Saturday, 2 February 2013

Has anyone seen the 'real' swimmers?

The marathon swimming community has been having one of its periodical kerfuffles over 'real' swimming and its public representations.

It started with some media reports about US swimmer, Brittany King, who completed an English Channel swim in 2012 with the aid of a wetsuit and fins. An article in Shape magazine set out King's version of the story - she was aiming to swim it by usual Channel rules with the CSA, but suffered from the cold and finished the swim in a wetsuit. "Meet the Woman who Swam the English Channel", declared the headline - a red rag to a bull for the Channel swimming community, for whom 'swimming the English Channel' has a very specific meaning. Some corrections were added by Nick Adams in the comments section of the article: he points out that she swam with the CS&PF rather than the CSA; and that she was also wearing fins. Other comments protested the misleading nature of the article, and the debate was taken up vociferously in the marathon swimmers' forums, ranging across issues of misrepresentation in swimming, the boundaries of authenticity in marathon swimming, and even the old chestnut, CSA / CS&PF relations.

In many ways, I think that these debates display both the best and the worst of marathon swimming. They show the absolute passion of the sport and the desire for the honest representation of it. But I also think that the desire to preserve the 'specialness' of non-wetsuit marathon swimming can make the community (a) take a small number of slightly self-deluded individuals too seriously (see also my earlier post on Diana Nyad), and (b) force people into an unnecessarily derisive stance regarding other kinds of swimming.

In the debates that followed the reports of King's swim, a great deal of concern was expressed about the need to educate the media and the public about what 'real' Channel swimming is. While I think it's absolutely right to correct blatant factual errors in media reports, it's also important to think about the media product and its audience. Shape magazine is a fluffy bit of nonsense whose primary motive is to teach women that their bodies are never good enough and that appearance should be privileged over performance or well-being. If Channel swimming needs defending as a sport (which I don't think it does - it seems to be doing fine), then I doubt that this kind of superficial, misogynistic tat poses much of a threat.

And to be honest, I imagine that for most people not involved with the sport, the difference between a wetsuit and a non-wetsuit swim is utterly irrelevant and most would have no difficulty in seeing a wetsuit Channel swim as a Channel swim. In this sense, and at the risk of igniting all kinds of fury, I suspect that the struggle for definition that is going on within Channel swimming does not even register as a dividing line for most outside of marathon swimming - not because they need to be educated about the sport, but because the debate is too arcane to be important. These internal authenticity disputes characterise almost all specialist activities. Did you know that people who pick mushrooms with the goal of trying to identify and classify them look down on people who pick them to eat them? Or that people who collect dolls for display look down on people who allow children to play with collectable dolls? Or that the quilt-making world is riven between those who hand-sew and those who use machines? (and that the cat has now been set among the pigeons by not knowing how to classify quilts made by machines that have a setting that looks just like hand-sewing). These are all fairly arcane debates (from outside) that are hotly fought from within, and I imagine to most of those outside of swimming, the wetsuit / non-wetsuit debate appears very similar. And I think that Brittany King understands this much as she understands that the use of fins is a completely different kettle of fish in terms of popular perception, which is presumably why this aspect of her swim is never mentioned in her media articles while the wetsuit is.

I have very little time for people who fudge or lie about their swims: it's daft and pointless. But I also baulk at any attempts to police who should be allowed to swim where and how, or who should be able to call themselves what. This is firstly because it's only swimming and I'm just not clear what is at stake here that would warrant such an exclusive approach. Someone swimming the Channel in a wetsuit in no way stops me from swimming it without a wetsuit. And secondly, I think that the snootiness about wetsuit swimming that is evident in the marathon swimming community is utterly (but inadvertently) complicit in the mis-representations that crop up from time to time. If you treat wetsuit swimming as something shameful that has to be 'confessed' and derided as a non-achievement, then you make it a million times harder not only for wetsuit swimmers to be clear about the conditions of their swims, but also to take pleasure in what they have done. And especially this latter just seems a shame and quite unnecessary.

1 comment:

  1. Love this post Karen! A down to earth comment on this somewhat emotional discussion. Live and let live...