Diving for Dollars

Professional Freediving — now there’s a concept we can all get our heads around.  Why not ?  Youthful athletes with beautiful bodies in death-defying feats of superhuman stamina, exotic locations, foreign accents.. … what’s not to like ?

There’s more – world records which astonish and then astonish again.  ESPN, the Discovery Channel and Fashion TV all in one sleek, action-packed world tour — with millions in prize money at stake.  Fanatically devoted fans following their national teams and idolizing their favorite stars.  Top competitors cannot walk the streets of Paris without bodyguards, for fear of being mobbed by rabid admirers. . .

Not. Well, mostly not.  It’s all true except the part about the fame and the money, which some see as a bit of a mystery given that it is all true — except the part about the fame, and, of course, the money.

Will competitive freediving ever emerge as a commercially viable sport,  even, say, at the modest levels of windsurfing,  in-line skating or bowling?  

There are only a handful of competitive freedivers in the world who can be said to be making a living from the sport, and all of these derive a significant proportion of their freediving income from instruction.  Everybody knows sponsorship and media are somehow key elements, but nobody seems to have figured out how to run freediving in the black, so to speak.

What, exactly, would it take ?

First of all, it will take eyeballs.  Lots and lots of eyeballs, whose owners want to aim them at freediving events and personalities.  These eyeball-owners are the market which attracts the interest and money of sponsors and media outlets.  Sponsors want to sell things into this market, and media outlets want to own the eyeballs to which the sponsors can make their pitches.

That’s the way the world works.

Everybody knows it, but this is where the discussion bogs down when starving freedivers dream and plan, and pretty soon everybody goes back to stretching ( if we’re on the way out) or rinsing ( on the way in) and another mile is tacked on to freediving’s Poverty Road.

Let’s pick it up at just that point and see if we can move it out of the box.  Fasten your seat belts — we could end up miles from here !

Here’s one of the problems : nobody has figured out how to show freediving, live,  to an  audience.  The typical depth event involves a bunch of spectators  drifting around a float or platform somewhere out on the ocean.  At some point, a figure in a rubber suit disappears for a few minutes into the water.  When the figure reappears, perhaps clutching a tag with a stenciled number on it, the  boat crew whoops and hollers, and the spectators follow suit, albeit somewhat uncertainly — they suppose something wonderful has happened, but they certainly have not seen anything very interesting.

Diver goes down, diver comes up.  The video is better.  It looks nice, yes, the translucent turquoise of the ocean depths always does, and would be soothing if it were not for the two-bit pop music tracks somebody always seems compelled to dub in. But what of the actual drama is conveyed in this way ?  Nothing.  This gets old very quickly.

The real story of deep freediving is, of course, hydrostatic pressure, anerobic metabolism and altered states of being.  The problem for anyone trying to communicate this to a spectator is that there is little or nothing in the average person’s experience of life  that can  help him relate what he sees on his TV screen to  vicarious sense of what the freediver is going through.

Everybody drives a car, and when told that the racing car on the little screen is going 230 mph, everybody can extrapolate from personal experience to that of the race driver.  Everybody has run, maybe back in school or maybe yesterday at the gym, and can gasp and marvel at the athletes in the last mile of a marathon.  For most of the popular sports, the spectator has a way to cue off the visual feed and build, in his imagination, a connection to the athletes.

This is not true of freediving. There simply are not enough people in the world who have passed down through 30 meters on a breath of air, who have known the sensations of squeeze, the blood shunt, and the burn.  How can this story be told to the uninitiated ?

Some have talked about spelling it out, on screen, in ways that make it real.  Split screens: the diver in one window, and familiar objects in the second window, drawn down into the depths alongside the descending diver.  Watching the football shrink and collapse, the egg implode, or the styrofoam coffee cup shrink down to the size of a thimble might be compelling. 

Other suggestions have included digital readouts of depth, pressure, and the diver’s physiologicals.   Authentic face time would go a long way : there  must be some way to ruggedize and adapt one of those  little digital video cameras to the water world and transmit a live feed of the only interesting part of the diver that is exposed through the neoprene: the face.

As for the freediving disciplines practiced in competitions as of now: fuggedaboutit.   The general audience TV viewer may have the patience and interest to watch one constant ballast dive — maybe, but no more than one. Dynamic apnea might be a little more attractive, since the competitor is visible at all times and lots of people have a sense of how long a pool length is and what it might be like to swim one in apnea. Static ?  Look, I’m a dedicated freediver myself,  and it bores me to tears.

What would P.T. Barnum do ?

Barnum would dream up some new events that would showcase the distinctive properties of freediving : it is physically difficult and you can die doing it.  These new events would also grab the spectator’s attention by ratcheting up the suspense and the thrill of competition.

I just renewed my dramatic licence, so let’s explore this idea by taking an example to an absolutely preposterous extreme.  Pay attention to the disclaimer, all you breathless critics:  THIS IS NOT A SERIOUS SUGGESTION.

Now, imagine a pair of top professional freedivers competing mano a mano   for a purse of , say, $50,000. 

A set of lead boxes is arrayed on shelves attached to a steel cable running from the surface to a depth of , say, 85 meters.  Each box weighs a couple of kilos, and contains a gold bar weighing 3 ounces and worth about $1,000.  The shelves are set at intervals of 1 meter, beginning at 30 meters. 

The two competitors take turns diving, with the object of bringing up boxes to the surface. You get the gold in the boxes you bring up.  Any gold that falls to the bottom during a dive reverts to the other guy. The competition ends when all the gold is in the boat, and the winner is the diver who brought up the most gold.  An alternative ending is when one of the divers calls it quits, or blacks out, or sambas.

The winner gets all the gold brought up by him and by his opponent, too.

This has several of the elements that make for compelling spectator sport. The athletes have a direct financial motive for each action, and must also play strategy and tactics.  Greed comes into conflict with survival — will he drop the box and thus make it to the surface, or hold on to it and black out 20 meters underwater ?  How many boxes should a diver try to retrieve on each dive ? Should he go for the deeper ones first ?  Surface recovery time becomes a tactical issue — every minute one diver takes for himself on the surface is another minute for his rival to recover, too. If you are confident you will win, then you want your opponent to bring up as much gold as possible, since you will get to keep it

Freediving does not really allow for the kinds of minor and intermediate injuries that make, say, pro football so entertaining. No sprains, no broken ankles, nothing like that. Blackouts are the thing in freediving, and having blacked out, one either drowns or one does not. Since we don’t want anyone to actually die, and since we know very well how to manage blackouts,  we should learn to stage events so that a blacked-out diver becomes  the subject of a very flamboyant , dramatic and humiliating rescue.

The crowd will love it !

Back to reality.  You get the idea, so now, let’s see what we can do.  I sound the call: get your imaginations working.  Dream up some  new freediving disciplines,  some new and interesting ways to televise our sport, and e-mail them to me.

Once we figure out how to get millions of eyeballs watching our competitions, we’ll start drawing in the sponsor money in a big way. Prize money will pile up in event purses like barnacles on the dock pilings, and top divers will start making those down payments on Cayman villas. 

And yes, it will have turned our spiritual, ascetic, and frankly monastic way of life into a crass commercial circus.  Is this bad ?  Well, those of us who want to continue our freediving lives in splendid isolation, sleeping on couches and draped in debt are perfectly free to carry on as before. Others, who want to get their childrens’ teeth straightened , will have a choice.

And,  in general, choice is a good thing.

Paul Kotik has been a Staff Writer and Freediving Editor for DeeperBlue.com. He lives in Florida, USA with his family.

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