Five-Ring Circus

Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky in the Same Relay? It Could Happen.

Future teammates? Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky at the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska. 

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

On Saturday night, the United States won decisive victories in the men’s and women’s medley relays, putting a glorious capper on its Olympic swim meet. In the penultimate event, the gilded superstars of the women’s team handily vanquished the rest of the world, winning the Americans’ 32nd swimming medal of the 2016 Games. In the final race of the session, the gold-draped megastars of the men’s squad backstroked, breaststroked, butterflied, and freestyled their way to victory in an Olympic record time—the United States’ 33rd medal. No other country has more than 10.

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Can you imagine a more magnificent ending to a week in the pool? I can. What if there were one last event, a mixed-gender medley that teamed the nation’s winningest women with its most-medalled men. This would be more than just a chance for the U.S. team to win more hardware. It would also let viewers see male and female swimmers interacting in the pool, not just in the ready room or the stands.

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This isn’t a crazy fantasy. The 2015 world championships in Kazan, Russia, featured two mixed relays, a 4-by-100 medley won by Great Britain and a 4-by-100 freestyle race in which a dream team of Ryan Lochte, Nathan Adrian, Simone Manuel, and anchor Missy Franklin narrowly beat the Netherlands, setting a world record in the process.

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If that knowledge alone doesn’t make you giddy with excitement, please note that the rules of mixed relays allow teams to use the swimmers in any order they like. According to the New York Times, this turned the mixed medley relay into a very wet chess match, with the Russians the only team to save one of their men for the anchor leg. In the end, Great Britain’s Fran Halsall held off Russia’s Vladimir Morozov to win the race and set a world record.

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The push to include more mixed-gender events in the games comes from the top. One of the key goals of the Olympic Agenda 2020—the Olympic movement’s roadmap for the future—is to foster gender equality. While there are more female athletes in Rio de Janeiro than at any prior Olympics—approximately 4,700 of the 10,444 athletes are women—the games have yet to reach gender parity. The Olympic Agenda calls on the IOC to increase the number of female athletes at the games “by creating more participation opportunities.” One way to do that, the document says, is “to encourage the inclusion of mixed-gender team events.” In Rio, that means mixed doubles in badminton and tennis; a male-female crew in the Nacra 17 division of the sailing regatta; and the “who cares if the rider is a man or a woman” world of equestrian.

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In future Olympics, there could be many more such events. Two of the three mixed-gender events added to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi were relays—the biathlon teams consist of two women and two men, while the luge’s involved three men and one woman. (The other mixed event was a figure skating team competition.) Sporting federations in events as varied as triathlon and cycling have signaled a willingness to explore mixed relays, and a spokeswoman for FISA, the World Rowing Federation, told me that the possibility of a mixed event “is being reviewed.” When the rowing program is announced for the Tokyo Games of 2020, there might well be a mixed boat on the list.

The FISA spokeswoman noted that “Paralympic rowing has set the scene with a mixed boat—para mixed double scull,” and indeed most of the Paralympic sports include some mixed-gender events. (In Paralympic Boccia, men and women compete against each other in all categories.) Mixed-gender relays are also common in age-restricted competitions. The 2014 Youth Olympic Games, an elite multisport event for athletes 14-18 that is organized by the International Olympic Committee and thus serves as something of a signal of the IOC’s intentions, included mixed-gender relays in cycling, swimming, and track, and mixed team competitions in archery, badminton, diving, fencing, golf, judo, modern pentathlon, shooting, table tennis, tennis, and triathlon.

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Track and field, at least for now, seems to be resisting the mixed-gender trend. A spokeswoman for USA Track and Field told me, “I have not heard any movement toward mixed relays.” While the 2014 Youth Olympic Games did feature a mixed-gender 8-by-100-meter relay, it was a very wacky race. According to the IAAF website, “The competition featured eight randomly selected—four male and four female—athletes across a range of events and all national Olympic committees. Each team had to include at least one athlete from each discipline group: sprints/hurdles, endurance, jumping, and throwing.” The winning team consisted of a German shot putter, an Australian sprinter, a 1,500-meter runner from Comoros, a 400-meter hurdler from Thailand, a 400-meter sprinter from Venezuela, a Russian triple jumper, an 800-meter runner from the British Virgin Islands, and a Romanian 200-meter sprinter. A governing body that saw mixed track-and-field relays as a possible addition to the Olympic program would have organized something that looked a bit less like the Laff-a-Lympics.

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Adding mixed relays probably won’t do all that much to bring more women to the games, since relay teams typically consist of athletes who have already participated in individual events. But there are other benefits: Populous, rich nations with well-organized sports programs have a huge advantage in relays. It’s easy enough for a vast country like the United States, population 324 million, to line up four great male or female freestylers. Mixed relays reward smaller countries that are blessed with outstanding men and exceptional women, since you only need two of each to compete.

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But let’s be honest: The real reason we’re likely to see at least one mixed relay on the swimming program at a future Olympic Games is that it would be great for television. While the bloated Olympic program is a great excuse to keep out TV-unfriendly races like the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle, relays are ratings gold. If NBC has a vision board, I’ll bet there’s an image of Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps swimming in the same event pinned at the very top. Set your DVRs for Tokyo.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.

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