French swimmers have all the Reich moves

June 07, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

IF SOMEBODY ASKS you what synchronized swimming needs to become a breakthrough sport, the obvious answer is, well, Nazis.

To this point, Nazis have been unaccountably shut out of the sport. At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, when Hitler snubbed the great sprinter Jesse Owens, saying, "Jimmy the Greek was right; they can run but they can't swim worth a damn," most of your swimming was still done the old-fashioned way, which is to say without music and rarely in tandem. Go figure.

But the French -- leave it to the French, the same folks who venerate Jerry Lewis as a genius (or, as they say in Paris, le genius) -- planned to change all that. And you thought the French just did sauce. Well, France's Olympic synchronized swimming team wanted to do Nazis.

No, this is not a plot line from the "Producers," Mel Brooks' hilarious movie about the making of a musical called "Springtime for Hitler." (Favorite lyric: "Don't be shtupid, be a shmarty/Come and join the Nazi party.")

This is the truth.

This is concentration camps under water.

This is Dr. Mengele in spandex as the Gestapo swims its way into your hearts.

This was the actual plan until the French Ministry for Sports and Incredibly Stupid Ideas put the kibosh to it, saying, and I think I have this translated correctly, "Are you nuts?":

Set to music from "Schindler's List," a movie in which, strangely, there was virtually no swimming, the routine would have shown women brought to the death camps, then the final selection and, finally, a march to the gas chambers. Nose clips and ear plugs optional.

Look, given France's performance in World War II -- forget about the resistance and "Casablanca;" the French rolled over at the sight of the first tank and then gave up every Jew they could find -- you'd think they'd try to downplay that little part of their history. You'd think that if the syncros wanted to swim into history, they'd do Marie Antoinette. Let them eat tuna.

OK, to be fair, what the French were trying to do was make a statement about the horror of the Holocaust. Like you can do that in a swimming pool. Just a sample of the routine, to give you the full sense of it (and this is all true): The swimmers were going to goose-step at pool-side before jumping in to, well, who can even guess. How do you show gas chambers under water?

Who would want to? I mean other than Marge Schott, who would probably offer to bring the routine to Cincinnati if her dog, Schottzie 02, could play a lead role. He can't swim much, but he can sure drink water out of a toilet.

Now some would say this routine is trivializing perhaps mankind's worst moment. But that would be trivializing the word trivializing. Politicians trivialize. TV trivializes. This is uber-trivialization. This is to trivialization what the blitzkrieg was to off-road driving.

It's the "Hogan's Heroes" of Olympic moments. If you're of a certain age, you remember "Hogan's Heroes," the TV sitcom about a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in which the cuddly Nazi Sgt. Schultz would say, "I know nus-zing. I know nus-zing."

Who thought that was a good idea? Who thought Nazis were funny? You kids out there, ask your parents about it next time they get on you for your choice of TV programming.

Of course, you don't expect high art from synchronized dTC swimming, the silliest Olympic sport this side of rhythmic gymnastics. The first time I saw it, I thought I'd stepped into the middle of an Esther Williams movie.

(My favorite Esther Williams movie, by the way, is "Dangerous When Wet," co-starring Fernando Lamas. In the movie, Williams, described as a corn-fed girl, swims the English channel. Try to imagine the synchronized swimming version, as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, in which Himmler and Goebbels swim the channel in tandem, to the tune of "The William Tell Overture," in a re-enactment of the blitz. Instead of actual bombs, they could use water balloons.)

It isn't that you can't dance in water. There's Gene Kelley's famous scene in "Singin' in the Rain." And then there's Bobby Freeman's "C'mon and Swim."

But Nazis? The Holocaust? In a swimming pool? Yeah, it's a weird idea. But, maybe all history could be told this way. I'd pay to see Lincoln in a Speedo.

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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