He Said, He Said. Different Views Of Olympic 10K Marathon

He Said, He Said. Different Views Of Olympic 10K Marathon

Images courtesy of NBCOlympics.com of the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Upper photo shows Jack Burnell on left in red swim cap behind Lijun Zu of China on right in red swim cap and gold medalist Ferry Weertman of the Netherlands, silver medalist Spyridon Gianniotis of Greece, and Marc-Antoine Daniel Frede Olivier of France in a black swim cap. Ous Mellouli is well behind in black swim cap.

The venerable Craig Lord and others in the pool swimming community write that “open water swimming cannot be taken seriously” because of the officiating in the sport.

Nick Thierry, the late founder and publisher of SwimNews Magazine, wrote before his death that “Open water swimming isn’t serious sport. The kids work hard but all that kicking, spitting, scratching and punching? What the hell is that about: it’s undignified, that’s nothing to do with swimming. We’re a 100 years into standardisation and we went back to the dark ages. We’ve spent those 100 years making swimming a sport of serious skill and beauty. They’ve reduced it to a bar brawl.”

The officiating of the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro was similarly criticized by Burnell who was ultimately disqualified for having two yellow cards for impeding other athletes in the race.

Burnell told the British press after learning of his disqualification, “This is the pinnacle of our sport, the Olympic Games. It’s supposed to be the grandest stage of them all with everything perfect, all this great scenery, and the one thing that ruins it is the referees. There’s 600 or however many boats out there, a ridiculous amount of boats – not needed – and every single person on the boat has no idea what they’re doing.”

For the uninitiated, the photo finish, the physicality, the pack swimming and the various 8-wides was described as anything from unbecoming of the sport of swimming and shocking to rough and questionable.

Photo above shows Burnell in red cap just about to touch finish panel in fourth place.

But what happened before the last few meters of the 10,000-meter race?

Apparently a lot and none of it fair according to Burnell.

They’re giving yellow cards out left, right and centre for absolutely nothing, and then disqualifying people 2m from the end when there’s people grabbing hold of legs and everything. The whole thing was ridiculous, an absolute joke,” complained Burnell.

On the other hand, Burnell was being observed by the same officials who officiate at all the FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup and FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix circuits and FINA World Championships.

But he was adamant that the referees had let down the swimming community – an implication echoed by Craig Lord. “In the end apparently I was disqualified, about 2 meters from finish. The first yellow card I got was coming down the straight back here – I was second, there was nobody either side of me, and the guy pulls out a yellow card! I couldn’t have physically touched anybody. The yellow card there is meant to be for unnecessary contact. What do you want me to do? I just shook my head at the guy.”

But a review – both by the race officials and this publication – of the race showed nothing clearly unfair or obviously unprofessional about the referees. That being said, it is tremendously difficult to catch every possible act of physicality or impeding in the race – and often athletes who retaliate in the sport of open water swimming (like water polo) tend to be the athletes called for fouls (or yellow cards in the case of open water swimming).

According to Bonnie Ford, the most experienced American reporter who has covered elite open water swimming for years, who wrote in ESPN, “When officials reviewed footage of the finish after a British appeal, there was no visual evidence of a hold by Mellouli, who has been based in Southern California since his college days at USC. But the video did show Burnell punching him, according to chief referee Sid Cassidy of the United States.”

Burnell has participated at the highest echelon of the sport for years, winning a handful of races and always competitive among the world’s best swimmers – while always officiated by the same men on the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee who are given the responsibility to officiate the sport.

But Burnell was upset and frustrated with the ultimate results and the decisions of the referees. “They always want to be seen to be doing something. On the Olympic stage, what do they want to do? Do they want to get on telly to show a yellow card? To show their family back home that they’re doing something? It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Throughout the last kilometer of the race, a review of the videotape from cameras on the water and aerial footage from the helicopter above showed Burnell constantly moving within the pack. He was behind Mellouli with 3-4 minutes to go, but then he was alongside him and ahead of others with 2 minutes to go. At one point, in the very latter stages of the race, he broke free of the lead pack and clearly held the lead [see photo above].

Photo above shows Burnell in red swim cap beginning his final surge and just ahead of Mellouli in the black swim cap who ultimately finished in 12th place four seconds behind Burnell.

Unlike other dryland sports, there are no replays in open water swimming. There are no opportunities to go back and review or reverse a call made by an official through a video replay – very similar to water polo. Judgments are made in real time and typically stand.

From what we saw on the video tape of the race that is posted on NBCOlympics.com, Jack was trying Valiantly and constantly to break through the lead pack in the last kilometer,” said Steven Munatones. “Like the top 10 swimmers in the final stages of the race, he had come from far behind the leader Jarrod Poort and had to make up a lot of ground. Once he got up to the 8-wide in the front, he was squeezed between his competitors.

Not only were his arms being hit, but he also appeared to run into others. With the turbulence and cross currents going on at the end of 10,000 meters, this is normal in open water swimming – whether it is the Olympic final or a short ocean swim along the California coast among amateurs.

Jack swung left, then he swung right. He did that several times. Meanwhile, guys like Ferry Weertman and Spyros Gianniotis appeared to have picked a line, stuck with it and made a decision. Marc-Antoine of France was a similar position to Jack – boxed in and trying desperately to find clear water at the end. But it appeared Lijun, the Chinese swimmer, was the only person due to his position on the far right was the only person to really have a clear, unimpeded path to the finish. Everyone else had positioned themselves – either purposefully or inadvertently – in the scrum in the middle

While those in the pool swimming world may consider this unbecoming or unprofessional, it is how the highest echelon of the sport has developed and is currently officiated.

I acknowledge the frustration of the swimmers, but I believe we got [the rulings] right,” head referee Cassidy told ESPN.

American Olympic open water swimming coach Dave Kelsheimer was not as critical as Burnell. The two Americans in the race finished fifth (Jordan Wilimovsky) and were disqualified (Sean Ryan). “It was an extremely physical race with a lot of contact. As the level of open water swimming continues to rise and it becomes more popular, people are going to get a lot more competitive. Obviously, the challenge is for the officials to be able to monitor that, and they’ve done a pretty good job of doing that.”

Photo above shows Burnell getting ready to make his move with less than 3 minutes to go in the race.

Photo above shows the approximate point in the final stages of the race where Burnell was apparently called for an infraction.

One thing is for sure, it would be grand and justifiably right if the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee would collectively (not just a few officials) to carefully listen to and implement the recommendations and proposals of the world’s leading open water swimmers like Burnell and all his colleagues. It would be extremely useful and beneficial if the national swimming federations that actually participate in the FINA-sanctioned competitions proposed rule changes or new rules to the support the frustrations of both coaches and athletes.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones