LAUSANNE. Among the fastest open water swimmers in the world, especially among the female elite, there is plenty of physical contact not only around the turn buoys and by the feeding stations, but also in many places along the straightaways.

Granted most of the physical contact is incidental and unintentional.

Like many amateur swims, physicality and conflict in professional races are usually caused by too many athletes swimming too fast and too aggressively in a small area. But there are many incidents of conflict, both in amateur and professional races, that are clearly intentional and not seen – or called – by the race officials.

Since pack swimming became the norm in 1998, elite open water swimmers have come out of international races with black eyes, large lacerations, chipped teeth, broken ribs, scratched corneas, painful bruises and other injuries as a result of unintentional and intentional actions at different points along the course.

Athletes swim in extremely close proximity to one another and they are hit with their elbows, knees, feet, hands and arms. Yes, it is part of the game. Yes, race officials police the action by giving yellow cards (warnings) and red cards (disqualifications).

But athletes still get hurt. The victims of these actions never get a chance to re-do the swim and perhaps have another chance at better positioning. And, even more importantly, the athletes who do cause the black eyes, broken ribs, chipped teeth and lacerations are never punished long-term in the sport.

At the elite domestic and international competitive levels, there are trained officials who monitor the competition. But what about at the local, mass participation levels? At a large majority of races, there are no trained officials on the course and most infractions – a large majority which are unintentional – go not only unpunished, but also unseen and unreported.

But I didn’t mean itI didn’t see himI couldn’t avoid her…are among the myriad reasons swimmers explain why they ran off, pulled or hit another swimmer. In an interesting contrast, the elite triathlon world views physical contact MUCH differently than the sport of open water swimming.

Here is one example. View this video before reading the aftermath below.

After an immediate investigation, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) punished Harry Wiltshire with a six-month suspension for unsafe and unsportsmanlike conduct.

The first infraction certainly seemed incidental from the perspective of an elite open water swimmer. While a yellow card would certainly have been called due to impeding, it is most likely that a red card would not have been called by an open water swimming official.

ITU voted to impose the suspension against Harry based on the evidence from the race and testimonies from the on-course officials. Harry had already been disqualified by the Chief Swim Official. The ITU rules state that such a disqualification “is a penalty appropriate for severe rule violations, or dangerous or unsportsmanlike conduct.”

ITU clearly takes rule infringements extremely seriously. It is also obvious that triathletes and the ITU view physical contact differently than officials and governing bodies of the sport of swimming.

In the aftermath of the suspension, Harry filed an appeal against the ITU in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The CAS reviewed his actions at the European Triathlon Championships vis-a-vis the ITU Competition Rules (2.1 a.) (i), 3.3 a.) (i), Appendix L 6. and Appendix L 7. After a long appeal process, the CAS ultimately upheld the suspension for unsafe and unsportsmanlike conduct by dismissing Harry’s legal appeal this week.

As part of the appeal, the CAS panel reviewed video evidence and heard testimonies from Harry as well as from on-course officials. The panel concluded that Wiltshire violated ITU Competition Rules with reference to “repeated unsportsmanlike conduct” and that the Executive Board had the right to sanction Wiltshire with a suspension.

The panel also decided that the initial six-month suspension was not grossly disproportionate as Harry had appealed. As a result, CAS also required Harry to pay 2,500 Swiss Francs to the ITU as compensation for the legal process. “ITU is strongly committed to maintaining the integrity of the sport by ensuring athletes are competing within the competition rules and with a high degree of sportsmanship,” wrote the ITU in a statement.

While physical contact will always be a part of open water swimming, especially as the Olympic, professional and competitive stakes get higher, there is long-term wisdom in suspending athletes who hurt others in races, especially when it results in injuries that directly impact the placing of the victim.

Copyright © 2011 by Open Water Source