08/06/2012 03:57 EDT | Updated 10/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Column: Don't be too quick to condemn "silly" Olympic sports; variety is the games' wealth

LONDON - With 302 events in 26 sports crammed into two weeks, the Olympic Games can feel like an overdose. Even if you wedged open your eyes with toothpicks, you couldn't stay awake to watch it all. So why not get out the chain saw and cut the whole thing down to size?

Water polo, for instance. Couldn't that be culled? This, after all, is a sport described so acerbically but accurately by one London newspaper at these games as being akin to watching a pool of hungry carp fighting for chunks of bread. Splash, splash.

Would it be more fun if they chucked a gallon of bubble bath in with the players? Turn the whole thing into a foam party to go with the thumping beats from the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, the incessant blowing of whistles by referees and the disco-fever lines of green and red underwater lights.

And the players' caps with the plastic ear protectors?

"A fashion no-no," said Alan May, a Londoner who came away somewhat bemused Monday with his wife, Ceri, after watching Croatia crush Kazakhstan and Australia eliminate Greece.

"It was exhausting just to watch it."

And where to start with synchronized swimming? It's too easy to take a pop at a sport with athletes who coat their hair in gelatin. The right-on petitioners who appealed in London for Olympic synchro to be opened to men, too, to make the games completely gender-equal must be kidding. They might wise up if they searched YouTube for Saturday Night Live's spoof of that idea. Michael Phelps in waterproof makeup? Yuck.

But, folks, here's the thing: Synchro, water polo and the other Olympic sports — some of them, like archery, more activities than sport really — that sometimes get talked about as prime candidates for the axe or as being unworthy of sharing the same stage as sprint superstar Usain Bolt are a lot better than the alternative, which would be having whole generations of unfit couch-potatoes glued to their PlayStations.

If watching Croatia put 12 goals past Kazakhstan at the Olympics makes kids want to dip their toes in the water — as it did Monday to teenager Amelia Williamson — then of course it needs to be in the games. Same goes for synchro.

Amelia and her sisters found water polo's tall, chiseled men rather yummy.

"The ball boys are quite nice, as well," she said.

The verdict from her dad, Piers: "Eye-candy for girls."

A journalist exhausted by 11 straight days of Olympic overload (me) and thinking he could have a little diverting fun by mocking water polo and synchro as Olympic impostors will come away with a whole new attitude.

These aren't jokes. They're a lot more physical than they look on TV. You only need to observe how hard synchro swimmers are puffing after their routines to understand that. Or watch players half-drown and grapple with each other for the ball in water polo, an aquatic descendent of rugby so rough and gurgle that the rules allow for players to be ejected for "brutality."

The British synchro duo of Olivia Federici and Jenna Randall train 45 hours per week, six days of seven, to hone the clockwork near-perfection of their aquatic ballet. And that was still only good enough to qualify them in ninth place for the finals.

Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina, the tournament leaders from Russia, swam like mirror images of each other. The underwater tango of Spanish duo Andrea Fuentes Fache and Ona Carbonell Ballestero, upside down, legs kicking, was beautifully inventive.

"If anyone tries it in the water they'll understand how physical and demanding our sport is," said Randall. "Thankfully, we've got the Olympics in London so more of the general public are seeing our sport and they are actually seeing how hard it is."

At the games, there's an event for every body type.

Elisa Casanova, on the Italian women's water polo team, weighs 100 kilograms (220 pounds) — more than Bolt, who defended his 100-meter sprint title Sunday.

Japanese gymnast Asuka Teramoto is listed by games organizers as being just 1.36 metres (4 feet, 6 inches) tall. Chinese basketball player Zhang Zhaoxu stands 2.21 metres (7 feet, 3 inches).

Japanese rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, at 71, got to test himself in dressage against competitors less than half his age on his horse, Whisper. Togolese 50-meter freestyle swimmer Adzo Kpossi is listed by games organizers as just 13.

So the variety of 302 events in 26 sports is a strength of the Olympics, not its fatal flaw. It ensures there is a little something for almost everyone. And isn't that part of what the Olympics are meant to be about, universality?

So hold that chain saw.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at) or follow him at