Some sports make immediate sense. Like running. We can easily imagine how certain sports came to be: A caveman leaps across a stream, and the long jump is born. Escaping a hungry lion, an African narrowly clears a high branch before rolling into a small cave, and there you have the first high jump. Two cavalry units meet in a fierce battle of keep-away, thus inventing polo.
But other sports do not mimic natural activities that your average homo sapien might take up on his own — sports (like basketball and cricket) where the rules, fine points, and equipment have piled up until the game’s natural provenance is hidden by the mists of time, the fog of contrivance.
Anyone who has ever been forced to play a game made up on the spot by an older brother—“Didn’t I mention that it’s worth seven points every time I touch the tree?”—knows how maddening an arbitrary sport can feel. We want to be assured that a game is either 1) natural and fair, or 2) deeply meaningful, even if not immediately easy to comprehend.
Maybe this is why sports fans will often emphasize the essential naturalism of their favorite game. A football fan talks about tossing the old pigskin, evoking not only the material used in early footballs, but also an earthy tableau— Vikings tossing a ball fashioned from the hide of a recently-killed wild boar they are still digesting.
If it can’t be made to seem genetically inevitable, a sport is portrayed as being at least psychologically or politically inevitable. From Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary about the 1938 Olympics to NFL films that portray huddles as a sort of Yalta summit, sport is rarely allowed to appear newfangled.
To arrive at a Naturalism Score for your favorite sport, use the following formula: Time (that humans have been doing something like it), in millennia, + availability of necessary equipment on a scale of 1 to 10, + objectivity of judging on a scale of 1 to 3. Swimming scores 113. (100 millennia+ 10 points for equipment availability + 3 points for objectivity.) Formation skydiving scores 2.1.
Then there’s the second quality to consider: a sport’s metaphorical richness. Baseball scores high in this area. Running, on the other hand, is not rich in metaphor, because rather than being a stylized pantomime of some basic human endeavor, it is the endeavor itself.
To calculate the Metaphorical Richness Score, then, simply ask yourself how likely it is that Morgan Freeman will narrate a feature length documentary about the sport, on a scale of 1 to 100.
Consider the many applications! Using these two formulas, we could invent new sports that in their naturalness and poetry might really stand the test of time. Competitive flirting? Timed trials of reaching for things on high shelves, scored for artistry? Maybe all the good sports have already been invented.
I have one absurdist friend who prefers sports that score low on both scales, like curling, which is neither self-explanatory nor meaningful. The sports I like best score high on both scales, like rugby, gymnastics, and dressage. And, of course, synchronized swimming, which by my calculations scores 111 on naturalism and 98 on poetry.
Even though it takes place largely under water, synchronized swimming is the only sport that officially encourages its players to wear cosmetics. In literature about the sport, the International Olympic Committee writes: “Gelatin keeps the hair in place. Make-up brings out the features.” But these are trivial, recent additions. I believe that early humans engaged in competitive water ballet, long before the invention of mascara.
When I was a teenager, my stepsisters and I choreographed and performed synchronized swimming routines in the Cow Pasture River, which runs past our family’s place in Virginia. My mother and her husband John had seven children between them, from four previous marriages. Most of us went away to boarding school, but in the summers, we were forced to go with them every weekend to “the cabin,” where there was nothing to do but ride three-wheelers through the woods, sneak cigarettes, read, or choreograph and perform synchronized swimming routines in the river. We practiced for hours, fighting against the current.
In 1984, the year I turned 14, synchronized swimming finally became a medal sport at the Olympic Games, after biding its time as a demonstration sport for every summer Olympics since 1948. Why did it take the powers-that-be so long to recognize that this is a great sport, by all measurements?
My sisters and I probably watched it on television, but I like to think that even if we had somehow been shielded from all human history and sports knowledge, we would have come up with synchronized swimming on our own.
Mom and John sat in tilted plastic chairs on the muddy riverbank, drinking vodka tonics. When we looked up from the water, we could see them talking and absently petting the dogs. I don’t know how our routines looked from their vantagepoint, but to us they felt gorgeous. Synchronized swimming was hard work—lots of strenuous toe pointing, holding of breath, bending of arms, and furious treading of water. We were mermaids of the river, the embodiment of human grace and endurance. Living flowers. Natural athletes.
My favorite thing about synchronized swimming is that it is a sport that both animals and humans enjoy participating in.