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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Should Ice Swimming Be In The Olympics? Yes!

One of the most fascinating topics at the 2012 Global Open Water Swimming Conference in Long Beach, California was the discussion on how to get ice swimming into the Winter Olympics.

Those discussions will undoubtedly continue at the 2013 Global Open Water Swimming Conference in Cork, Ireland. In addition to the Summer Olympics goal of athletes to go higher, faster, stronger, many events of the Winter Olympics have a high element of daredevil feats and inherent risk.

The drama of wipeouts, spills, and thrills present a different level of entertainment and athleticism than many Summer Olympic sports. Both the Winter and Summer Olympic showcase athletes at their prime, doing things that normal humans cannot do.

Whether it is flying down a mountain in downhill skiing or navigating turns in luge, bobsled or short-track speed skating, the athletes of the Winter Olympics are frequently sliding, falling, bumping and putting their bodies at significant risk as the world's television audience looks on in wonder.

If there is another human activity where a select few athletes can dazzle the world's audience with daring, athletic prowess and the austere beauty of a winter wonderful, it is most definitely ice swimming in water temperatures of 5°C (41°F) or below. No wetsuits, no neoprene, just pure guts and bioprene.

"With skin showing and ice flowing, the sport would absolutely shine," imagines Steven Munatones of the World Open Water Swimming Association. "Spectators would view these extreme swimmers with utter disbelief. Announcers would be beside themselves, especially when these athletes get out of the water and are interviewed. To compete on a world-class level in 5°C water, it takes years of hardening. Ice swimming is not something that a young athlete can simply go in and show up older athletes. No, it is a discipline that favors a slow, careful, methodical approach to preparing the mind and body. It also favors an older athlete, but even the younger generations would be shaking their head in awe. A competitive 1 km swim - for time - in a mountain lake in water under 5°C would provide the ideal location for the addition of ice swimming to the Olympics.

It would be undoubtedly scenic, sexy and startling for television viewers.

Swimmers won't be climbing on a block like in the pool or on a floating pontoon as in open water swimming. No, they will be walking barefoot to a snow-covered lake shore, perhaps with snow flakes falling on their unprotected shoulders. No jammers, just briefs. No neoprene, just bioprene. No bubble caps, just a swim cap with their national flag. No lines, no lanes: just a simple point-to-point or out-and-back 1 km course utilizing the same rules as the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in the Summer Olympic Games. Olympic fans and television audiences will marvel at the courage of these extreme swimmers - and they can easily imagine how difficult this sport is

Held in mountainous regions, often with frozen lakes in the proximity, each Winter Olympics would have a natural venue for ice swimming. No infrastructure and minimal costs would be involved while each Winter Olympics site would love to show off its natural features. The organizers can simply line up the athletes, set them off and perhaps even strap on body monitoring devices that would be transmitted to television viewers.

"Imagine the television audience not only seeing their heart rate on their TV screens and mobile phones, but also understanding how their core body temperatures drop," imagines Munatones. "Then, after the race, standing in their Speedos while the interviewers are dressed in winter gear, the ice swimmers will smile and explain how their physiologically and psychologically prepared for this event. The medical community may say it cannot be done while the swimmers from all over the world prove it is done."

Ram Barkai, who has trained himself to swim in near freezing temperatures all around the world, is the founder of the International Ice Swimming Association and the world's most active promoter of Ice Swims. He - along with his Russian, Irish, and Czech colleagues - has the experience and know-how to safely host such an event - and provide FINA and the IOC with a blueprint on how a 1 km point-to-point course in water 5°C (41°F) or below can be safely conducted. With his entrepreneurial spirit and visionary goals for the sport of ice swimming, Barkai and Munatones will discuss again the steps necessary to add the aquatic discipline to the Winter Olympics while in Cork for the Global Open Water Swimming Conference.

In addition to being one of the his own mental and physical abilities to swim in lethally cold water temperatures, Barkai understands that a safe environment is critical to the sport's long-term success - and inclusion in the Olympics. As he has organized Antarctica swims, mid-winter swims in Lake Zurich, the Patagonia Extreme Cold Water Challenge at the tip of South America, and Ice Swims in Africa, Scotland and Ireland, he has established an event formula that works well and proven safe - as have the Russians in the Russian Winter Swimming Championships in Siberia.

Both Munatones and Barkai have a dream and know well that the Winter Olympic Games have evolved since the first winter sports celebration in France in 1924. "The Winter Olympics will continue to change and add TV-friendly events as it plays to growing television and Internet audiences around the world. From its incorporation of sports that push the envelope like luge to sports that require risk-taking artistic flair like the snowboarding's half-pipe, Winter Olympic viewers love seeing the athletic daring the improbable as Olympic heroes.

Whether it is flying down a mountain at incredible speeds or ski jumping off large hills, the daredevils of the Winter Olympics are different than the athletes of the Summer Olympics whose motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius (Latin for Faster, Higher, Stronger)

While the Summer Olympics has Michael Phelps, the Winter Olympics has snowboarding Shawn White, The Flying Tomato. While the Summer Olympics has Mark Spitz with a mustache, the Winter Olympics has speed skater Apolo Ohno with a soul plate. The Winter Olympic athletes just have that extraordinary flair - a trait that many ice swimmers most certainly have.

Without a doubt and showcased on a white background of snow, the Winter Olympics are filled with colorful characters. And those will inhabit the nether regions of the open water swimming world (i.e., under 5°C) are among the most colorful in the aquatics community.

So adding an extreme swimming event in a mountaintop lake where icemen and icewomen take to a 1 km swim of under 5°C (41°F) without neoprene is a great made-for-television, inherently risky event that requires mental and physical preparation with a sufficient bit of athletic flair. And, most probably, youth may not be served in this sport: age, years of hardening and a savvy wisdom that come with years on this planet will be some of the advantages used by all.

Chapter 1, article 6 of the 2007 edition of the Olympic Charter defines winter sports as "sports which are practised on snow or ice" so there may have to be a modification to sports which are practised IN snow and ice.

But with ice swimming growing about the world, as commemorated by the World Winter Swimming Championships and the International Ice Swimming Association, an Olympic goal for ice swimming has the potential to come out from the cold and into the Olympic family.

To join in the conversation and become part of this lobbying effort, interested parties can meet and discuss informally at the 2013 Global Open Water Swimming Conference in Cork.

Proposed rules and qualifications for the Ice Swim at future Winter Olympics are posted here.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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