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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

FINA Taking It To The Edge - Part 2

This article is a continuation of the series about FINA's new minimum and maximum water temperature rules (read here).

In discussions with FINA's Medical Delegate at the 2011 FINA World Swimming Championships in Shanghai, the doctor was quick to point out that the real medical threat to the swimmers in the 25 km was not significant despite temperatures that exceeded 31°C in the water and well above that for the air temperature during a hot, humid day.

"There is more a risk of heat stress in the 10 km when the athletes are swimming faster than in the 25 km," he stated emphatically.

Based on his decision with the concurrence of the FINA Safety Delegate, the 25 km race at the 2011 World Championships continued to its conclusion. Several athletes dropped out and one had to be saved, but the FINA Medical Delegate pointed out that because the best athletes completed the race, there was no reason to stop the race.

In reading FINA's internal post-race report, there was little mention of physiological threats to the athletes' safety. If you never witnessed the race in Shanghai, you would never know that more than a dozen athletes either voluntarily quit the race, never started or had to be removed for their own safety. It was as if the risks never occurred. If you did witness the race, you could never forget the horrendous conditions that teenagers and young adults were asked to race in...while FINA officials were afforded an air-conditioned tent with food and drink near the finish line.

But this situation is, shockingly, not an exception.

During the last four FINA World Swimming Championships, there have been serious threats to athletes' safety...that were never reported by FINA.

Why is FINA not addressing these issues? Why are these incidents not documented by FINA? Are coaches consulted with? Are the opinions of athletes considered?

In 2005 at the FINA World Swimming Championships in Montreal, an American athlete started to have problems before halfway and then significantly slowed down with a kick during the second half of the 25 km race. A coach had been watching the struggling athlete as a precaution as he walked alongside the Olympic rowing basin course near the athlete. When it became clear the athlete was in distress and could not go further, he ran into the water to help the athlete to shore. An ambulance was called and the American doctor went with the athlete to the hospital.

In 2007 at the FINA World Swimming Championships in Melbourne, a sudden squall hit the 25 km race. Sheets of rain, severe winds and tremendous surface chop created serious issues not only for the athletes who were spread all over the 5 km loop course, but also for the coaches and officials who were on 2 floating barges along the course. Tents, flags and the finish structure onshore were torn apart and flew horizontally with the winds. Turn buoys were ripped from their anchors and it was an emergency that required quick decision-making. Among the first people off the course were the timing officials. "Forget the equipment, we have to get off this [finish structure]," were among the statements made. If it were not for the quick and professional work of the Australian lifeguards who zipped around the course saving coaches, officials and swimmers in their inflatable rafts, it would have been a disaster making the news.

That day, the Australian lifeguards proved why there are such a valuable resource. They repeatedly went through the squall to make saves as the race was rightly and immediately halted.

But FINA executives back at the pool complex were upset that there were not first consulted regarding the unplanned stoppage of the race. It took hours for the FINA officials who were present during the squall to explain and justify themselves to the FINA executives who were not present. Why was the professionalism of the open water swimming experts during the potential disaster at the site questioned - at all - by FINA executives who were in an indoor stadium far away?

In 2009 at the FINA World Swimming Championships in Rome, a FINA referee had noticed that an Australian swimmer was struggling during the 25 km race. He asked that his boat be moved closer to the athlete despite criticism that his move put the official boat "out of position". He had observed the athlete for some time and he was worried. Then she started to go under. Acting quickly, he literally saved her by grabbing her hair as her limp body was raised to the surface and brought onboard.

Another disaster averted. Despite no official record of his heroic action by FINA, the official knew he had done the right thing. "Our first priority out there is the safety of the athletes, especially since it was so rough out there."

In 2011 at the FINA World Swimming Championships in Shanghai, the 25 km race was allowed to continue to its completion despite water and air temperatures that exceeded 31°C. A German athlete was involuntarily pulled to safety while several other athletes either did not start because of the unsafe conditions or voluntarily pulled out - including the 2009 men's world 25 km champion, the 2010 men's world 25 km champion, and the 2010 women's world 25 km champion.

But what did FINA's post-race report state? It made little mention of the dangerous situation but did include disparaging hints about individuals who complained about the situation.

Is this what the athletes deserve? If your son or daughter were competing, would you be satisfied with the current situation and new rules? Is this the leadership that athletes and coaches should expect from the world's governing body in aquatics?

We think not.

FINA can and should do better.

FINA Reaches The Height Of Ignorance - Part 1 is here.

FINA Reaches The Height Of Ignorance - Part 3 is here.

Why 31°C FINA? - Part 4 is here

USA Triathlon Fatality Incidents Study is here.

New South Wales Maximum Water Temperature Rules are here.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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