Dealing With Tragedy In Triathlons vs. In Open Water


We have always respected triathletes since we first lived in Honolulu in the 1980’s. Training alongside some of the early triathletes from Ian Emberson and Klaus Barth, it was a joy, honor and inspiration to know these pioneers.

From the first few Ironman competitions on the island of Oahu to its annual gripping production of the Ironman in Kona to its introduction at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and massive global growth throughout the 21st century, triathletes have developed their sport and nurtured themselves as responsible, dedicated and focused endurance athletes.

Not everything is perfect, but when something in their sport goes wrong or procedures and policies need to be tweaked or completely rewritten, the triathlon world has always stepped up to the challenge. From athletes and manufacturers to the race directors and administrators, the sport is democratic in a global way where the voices and opinions of the community are considered and implemented in new rules.

It is refreshing and most definitely the right way to go.

The unfortunate recent death of a triathlete in San Francisco Bay has led many in the triathlon community to discuss and propose new rules and ideas to help prevent future tragedies. The opinions are openly discussed and proposed in websites and blogs with a free-flowing share of information is healthy and respected.

These discussions and decisions ultimately lead to improve the sport. Unfortunately, this global community and mindset stand in contrast to the decision-making and mindset in the open water swimming world at the elite competitive level. This is where the sport of triathlon and open water swimming are in contrast:

When a death of a triathlete occurs in San Francisco Bay or New York, opinions are shared and ideas for improvements are solicited and discussed. Should minimum water temperature rules be implemented? Should standards for entry be changed? How can disasters like this be avoided in an emerging sport? Opinions vary but the race directors and administrators consider a wide variety of proposals.

In contrast, when a death of an elite open water swimmer occurs in Dubai, opinions from the community and proposals from the athletes and coaches are ignored and disregarded. Open letters from dozens of elite professional marathon swimmers go unanswered by FINA administrators. Opinions expressed publicly lead to immediate disciplinary actions, which effectively leads to coaches and administrators to be quiet and go along with the FINA policy. Recommendations on how to improve the sport are not viewed positively, but rather as direct criticisms of the administrators.

This is not right and it is not good for the long-term health of the sport.

So when a triathlete dies in cold water conditions, the triathlon community questions itself in a healthy, democratic way. The sport continues to evolve and improve. In this realm and under this environment, the best interests of the race directors and administrators are in line with the athletes.

But when an open water swimmer dies in warm water conditions, FINA determines that not only is the temperature that the athlete died is acceptable for future competitions, but FINA also institutionalizes an EVEN HIGHER water temperature as acceptable for competitions.

Is this right? We think not.

No one in the triathlon world would stand for this kind of decision.

But an open sharing of information and opinions is not welcomed by FINA. There are purposefully no public discussions on whether the maximum water temperature of 31ºC (87.8ºF) is appropriate. FINA determines its rules by itself and heavily criticizes those with different opinions. FINA decides to conduct its own secret scientific investigations of whether or not the maximum water temperature of 31ºC (87.8ºF) is appropriate – and then this information is not made public. Anyone who asks for details of these scientific investigations are ignored and criticized.

A triathlete’s death rightly leads to immediate introspection. In contrast, the death of Fran Crippen in October 2010 has led to…a FINA ruling that the maximum water temperature of 31ºC (87.8ºF) is acceptable and an ongoing secret research project that may or may not lead to changes.

The athletes deserve better. The sport deserves better.

As the triathlon community faces its safety issues head-on without fear of reprisals from the sport’s administrators, the issue that was raised by the only death of an athlete in a FINA competition has led to…reprisals and a non-discussion of behind-the-scenes research that is inconsistent with not only the opinion of every elite marathon swimmer, but also most physiologists and a large majority of open water swimmers around the world.

Open water swimming can do better.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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