Reflections on Swimming in Thailand

I went swimming again this afternoon at the fifty-meter pool on the edge of town at the Seven Hundred Year Stadium. The pool was built in 1997 for the Asean Olympics, and like most Thai structures, it hasn’t been well-maintained. Here, they like to build news things, tear down everything after ten years and start over again. The pool is missing many tiles, the locker room is a shambles, and the whole place is sorely under-used, because not many Thais swim. The majority of the people who use the pool, at least during the day, are Caucasians.

Many Thais are finally learning to swim, at least the children of upper middle class families who can afford to pay for lessons. In a generation maybe the difference between Thais and their Caucasian guests won’t be so pronounced. But when I swim, in the bright sun of the afternoon, there are no Thai adults, mostly children and teens who play on the ropes, or do noisy cannonballs within an arms length of the poolside.

Since this is not a “fun” pool, but a serious swimmers’ pool, these kids sense they are out of place. They cluster in groups, engaging in boisterous horse play. They cling to the walls. There’s also another pool, a very deep, much smaller pool, underneath the diving platforms. It’s rarely used, for the foreigners who can swim want to swim fifty-meter laps, and the non-swimmers are afraid of drowning in the diving pool’s turquoise depths.

There is no lifeguard.

A friend of mine lives in a gated community about fifteen miles out of town. It’s a modern subdivision surrounded by rice paddies. Just outside of the walls, there’s a beautiful lagoon, about twice the size of the Olympic pool I’ve been talking about. The water seems clean. I didn’t see any alligators. But even on the hot day when I visited, there were no swimmers. I asked why. A local person explained, via a translator, that it’s too dangerous. Very deep.

Ability to swim is a cultural thing. It’s also heavily influenced by economic class. The reason more African Americans play basketball than swim is because swimming pools are much more expensive than playgrounds with a backboard and hoop at one or both ends. Where I grew up, in suburban St. Louis, the best public swimming pool discriminated against Blacks by asking them to show proof of residency. Few Blacks lived in Clayton, but many lived in my town, University City. I was allowed to swim in the Clayton pool because I was white. Nobody asked me to show a residency card.

Tennis and golf are, like swimming, country-club sports. I play neither. We grew up too poor to join a country club. Oddly enough, in Iowa, golf is not considered a rich person’s past time. Iowa has the greatest number of small, very affordable golf courses per capita in the nation. Many small towns have courses. Oskaloosa has two.

The only tragedy in all this has to do with the fact that unlike with other sports enjoyed by the elite, not knowing how to swim can prove fatal. You can’t die from not knowing how to play tennis or golf, but you can drown in a few feet of water if you don’t know how to swim.


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