Officiating The Olympic Marathon Swim - Part 1

Officiating The Olympic Marathon Swim – Part 1

Officiating the Olympic Marathon Swimming 10km is one of the most difficult jobs in the world of sports.

This article is part of a lengthy series on officiating in the open water swimming world. Stay tuned for more in the build-up to the Olympics.

The degree of difficulty for open water swimming officials is related to visibility, interpretation, judgment, rule ambiguity and immediacy.

Visibility
Like the game of water polo, many – if not most – of the infractions are done underwater. Infractions are simply extraordinarily difficult to observe. Did Athlete A pull on the feet of Athlete B?

Due to the lack or limitation of visibility, did the referee INFER that an infraction occurred because Athlete A lost position – or did the referee actually SEE the infraction occur?

Interpretation
Not only is the visibility a major issue for referees, but so is the range of interpretation. Did Athlete B veer into Athlete A? If so, how much? How much is too much?

While the two key elements of open water swimming rules relate to sportsmanlike conduct and impeding another athlete, the rules of the sport do not specifically dictate the level or degree of unsportsmanlike conduct or impeding another athlete.

That is, punching another athlete with a closed fist is definitely judged to be unsportsmanlike conduct, but what about repeatedly tapping on their feet or occasionally pushing down on their legs or throwing an errant elbow? In the case of Natalie du Toit, the amputee world-class swimmer, when other athletes pushed down on her legs, this caused her to completely upset her forward momentum and equilibrium…but it was not called.

Judgment
Very very few officials in a major international competition give yellow cards or red cards around a turn buoy. Even when – or especially when – a large group of athletes come swimming around a turn buoy in close proximity with one another, there are obviously legs pulled, arm strokes disturbed, positions lost and positions gained, and elbows thrown. But because it is so difficult to identify an aggressor and a victim, whistles are not blown and yellow cards and red cards are not given.

Also some referees make judgment calls based on their interpretation of an athlete’s INTENTION. That is, some referees make a call ONLY IF they believe an athlete intentionally impedes another swimmer. That is, they do not make a call if they believe an athlete UNINTENTIONALLY impedes another swimmer. Although the EFFECTS of an intentional or unintentional impeding are the same, some referees make different calls for the same act.

Athletes – as in other sports – understand and react to differences in officiating styles. Some take advantage of the situation; other athletes do not know HOW to take advantage of the situation.

Rule Ambiguity
The rules of the sport address unsportsmanlike conduct and impeding another athlete, but the rules remain vague regarding the degree. That is, punching with a closed fist is an example of unsportsmanlike conduct. But what about a tap on the back of the head or a pushing down on the back of another athlete’s thighs or an elbow around the turn buoy that causes another athlete to lose their goggles?

Veering into an athlete can be defined within the realm of impeding, but to what extent? Does impeding include bumping into another athlete? What about if Athlete A veers an any 10 degrees to the right? What about 20 degrees? 30 degrees? At what point does the official pull out a yellow card? At what point does the official pull out a red card? These concrete guidelines are not (yet) part of the sport.

Immediacy
Things happen quickly in every sport. Officials have to make split-second decisions when two athletes collide or a ball is moving quickly. Officiating is always hard. However, open water swimming officials are on a boat in a dynamic marine environment overseeing sometimes as many as 50-60 swimmers in a huge pack.

Things happen in every sport, but when athletes know that officials cannot observe every action (or reaction) throughout the entire race. Officiating becomes less of an issue and more of a game of hit-and-miss as the officials will miss much. The athletes will look for opportunities when the officials are NOT looking in their direction.

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