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At first, the photo looks like it’s been manipulated for laughs. You know, because it’d be the height of hilarity to Photoshop in a bored lifeguard behind one of the world’s fastest swimmers on the pool deck at the Olympics in Rio.
But this photo is true to life; the lifeguard’s boredom and the swimmer dipping his legs in the water are as real as the patriotism displayed by Michael Phelps’s baby boy. And depending on who you follow on Twitter, the lifeguard watching over the swimming Olympians is either the height of hilarity or the pinnacle of protection.
Understandably, the photo caused a Twitter reaction. First, from the “Boy, this is stupid” crowd:
Most useless job is the lifeguards for the olympic swimmers haha
— AyyAyyRon (@ZanMan55) August 8, 2016
Why do Olympic swimmers have lifeguards at there competition?…😑
Like Michael Phelps really bouta drown…💀💀
— Choyce (@Ladies_Choyce) August 8, 2016
And now the reaction by all those worrywarts out there who think this makes sense:
Why the snark on the Olympic lifeguards? Diving too far and hitting your head happens. So do cramps. The other swimmers may not see it.
— Clarissa (@caperclaw) August 8, 2016
Honestly though the Olympic swimming lifeguards are probably more there for CPR or medical related emergencies.
— Will Treadwell (@HillaryIsMyMom) August 8, 2016
But here’s the reality: The lifeguards have to be on deck because, as the New York Times points out, a Rio de Janeiro law states that lifeguards must be present at pools that are larger than six meters by six meters (or about 20 feet by 20 feet).
Thus, there are four lifeguards on duty at a time at the Olympics—two at the pool used for training and two at the competition pool—and they work shifts lasting between six and eight hours.
In all, the Times reported they’ll be paid about $340 for 20 days of work. But what’s worth more? A little bit of money, or the possibility of becoming a hero when you risk it all to save an Olympic swimmer cut down by a cramp?
“I’m dreaming of that possibility,” lifeguard Anderson Fertes told the Times. “I think about that.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, the lifeguards didn’t necessarily inspire the confidence of at least one of the world-class swimmers.
“It’s really one of the funniest things I’ve seen in the Olympic Games so far,” New Zealand swimmer Matthew Stanley said, via the Huffington Post.
“Have any of you guys been to Bali before?” he asked the reporters interviewing him after a recent training session. “You see the lifeguards and they sit up on the tower drinking Bintangs (beer) all day. That’s what it reminded me of. If anyone has a heart attack, you’re going down.”
Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.