchronized swimming at age nine and found he liked it and was good at it. He is apparently able to swim nearly 75 yards underwater, for example, without blacking out. He is not the first man, however, to participate in the sport.
As the Journal pointed out, mixed teams of synchronized swimmers won awards in the 1940s and men played a major role during the 1950s, the era of Esther Williams. That ended when, in 1955, the American Athletic Union banned “mixed-sex events.” The ban endured until the advent of synchro star Bill May, who excelled in all events in which he was allowed to participate. His backers lobbied for mixed events at the 2004 Olympic games, but were not successful. Mr. May now swims in a Cirque du Soleil water show in Las Vegas.
Kenyon Smith believed he could still participate in the Olympics. He excelled in the trials, but USA Synchro, the sport’s governing body, rigged the results. There were 14 contenders for nine team positions. Kenyon placed seventh but USA Synchro dropped him to 15. As Laura LaCursia, USA Synchro director, delicately explained to the Wall Street Journal, “We want judges to look at kids they can select. We want to be as pure as possible.”
USA Synchro president Ginny Jasontek put it this way. “Not to take away from Kenyon’s abilities, but in the world of the Olympics, we’re a women’s sport.” Kenyon Smith’s woes, unfortunately, extend beyond the Olympic Games. He is also ineligible to attend an American college on a sports scholarship.
Here he runs into the Title IX obstacles this column has often chronicled. Title IX peddles quotas as “proportionality” and operates on the premise that men and women are “not undifferentiated.” College administrators, a squishy lot, are at pains to cultivate gender equity. Their means for bringing that about do not include letting men participate in synchronized swimming. The tactic of choice is to cut men’s teams and the victims include the men’s swimming team at UCLA.
Kenyon Smith stands as proof that men and women are in fact “differentiated,” and that their athletic choices can be very different. Whatever one thinks of his choice, the important point is that he made it. He is also proof that, whatever the sport, men are Title IX’s victims of choice. Synchronized swimming star Bill May told the Wall Street Journal that “the problem is narrow-mindedness.” That is true, but probably understates the matter. If a woman were flatly informed that “this is a men’s sport,” and told to go away, there would surely be an uproar.
When Kenyon Smith is told that synchronized swimming is for women only, in the interest of “purity,” no less, the gender troops stand silent and untroubled. This is all wet, off the deep end, or whatever one wants to call it. That needs to change but given the inflexibility of the gender warriors, nobody should hold her breath.