Can Swimming Compete in the Age of the Highlight?

I became a serious sports fan early in college, swept up in the wave of school-spirit that often comes with attending a division-1 university. As I slowly acclimated myself with the culture of mainstream sports I had long ignored, my love of watching sports grew to a new level upon the realization that most sports fans are also users of Twitter. I came to understand that viewing a live sporting event combined with refreshing my feed on the social media app after every major event took my enjoyment of the event to an entirely new level. After every major play, a sports pundit or writer or even casual fan, had a funny quip, pun or meme in reaction to what just happened.


What’s more is that when you have hundreds of thousands of people all watching the same event, some instinctively take it upon themselves to record the television on the off-chance that a major play will happen that they will want to preserve and rewatch on their Twitter feed. If the star wide receiver of your favorite football team just made a spectacular one-handed catch that you would like to see one more time after the network cuts to commercial, you can all but guarantee you will be able to find the play on Twitter where you can watch it on an endless loop until the game resumes.


Among the many factors that contribute to a sport’s popularity among mainstream consumers, one aspect that the Internet and Twitter has pushed to the forefront is the importance of the highlight. As our attention spans dwindle, sports thrive on the 3-10 second clip of an athlete doing something remarkable. Sports yearn for sharable material, because every social media user wants to be the one to show their followers something cool, something worthy of their attention.


Swimming fans lament constantly that a world-record breaking performance should easily rank as the #1 highlight on Sportscenter. While in most cases I can’t help but agree, the problem with this argument lies in the fact that ESPN, and the internet sporting community decided many years ago that highlights are to be ranked more so on entertainment value and displays of skill, rather than impressiveness of the overall athletic accomplishment. It needs to look impressive and feed our desire to seek and discover that one wow-factor play that everyone is talking about and share with all of our friends.


Good highlights need to be something you have to see to believe. Which of the following, based strictly on description, sounds more impressive? Which one is begging to be seen?

-a swimmer breaking a world record by two seconds and winning the race a body-length ahead of all other competitors

-a baseball player running full steam toward the warning track, launching himself off over the ballpark wall with his arm fully outstretched, plucking the ball out of thin air and robbing the away team of the go-ahead home run


While I personally, a biased swimming fan, would love to see both highlights, I don’t need to see the swimming highlight to further my understanding of the event that occurred, nor will seeing the replay of the race heighten my appreciation for the feat.


But, for the baseball highlight, I am much less confident I fully understand all of the factors that went into this play. It demands that I see the replay and until then I may not fully understand how impressive the athletic display.


What is sad about this, to me, is that often sports highlights that go viral have very little impact on the outcome of the contest.


This past weekend as I scrolled through Twitter, I came across a golf clip from the PGA Championship in North Carolina. A Spanish golfer named Jon Rahm was finishing his final round and decided to take an abnormal technique to his final approach shot, standing with his back to the hole and hitting a spectacular behind-the-back chip successfully launching his ball toward the green.


Watch it below, it truly is impressive.


But, here’s my issue. Did anyone notice Rahm’s score preceding this trick shot? It was a dismal +6 above par, meaning he had all but been removed from contention for the championship well before this hole. Rahm also finished with a score of +7, good for a tie for 58th, meaning that despite his cool approach shot, he still bogeyed the final hole.


And yet, the clip still went viral! Business Insider declared it the shot of the tournament. This clip embedded above is a tweet that saw 360+ retweets and over one-thousand favorites, which is very impressive reach.


We all marveled last summer at the sheer dominance of Katie Ledecky, truly one of the best athletes the world has ever seen in any sport. But among her comprehensive body of work thus far, how many of her races have produced any true memorable, singular moments? Most every one of them will endure the test of time due to their outcome in the context of her competition (essentially, how far she was ahead of the competition) rather than the visual stimulation that her display provides. The majority of her races consists of her diving into a pool and slowly, methodically putting an astounding amount of distance between herself from her rivals until she is all but racing herself and the clock at the end of four minutes. Is an unchallenged champion ‘exciting’?


What swimming also lacks is context on a broad scale. Seeing Katie Ledecky finish half a pool length ahead of the rest of the Olympic final has the potential to be less meaningful than a 360-degree, one-hand, no-look dunk of a basketball. This is because I am assuming that more of the general public has attempted (and failed) to even jump to touch the rim of a basketball hoop than compete in a competitive swimming race or have any knowledge of what split times for a 400m freestyle are considered good or bad.


Do I need to see Katie Ledecky race in order to appreciate her greatness? I’m not so sure. Due to swimming’s lack of exposure, lots of major meets are broadcast on tape delay forcing swimming fans to track the action via Twitter or the swim meet results app Meet Mobile. Often times I find myself refreshing results and marveling at split times and race outcomes without having even seen the races happen. And later when the race video is posted, watching the race doesn’t necessarily add to my enjoyment in any way.



How do we reconcile this in the age of social media? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I do think that outside-the-box thinking is absolutely critical for the sport not to disappear in the wake of the hierarchy of sports in the media. We must continue to try and make the sport more accessible, and strive for the best possible explanation of context prior to and after races in order to heighten the understanding of what makes a swim race impressive. We need to keep pushing our stars into the forefront of the news cycle, upping their exposure and drawing fans in through their likeness. We need to do a better job of highlighting our athletes’ training and preparation. We need to do a better job with championship meet promotion and event hosting, hyping big races up to be heavyweight clashes rather than endless, unchanging heats of bodies traveling up and down the pool.


While we can’t change the sport itself, we can change its perception and how it is viewed from the outside looking in.