Five-Ring Circus

What’s the Worst Olympic Sport, Marathon Swimming or Water Polo?

Spiros Gianniotis of Greece reacts after crossing the finish the men’s 10-kilometer marathon swim on Day 11 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Fort Copacabana on August 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

The best Olympic sport is weightlifting. Everyone knows this.

The worst Olympic sport is … well, that’s a tougher question.

Over the course of the Rio Games, I’ve watched most of the sports on the Olympic program—sorry, taekwondo, I’ll get to you in 2020—so I am as qualified as anyone to resolve this conundrum. After much consideration and soul-searching, I’ve identified two events that bring up the rear of the Olympic parade. These sports are rough on both athletes and spectators. They are boring to watch and tedious to compete in. Which is the worst? Let’s weigh their relative demerits.

Advertisement

Why marathon swimming is the worst Olympic sport: There is a very strong case to be made that marathon swimming is the worst sport to participate in and the worst sport to watch, a truly dire combination. In marathon swimming, also known as open water swimming, participants swim very far for a very long time in a lake, or a bay, or the ocean, or some other body of water. In Rio de Janeiro, where so much of the open water is truly gross, this is particularly hazardous.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The open water event takes place off of Copacabana Beach, and, in fairness, at least one American swimmer has reported that the water there “tastes like ocean,” not like human waste. Christian D’Andrea of SB Nation notes that the beach’s “proximity to the Atlantic Ocean helps it maintain much cleaner water than [the] oft-disparaged pollution juice near Governador Island.” But, still, “it’s cleaner than Guanabara Bay” is hardly a ringing endorsement, given that Guanabara Bay is made up of equal parts water, sewage, discarded furniture, and old tires. Objectively, the waters of Copacabana Beach are still very dirty. A painstaking Associated Press investigation detected very high levels of rotavirus and human adenovirus there.

Advertisement

Anyway, marathon swimming is sort of like running a marathon on land, if you subtract the cheering fans that line the route. Also, unlike the marathon, you make no money by participating, and no one watching at home says, “I’m inspired to get out and train for this and beat Oprah’s time.” Oprah would never do marathon swimming.

When you are weighing how awful this sport is, consider the very sad case of France’s Aurelie Muller. Muller finished second in the 10-kilometer marathon swim, but was disqualified afterwards when judges determined she had obstructed a rival swimmer at the end of the race. This strikes me as the very worst thing that could happen to you as an athlete at the Rio Olympics: You swim for two hours through troubled waters, then get disqualified at the very end when you think you’ve won a silver medal. Some might blame this outcome on Muller herself. I choose to blame it on the horrible sport in which she participates, which tends to bring out the worst in everyone.

Advertisement

Marathon swimming holds no televisual appeal. The participants are dots bobbing around on the surface of a murky bay. The commentators do their best, but as an marathon swimming commentator, you will spend your entire career silently hoping that the announcer for absolutely any other sport will call in sick so you can be released from your aquatic prison.

Advertisement
Gemma Beadsworth of Australia is smashed during the women’s water polo qualification match between Australia and Brazil at Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Advertisement

Why water polo is the worst Olympic sport: Water polo combines the absolute worst elements of soccer, mandatory swim testing, and suburbia. It is dull for long stretches of time. It is physically grueling. It feels like a fake sport that was invented ad hoc by some kid named Gavin whose parents are rich enough that he doesn’t have to get a job in the summer and can just loaf all day in his in-ground pool. Gavin’s parents were somehow able to buy his way into Harvard, and then they somehow bought his dumb sport into the Olympics, too! Screw you, Gavin.

Advertisement

If water polo is an Olympic sport, then why not pool basketball? Or Marco Polo? Or going down a water slide? This dumb sport’s inclusion in the Olympics risks sending us all down a very slippery slope, and I, for one, resent it.

Advertisement

Water polo involves a ball, yes, but it doesn’t do anything fun or entertaining with that ball. Having a ball and wasting it might be worse than not having a ball at all. Though it occurs in the water, the sport has no fluidity. Most of the time the players remain in one place, treading water, as the person with the ball holds the ball and also treads water. The defenders all cluster around the goal. There is no spacing in water polo. How could there be? The court is approximately 15 feet long. Somehow, the games always seem to be blowouts.

Advertisement

However exhausting it is to actually play water polo, it might be even worse to watch it. I can’t look at a water polo match without getting nauseous. All I can think about when I watch water polo is how much it sucks to tread water. I also think about how much I resent the water polo announcers for implying there is any strategy involved in this basic, boring game.

Verdict: There is an element of romance to marathon swimming that just does not exist in water polo: humans against the elements, man’s triumph over nature, that sort of thing. As a marathon swimmer, you can always imagine you are the sole survivor of a shipwreck, and that you are literally swimming for your life. There is no such hope in water polo. There is only boredom and pain.

On the other hand, water polo does involve a ball. Balls are fun.

Marathon swimming is the worst Olympic sport.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.

Advertisement