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Column by Steve Munatones, Swimming World open water correspondent and founder of Open Water Source
SHANGHAI, China, July 23. THE open water events at the 14th FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China had everything – dramatic races, incredibly tactical racing, photo finishes and humble champions who gave credit to their equally valiant competitors. Twenty well-conditioned athletes who all strategically swam their races also earned berths in the 2012 London Olympics 10K Marathon Swim. Of the twenty athletes, 18 countries were represented proving that the distribution of open water talent is global.
But it was the circumstances of the last swim of the competition, the ultra-marathon distance of 25K (15.5 miles) that caused angst in the open water swimming community. As the water temperature hovered about 29 degrees C all week during the 5K, 5K team time trial and 10K events, the temperature rose to 31 degrees C (87.8 degrees F) in the early stages of the 25K race.
The water temperature was monitored by a water thermometer that hung off of the FINA Safety Delegate's boat. As the sun rose higher and higher after the 6:00 am start, the race officials, coaches and athletes were carefully and constantly checking the water temperature.
But, as the athletes understand before the race, the 31 degree mark was not the ultimate standard. After all the internal FINA discussions about implementing a maximum water temperature due to the death of Fran Crippen, it was clear there was no clearly defined maximum water temperature. It was only a guideline and the ultimate decision to stop or shorten a swim would be left in the hands of the FINA doctor on hand and the FINA Safety Delegate.
That being said, it was also clear there was an expectation of many swimmers that the swim would be called or at least shortened when the water temperature increased to 31 degrees C. The most experienced swimmer in the field, English Channel world record holder Petar Stoychev who has dominated the ultra-marathon FINA circuit for a decade, was one of those athletes.
"I picked up the pace when the water temperature was increasing to 31 because I thought the race might be shortened," he commented after.
But the 31 degree mark was judged by FINA as a guideline, not as a rule. So despite rising temperatures throughout the competition, FINA's doctor, in consultation with FINA's Safety Delegate, had the leeway to allow the race to continue.
Rightly so, before the race, they added more safety personnel on the course and encouraged teams to add more coaches for each of their swimmers on the two feeding pontoons on the 2-loop 2.5K course. But, in addition to elevated water temperatures, they correctly determined that other atmospheric conditions were important elements to consider. In making a judgment call to either stop or shorten the race, they took into consideration the humidity, wind speed, air temperature and amount of solar radiation (based on cloud cover).
The FINA Delegate repeatedly communicated the water temperature to the officials and coaches, some of whom had their own temperatures hanging off the feeding pontoons. After the 31 degree mark was reached, the FINA doctor and FINA Safety Delegate went out to the feeding pontoons and consulted with the coaches about the possibility of canceling or shortening the race.
Despite their swimmers enveloped in the 31 degree C water for hours, the coaches concurred with the FINA doctor and FINA Safety Delegate and the race continued.
So despite the athletes' complaints about the FINA medical recommendation of 31 degrees C as the maximum water temperature, the coaches concluded that the conditions were permissible to continue. While most athletes forged on, other athletes either could not continue or were pulled from the water.
The justifications to continue varied:
1. The top athletes could handle these conditions,
2. FINA had held races in even warmer conditions and nothing happened,
3. The coaches on the course supported this decision,
4. There were adequate number of safety personnel on the course.
However, our opinion was different. We believe the race should have been immediately called.
So while the spectators were thoroughly impressed with the victories of Petar Stoychev of Bulgaria and Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil, we do not believe the swimmers should have had to swim 25K to demonstrate their incredible physiological talents and psychological strengths.
FINA had the opportunity to demonstrate to the global open water community its leadership in making a decision that unequivocally placed the safety of young athletes ahead of any other possible consideration.
Simply because well-prepared athletes like Stoychev and Cunha could perform superhumanly does not mean that FINA's guideline should be extended to all athletes. While FINA had several doctors on call during its World Championship, what happens at other FINA events that are held with fewer and less qualified doctors are on call? While FINA invested in a sophisticated $300,000 sonar tracking system at the venue that can pinpoint if a swimmer collapsed and submerged under the water surface, what happens at other FINA events where the $300,000 sonar safety system is not a viable option?
As the race continued on under the warm conditions, several athletes were pulled from the water including two-time world champion Valerio Cleri who is known in the elite open water swimming circles as one of its best prepared and most hardy athletes. While the 2009 25K world champion from Italy could not continue towards the later stages of the race, the two reigning world 25K champions, Alex Meyer and Linsy Heister, did not even start the race.
When conditions are such that the two reigning world champions protest through a DNS (Did Not Start), the sport moves from a world-class competition to an extreme sport duel between athlete and Mother Nature.
Additionally like Meyer and Heister, established open water swimming superstars like world champion Thomas Lurz and Olympian Brian Ryckerman understandably elected to skip the event due to the conditions.
The decision to continue because the top swimmers looked good is a confusing message to send to the global open water swimming community. We strongly believe it is important to establish and adjudicate rules that are appropriate to ALL athletes, not primarily aimed at the elite athletes. In this case, FINA made its decision heavily based on the performance of the athletes in the front of the pack, not in the middle or rear of the pack. One could argue cynically that FINA placed a higher priority on the health and welfare of the fastest athletes compared with other athletes.
Furthermore, the decision to continue the race because other races at other times were held in similarly warm conditions does not justify its decision. In the open water world, every race is different, but the sport is growing exponentially and swimmers of all ages, abilities and backgrounds are flocking to the sport. While FINA sanctions races aimed at the elite athlete, its influence is global. But when it pushes the envelope into the extreme realm, then reasonable race directors, coaches and athletes will look elsewhere for examples to follow.
There were other issues related to safety on the course. While safety personnel were added on the course, they were fully clothed and some could not swim. Sure they were manned by plenty of boats and communication equipment, but were they fully prepared to immediately jump in the water to save a life? The hallmark of any competent safety personnel is that ability – to not only identify a distressed swimmer, but also to make an immediate decision to jump in the water.
It was clear during the race that the Chinese safety personnel were not prepared for extreme conditions. On several occasions during the event, safety personnel were called for back-up help by the race officials, but the personnel were either inexcusably delayed or just simply never showed up.
There was one instance when a coach asked the race officials to get his swimmer out of the water. The distressed swimmer was identified and the FINA official jumped in the water to pull the swimmer to shore. When the Chinese safety personnel finally arrived, it was clear that a strong eggbeater and swimming ability were not his strengths.
"I felt more like a lifeguard out there," said the official. "In those conditions, officiating took a backseat to simple lifeguarding."
Going forward, we encourage FINA to not only carefully review the situation with the athletes, but to also incorporate their requests when extreme conditions prevail. While medical personnel, administrators, officials and lifeguards have opinions, knowledge and expertise on topics as hypothermia and hyperthermia, no one experiences open water like the athletes. They are the ones who feel the pain and discomfort of extreme conditions in the open water.
If we treasure their athletic prowess and admire their commitment, then it is high time that we respect their wishes and reasonable requests.
In light of the legacy of Fran Crippen, the remaining athletes and all future athletes deserve our respect. Let's listen to them and pay heed to their collective voice. FINA had an opportunity to showcase a beautiful aquatic discipline – which it did very well in the shorter distances – but we believe it fell short in the 25K. FINA can make its future open water events reasonable athletic competitions. It can and should leave the extreme niches of open water swimming to other organizations and individuals.
In summary, we are here because of the athletes and for no other reason.
NOTE: my specific role during this event was one of the FINA referees for the women's race.