FINA Taking It To The Edge - Part 1

FINA Taking It To The Edge – Part 1

FINA’s decisions and justifications for its latest open water swimming rules are shocking and irresponsible.

In our experience, observations and opinion, there is simply no justification to allow world-class athletes to race 5 km, 10 km and 25 km in water temperatures up to (and above) 31°C. The problem is even greater because when FINA decides water temperatures up to 31°C are permissible, there will be hundreds of national governing bodies and thousands of races that will also allow their races to be conducted in water temperatures up to 31°C.

World-class athletes know that when the water temperatures rise up to 31°C, then usually the air temperature tends to be even higher than 31°C.

It is frankly a deadly combination when water temperatures increase to 31°C and air temperature are even greater. Unfortunately, Fran Crippen and others are tragically no longer here to argue this point.

World-class professional marathon swimmers – and many other experienced amateurs – will privately admit that racing in such temperatures is unhealthy and unsafe. It is not a matter of debate; it is a fact. Swimming casually in a practice with friends is one thing; racing for money in a competitive situation is something much different. A few of these world-class athletes, including world champions Alex Meyer and Thomas Lurz, are not afraid to publicly speak their opinions against holding competitions in extreme temperatures.

But does FINA listen?

Unfortunately not. FINA has proven itself to not only stifle discussions on the merits of discussing extreme temperatures, but it also threatens to discipline individuals who speak out against its safety policies and rules. But FINA found researchers in a cold-water country (New Zealand) who provided FINA with scientific justification that suggests, “Racing competitively in 31°C water temperature is not unsafe.”

We cannot possibly understand the behind-the-scenes discussions at the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee level, among the physicians on the FINA Sports Medicine Committee, or at the FINA Bureau level. These representatives of the aquatic community either (a) submitted these recommendations, or (b) approved these recommendations – but were the athletes or their coaches consulted? While there are very few members of the FINA Bureau with experience in open water swimming as an athlete, coach, safety officer or administrator, the situation is much different at the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee and the FINA Sports Medicine Committee where many of the members are former athletes who have coached or served as safety officers in open water swimming events. They must know that racing at temperatures up to 31°C is at best uncomfortable and at worse extremely risky and dangerous.

Why does FINA risk such things? Why add to the risk factors in a sport where risks are already part of the game? What possibly could be gained from these new regulations?

According to FINA’s new open water safety regulations:

4.7 Water Temperature
(a) The water temperature shall be measured 2 hours before the start of the race and must be a minimum of 16°C and a maximum of 31°C. The water temperature shall be certified by the FINA Safety Delegate and the HMF/OC Safety Officer as measured in the middle of the course, at a depth of 40 centimeters.

(b) The water temperature shall be monitored as provided above at one-hour intervals during the race. If the water temperature drops below 16°C or exceeds 31°C at anyone of the measuring intervals, the water temperature shall be measured again in 30 minutes and if that measurement is also below 16°C or exceeds 31°C the race must be stopped.

i The minimum and the maximum temperatures are under a study by the specialized University of Otago (NZL) as requested by FINA, IOC and ITU; when the results of this study are available, this Regulation will be amended accordingly.

We strongly believe these new regulations use the term “safety” improperly. It is our opinion that these water maximum limit is much too high. As a result, the 31°C not only puts young competitive athletes unnecessarily at risk during FINA-sanctioned competitions, but also places thousands of amateur swimmers at local swims at risk because of FINA’s global influence over local race directors and many national governing bodies.

Fortunately, there will be a handful of national governing bodies that will see the folly of FINA’s decision.

There are other issues, but here are just 4 potential problems with these new regulations:

1. Increase in air and water temperature during competitions
Because many FINA races start in the mid-morning or early afternoon, the air and water temperatures tend to rise during a competition. According to these regulations, what happens in a 10 km or 25 km race where athletes are swimming for over an hour and the water temperature reaches 32°C? The FINA officials will then measure the water temperature at a depth of 40 cm 30 minutes later and, perhaps, find the water temperature has increased. So the athletes would swim over 1 hour 30 minutes under these unbearable, unsafe conditions.

That is the height of ignorance on the part of FINA in our opinion.

2. FINA’s belief that 31°C is bearable for trained athletes
Every open water swimmer knows to expect the unexpected. At temperatures above 28°C even for lean athletes from tropical countries, the water temperature is too high. For athletes from cooler climates, these temperatures are unbearable and can only lead to problems with hyperthermia. There are too many examples from FINA’s own competitions that prove this point.

3. FINA’s lack of consideration of air temperature and solar radiation
Besides the complications caused by the new water temperature regulations, FINA does not take into account the ambient air temperatures (usually higher than the water temperatures) or other climatic conditions (e.g., cloudless, windless day) in its regulations.

4. The cumulative effects of heat stress are dangerous
What FINA and its researchers do not seem to understand from their research performed in a pool that the CUMULATIVE effects of the warm water and the solar radiation on the backs of the swimmers added to the limited hydration that swimmers take relative to land-based endurance athletes and the stress of racing as best they can in a dynamic environment, after a restless night of sleep, is a lethal cocktail. No matter what the research is conducted in an indoor pool, the research cannot possibly accurately predict what happens to an athlete on race day under such conditions.

We are hopeful that the Daily News of Open Water Swimming is not the only publication that points out the unnecessary cumulative risks that arise due to FINA’s new open water swimming safety regulations. We are hopeful that athletes and national governing bodies feel empowered enough to complain to FINA about these new regulations and lobby to get them changed to more reasonable and safer limits. But even if FINA does not change its regulations, we are hopeful that national governing bodies will conduct their own surveys and research to find the appropriate temperature limits for their own domestic races.

A few years ago, leading swimming coaches and administrators around the world felt strongly enough and empowered enough to take FINA on regarding its stance on the use of technical swimsuits. There was a global lobbying effort that ultimately led to FINA changing its regulations. We are hopeful that the world’s swimming coaches and administrators feel equally strong against FINA’s new open water swimming regulations. We believe that the safety of athletes and minimization of risk in FINA open water swimming competitions are at least as important at the technical swimsuit issue of a few years ago.

FINA’s new regulations can be read here.

Our commentary on FINA’s actions during warm-water conditions are be read here.

As a frame of reference, we consulted the Wet-Bulb Globe Temperature (WGBT) which is the standard used by the American military to obtain an index to measure heat stress. The WGBT Effects Table (here) shows the water requirements, rest intervals and activity restrictions based on the WBGT…which indicate what all experienced swimmer instinctively know: temperatures approaching 31°C are downright uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.

Photo shows the back of Trent Grimsey at the 2011 FINA World Swimming Championships where the FINA Medical Delegate and the FINA Safety Delegate allowed the 25 km race to continue as the water temperature exceeded 31°C.

FINA Taking It To The Edge – Part 2 is here.

FINA Taking It To The Edge – Part 3 is here.

Why 31°C FINA?Part 4

USA Triathlon Fatality Incidents Study is here.

New South Wales Maximum Water Temperature Rules are here.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones