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Santo Condorelli performs his customary salute to his father before the start of the 50m men's freestyle during the finals of the Canadian Olympic swimming trials in Toronto.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Just to be clear, Canadian swimmer Santo Condorelli isn't giving you the finger from the start blocks. He's giving it to his father.

An eight-year-old Santo was frustrated racing against, and getting beat by, older swimmers. So his father and coach Joseph Condorelli came up with the idea for the son to flip dad the bird before each race.

"(He said) 'You've got to build your confidence yourself and say eff everybody else that you're racing," Santo explains. "He said 'Every time you're behind the blocks, give me the finger and I'll give it back to you."' It's a pre-race ritual that has received more attention during Santo's ascension to Canada's Olympic swim team.

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The 21-year-old will race in the freestyle relay Sunday, the 100-metre freestyle Tuesday and the 50-metre free next Thursday in Rio.

There are multiple online photos of a goggled Santo with arm and middle finger fully extended.

He's had to tone it down – bringing his middle finger closer to his forehead – as he's landed in hot water for the gesture in the past.

"Oh, have I," Santo said.

There was the time racing at junior nationals where Joseph was positioned right behind the television cameras.

"I was looking at my father and I gave him the finger . . . directing it right at the camera," he recalls "I had to write an apology."

Father and son describe their relationship as unorthodox, but tight.

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"I came from an Italian background, mother and father," Joseph says. "My father passed away when my son was about two years old so I kind of lost the crutch of how to raise a child. I separated from his mother when he was about four and a half, five years old."

"Can you imagine a rough New York City greaseball raising a young man who is that sensitive?"

Santo was born in Japan, but his mother Tonya is from Kenora, Ont., which Santo identifies as his Canadian hometown.

Joseph is American and Santo spent much of his childhood in New York. Joseph felt sport was the best way to keep his son from falling into the temptations of Gotham.

"What I did was try to protect my son by keeping him very busy and always pushing him to do things," the father says. "I was always afraid of a young man with nothing to do. I kept him out of trouble."

Santo finished fourth in the 100 at last year's world championship in Kazan, Russia, and third in a Rio test event in April.

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Santo says he went through "a brat" phase in junior high where he didn't want to swim anymore.

"We took three and a half years off," Joseph recalls. "He played baseball, I took him to wrestling. He got to high school and said 'Yu know, I'm getting beat up in wrestling and not winning anything. Baseball, I can hit, but I can't throw. Let me try high school swimming.' He got back in the water and was the number one kid on campus again.

"I told him 'You're really too good at it to stop."' Athletes tend to have pre-competition rituals that get them mentally ready to race. Santo's is unique and he knows the powers that be in his sport don't love it.

He doesn't want it to turn into a distraction in Rio.

"Athletes always have that one thing that gets them going that they need to do," he said. "That happens to be mine and still is. Seeing everybody's reaction to it has been interesting.

"I'm not trying to piss people off. I just put it in the middle of my forehead now. My dad is definitely giving it to me and I can see him from a mile away."

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Joseph doesn't intend to be subtle about their hand communication at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium.

"It's a communication between him and I to calm down and get ready," Joseph says. "Racing is about being at peace.

"It became a good ritual for both of us. He got a lot of his aggravation out with just a really simple 'Give it to the world' rather than keep it internalized. It calms him down on the blocks for sure."

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