This piece is dedicated to the athletes, amongst them, Iranian athletes, who have used their love and their sport as a way to oppose totalitarianism. Even with the risk of persecution or losing their lives, they have stood in the face of injustice. For that, we stand in solidarity.
For several years I worked as a lifeguard in one of Sweden’s biggest public swimming pools. The building, located at the center of Stockholm underneath one of its highways, houses seven pools and a theme park. The swimming hall has been there since 1929 and has witnessed countless generations swim, tan, argue, laugh, cry, age, and then ultimately, disappear. The difficulty in talking about public swimming pools and their importance is that they balance being a mundane occurrence with simultaneously inviting extraordinary patterns of behavior. Many of us still remember the sharp edge of a pool corner, a towel which can never really be kept dry, and the lingering scent of chlorine licking the skin.
In the European and American tradition that has mainly inspired Sweden, the public swimming pool has gone through several historical iterations: from ancient Greece, paired with gymnastic facilities to keep the mind and body strong, to the 19th century European bathhouse, which sought to ingrain decorum and cleanliness into the urban poor, to the violently segregated swimming pools during civil rights movements around the world where racialized body politics were brought explicitly to the foreground, up to its current form, which somehow manages to blend leisure, exercise, and social encounters.
The public swimming pool is not a sort of mass-functional utopia in which differences are overcome and people lovingly get along. Prejudices continue to exist in the judgement of tattoos, chosen swimwear, haircuts, physique, or ability to swim laps. Strangers treat each other with care and gentleness at one moment, whilst exhibiting misogyny, racism or homophobia similarly experienced elsewhere at the very next. In Sweden, there is a particular emphasis on the idea that everybody needs to know how to swim. While a favorable skill, especially since Sweden has approximately 100,000 lakes and 3,200 kilometers of coastline, in discussions of immigration, people weaponize the inability to swim as proof of a certain “missing” national quality. Not swimming becomes “un-Swedish,” and, thus, someone with a migration background who cannot swim can be deemed a “bad migrant.” These types of conversations, along with the highly racialized history of public spaces, are important when discussing public sports facilities, and should therefore be neither forgotten nor diminished. However, it is important to ask what the public swimming pool represents today. Is there something the public pool can offer us, which other types of space do not?
Heavily pregnant people – barely able to walk – breathed with elation as they waddled into the water; the weight of their bellies lifting gently. A man in a motorized wheelchair would come every morning at six. He was paralyzed from the waist down, and would do the butterfly stroke for hours. We weren’t so chatty that early in the morning.
Unlike most sports, swimming is, at face value, an extremely individualistic activity. As an act, it does not require knowledge of particular rules. And yet, it is precisely this individuality which makes the exercise so accessible for everybody, and is thus a shared activity. How? Other sports that are typically championed as communal, like basketball or football, have an unspoken, high barrier of entry. Yes, a ball is technically all that is needed, making materials cheap, but if you don’t know the rules of the game, or if you cannot play with others, the sport ceases to exist. You can kick or throw a ball around, but that is not soccer, nor is it basketball. Swimming, on the other hand, is always swimming. As long as you don’t sink, you float, and whether you do it well or how you move is, to some extent, up to you.
Sometimes I was scared of the teenagers. “STOP RUNNING!” Their ability to disregard rules always impressed me: a hormonal, breathing wall. The pensioners, just as mean as the teenagers, loved the rules. If you did not get them a ticket for water aerobics on time, they would wreak havoc in the reception, yelling at the swimming pool’s incompetence and my own.
Even if you are old, young, happy, disabled, pregnant, fat, skinny, tired, pissed off, or sad, you can be by the water and swim. In an urban environment, like Stockholm, which is dictated by wealth inequalities and social categorization, such an unconditional invitation to an activity is rare. Whether it’s the cafe you go to, the housing you live in, or the accent with which you speak, you are un/consciously making demarcations of who you are and where you belong – or rather, where you do not belong. Space is dictated by the relations of the people who inhabit it, and it is not always welcoming or democratic in terms of physical and social accessibility. The public swimming pool, in opposition, remains comparatively open and cheap. Most often, you buy a ticket which lasts all day, and all you need is yourself and some sort of swim gear. You are allowed to just be at the swimming pool, without worrying about a tab or whether you fulfill certain criteria. That, in itself, is an extremely powerful invitation in cities which usually bear “do not enter” signs.
The water polo players were always compact. Somehow, they managed to be both small and big. Height, width, muscles. Sometimes they wore little funny caps to protect their ears, like wrestlers. The divers were always practicing in the warm, round room with the deepest pool. That room reminded me of a church.
So, we have a swimming pool filled with different types of people. And now these people are forced to coincide with other pool visitors. “You first.” – “Are you in this lane?” – “Are these your kids?” – “That’s my towel.” The very accessible, yet individual, desire to go swimming suddenly forces you to be with others and compromise. You have to give up space to receive space in the pool lane, or wait in line for the slide. You cannot choose where you want to shower, to change, or to blow-dry your hair. All of these choices are premeditated, and they are specifically designed to be mass-functional, shared by as many people as possible. They are the same for everybody, even if the people using them are different. The limitations of space thus create a new type of freedom, a shared choreography of difference. Rather than rules limiting your sense of being; your individuality, the public swimming pool negotiates the ways in which you can be yourself among others.
Changing rooms are a history of humankind’s relations. Or a speed dating round you did not sign up for, in which you learn far too much about somebody in a surprisingly short amount of time. Their deodorant, makeup, and the way they wash their hair. Parents, children, lovers, friends, classmates, colleagues, siblings and associates sharing lockers and misplacing keys next to one another.
It is exactly the continuous negotiation between individual desire and communal space which makes the public swimming pool so necessary. What appears is a sort of collective freedom defined in contrast to its mainstream liberal counterpart, which declares that little to no interference from others is the only way to be self-actualized and truly free. There is contradiction and there is compromise; the public swimming pool becomes a practice, in a way, of being amongst and with others. This is not a romanticization or a desire to paint swimming or the public pool as perfect, frictionless space. Instead, it is a lens through which we can recognize the very real material and social limitations imposed in our cities. If you cannot be in your body, in yourself, or somewhere else, I hope I can find you at the swimming pool. And that we can lock eyes in the lanes of the blue waters.