The Difficulty Of Officiating Open Water Swimming Races

The Difficulty Of Officiating Open Water Swimming Races

It is often very difficult to officiate competitive open water swimming races – and get every decision or non-decision during a race perfectly right. The swimmers swim in large packs, there are no replays, and things happen in a split moment that are occasionally difficult to see.

One example of a more blatant rule infraction occurred at the 39th 16 km Faros Maratón, that concurrently serves as the Croatian International Long Distance Swimming Championships, a 16 km race from Stari Grad to Faros, Croatia. In slow motion and repeatedly seen in the video below, it appears that a red card is warranted because the swimmer on the right dunked the swimmer on the left at the end of the 2014 Faros Maratón. But, despite the appearances from this video angle, head referee Milovoj Mirasavac judged that both Vlodymer Voronko of Ukraine and Xavier Desharnais of Canada tied.

In South Africa, SuperSport of South Africa covered the controversy over the disqualification of Natalie du Toit who was disqualified for “unsporting behavior after she was deemed by referee Peter Pienaar to have blocked the path of fellow competitor Michelle Weber” at the national championships.

Let’s discuss various scenarios that officials and referees often face in competitive open water races:

Scenario #1: It is a close and competitive race where two athletes are sprinting into the finish, or swimming fast towards a turn buoy or a feeding station. They are swimming side-by-side and occasionally bumping into one another. One athlete starts to veer off towards the other athlete in a non-direct line towards the finish, the turn buoy, or the feeding station. They are essentially pushing their competitor off a straight-line tangent to their goal, otherwise called veering.

Situation: Swimmer A veers into Swimmer B and then suddenly shifts direction, this time towards the desired mutual goal. Swimmer A now has the distinct advantage over Swimmer B.

The Issue: Is a call appropriate in this situation? If so, what athlete is called for what infraction of the rules? Is Swimmer A warned or receive a yellow card?

The Call: In many situations, the referee does not give any warning or call even if Swimmer A veers off the straight-line tangent 5º, 10º or as much as 45º.

The accepted logic is that Swimmer A may swim in any direction he wishes and Swimmer B can either (a) speed up and avoid the situation, (b) slow down and change his own direction, or (c) stop and go around the back side of Swimmer A. In some limited situations, the referee gives a whistle warning to Swimmer A.

WOWSA Opinion: This is a difficult call and one of the most difficult judgments that an open water swimming official is faced with. WOWSA believes Swimmer A is impeding Swimmer B in any case that Swimmer B is impeded from taking a straight-line tangent to his desired direction or target. Whether this veering is 5º, 10º or 45º, we believe the concept of impeding is being committed by Swimmer A. However, if Swimmer B continues along this same direction, then there is no impeding involved. Impeding is only committed when Swimmer B is moved off of his direction which can be determined by frequent physicality between the two swimmers.

To establish objectivity in officiating before the race, a referee can explain his or her opinions and basis for judging veering to the athletes at a pre-race technical meeting. However, to make a judgment call based on what the referee believes the Swimmer A or Swimmer B’s intentions are is too subjective for fair officiating we believe.

Scenario: It is a close and competitive race where two athletes are racing into the feeding station. They are swimming side-by-side and their two feeders are also standing side-by-side on the feeding station.

Situation: The outside swimmer veers the inside person against the feeding station. The inside swimmer puts out his hand out to protect himself. In the process, he touches the feeding station.

The Issue: Is a call appropriate in this situation? If so, what athlete is called for what infraction of the rules? Does anyone receive a warning, a yellow card or a red card?

The Call: In one situation, the referee on the feeding station gave a yellow card to the inside swimmer for touching the feeding station. In another situation, the referee on the feeding station gave a red card to the inside swimmer for touching and pushing off the feeding station.

WOWSA Opinion: WOWSA believes the outside swimmer committed something that was deserving of either a warning or a yellow card for an infraction based on impeding and unsportsmanlike conduct.

The inside swimmer did admittedly touch the feeding station, but it was caused by the action of the outside swimmer and, more importantly, it adverted a possible injury (a safety issue) while the touching (and pushing) of the feeding station did not result in any advantage to the inside swimmer over his competition.

What If?: Conversely, what if the inside swimmer touched the feeding station, and then proceeded to turn his body and push off the feeding station with his feet? This would provide an unfair advantage and either a yellow or red card could have been issued.

During our time on the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee, we understood that the FINA referees made their decisions partly based on the actions and intentions of the swimmers.

That is, if a swimmer intentionally impeded another swimmer, or intentionally pulled on their leg, or intentionally swam into another swimmer, then the swimmer was either warned with a whistle (which serves as a warning) or given a yellow card (which serves as the first rule violation) or a red card (which serves as a disqualification).

While we understood that the ACTIONS of the swimmer in question (who impeded, pulled on a leg, or swam into another swimmer) was critical to the decision by the referee, it was the official position of FINA referees that both the ACTIONS and the INTENT of the swimmer in question were both essential elements in their decision to warn the athlete or give them a yellow card or red card.

We never understood how practically a FINA referee could make a judgment on the INTENTION – an internal mental process that leads an action – of the swimmers. We asked several questions to the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee members:

* How could FINA referees understand what is going on in the minds of swimmers competing in a race while they are standing on a boat without communication between themselves and the swimmer?

* What is the practical difference between INTENTIONALLY and UNINTENTIONALLY impeding another swimmer or swimming into another swimmer? Is not the effect on the other swimmer the same, whether or not the act is intentional or unintentional?

* How can a pulling on a leg or an elbow to the face be unintentional? And even if it were unintentional, the victim of the pull or the elbow is still unfairly harmed during the competition.

* How do FINA referees determine intent? Are there visual cues or speed of action that differentiate the presence of intent or the lack of intent – especially in the latter parts of the race, around turn buoys or near feeding stations?

In other sports, referees judge rule violations and fouls by the action itself (e.g., blocking in basketball, tripping in fútbol, holding in American football, checking from behind in ice hockey), although the severity of the action may result in harsher penalties.

So why does intent play such a large role in the sport of open water swimming?

WOWSA believes the actions of the swimmers should be the deciding factor in officiating open water swimming competitions. Intent should not play a deciding role as we believe it is impossible – or at the very least, very difficult – for referees on a boat to accurately know or even guess the intent of an athlete.

In summary, WOWSA believes only the actual conduct of the swimmers should be considered by referees – not the mental thought process of the swimmers.

This approach follows the basic principles of American negligence law. As The Law of Torts (second edition) by Dan Dobbs, Paul Hayden and Ellen Bublick (2nd edition) explains, “A bad state of mind is neither necessary nor sufficient to show negligence; conduct is everything.

One who drives at a dangerous speed is negligent event if he is not aware of his speed and is using his best efforts to drive carefully. Conversely, a person who drives without the slightest care for the safety of others is not negligent unless he drives in some way that is unreasonably risky.

State of mind, including knowledge and believe, may motivate or shape conduct, but it is not in itself an actionable tort” (wrongful conduct).

If this principle is held true among open water swimming officials, then a swimmer who pulls on another swimmer’s leg, elbows another swimmer, or impedes another swimmer should be found guilty of a rule violation – and either given a yellow card or red card. The mindset of the swimmer should not be an element in determining whether or not there was a rule violation.

The physicality of the most competitive niche of the sport is very clear.

David Davies, silver medalist in the 2008 Beijing Olympic 10K Marathon Swim, explains, “You are all swimming in a pack and you don’t have a lane to yourself so it is a very physical sport and you do swim on top of each other and get the odd fist in the face and that sort of thing. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Adapting to the tactics of it and the physicality of it and learning to swim in a straight line without having a blue line at the bottom of the river is obviously the biggest challenge.”

Cassandra Patten, a bronze medalist in 2008, has a similar perspective. “You’ve got 20-30 girls in close proximity and normally I’ll give them ‘three strikes’. I’ll let the first two go, but if I get hit a third time I might give them one back. I can look after myself.”

Photo by Javier Blazquez of Christine Jennings in the 5 km race at the 2008 World Open Water Swimming Championships in Sevilla, Spain. She is surrounded by Olympian Angela Maurer on her left, Olympian Melissa Gorman on her right, and Olympian Poliana Okimoto behind her.

Physicality, unintentional or not, is part of open water swimming.

Physical contact is due primarily to too many swimmers trying to swim in the same location at the same time, especially at the start, around turn buoys, at feeding stations, and towards the finish.

Bumping, impeding, scratching, pulling, veering into, tapping or touching, slapping, clipping, conking, swiping, whacking, obstructing, ziplining, interfering, pummeling, nudging, punching, kicking, elbowing, pushing, jostling, shoving, crowding, banging, smacking, smashing into or pressing against another swimmer or triathlete happens among athletes of all ages and abilities, and nature of competitions.

Most swimmers shrug off physicality, ignore the situation, and simply chalk up bumping to the inherent nature of the sport. Most acts of physicality, of course, are entirely unintentional as most swimmers cannot swim perfectly straight and the locking of arms and touching of legs happens frequently in the large races.

But there are times when swimmers purposefully act aggressively towards their competitors, and other times, when swimmers intentionally retaliate for some kind of physicality. The act of aggression or retaliation can be a pull back (zipline), an elbow, or a slap on the head. “You have to stand your ground,” says one competitor with a hint of a smile and a penchant for physicality.

While such a mindset is not condoned in age-group, masters or international competitions, such acts are dealt with quickly with warnings, penalties (yellow cards and red cards), or disqualifications when observed by officials. That is the primary issue that faces physicality in the sport: the act of physicality must be observed and acknowledged by race officials (referees) for adjudication of the general rules of open water swimming to occur.That is, physicality must be seen in order to be adjudicated.

But there is so much physicality in a competitive or crowded open water race (or triathlon) that is unseen and is beyond the senses (visual and auditory) of the officials on the race, that the physicality still exists and continues especially as the number of competitors increases.

Sometimes as a form of self-protection and other times as a form of aggression, a handful of swimmers “buzz” their rivals and competitors. To buzz an open water swimmer is to swim very closely and commit an act of physicality on that swimmer as a purposeful act of aggressiveness or in retaliation to a previous act of physicality. It can be a “hey-I-am-here” nudge to the body, a “don’t-mess-with-me” elbow, a “don’t-do-that-again” slap to the head, or a “that-is-totally-unfair” zipline.

There are always consequences to act in an unsportsmanlike manner, but until the sport of open water swimming has developed, trained and certified a suitable number of officials and referees, and the rules and interpretations of the sport are uniformly understood and adjudicated, physicality will remain part of the competitive niches of the sport.

Copyright © 2008 – 2021 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Steven Munatones