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

After the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim, British swimmer Jack Burnell who was disqualified and upset with the officiating at the 2016 Olympic Games.

He told the British press, “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.

In the end apparently I was disqualified, about 2 meters from finish. [My] 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.”

How could this possibly happen in the sport of open water swimming? How could an athlete be yellow-carded when no other competitor was around him?

Is that not the ultimate in unfairness when an athlete is called for a rule violation when and where there is no other competitor in his proximity?

This is how it can, does and could have happened:

Often referees who are usually very well-positioned to see a rule violation take a few seconds to make a judgment call in a race. They first visually see the infraction and then grab a whiteboard to write down the number of the swimmer who committed the infraction. They raise the whiteboard and a yellow card (or red card), blow their whistle, and point to the athlete in question.

Occasionally, the referee will consult with the other officials on the boat to confirm the number of the swimmer. So these actions takes several seconds to occur. Meanwhile, the swimmers continue to swim on.

Often, the referee continues to blow his whistle and point to the swimmer in order to get their attention. But, almost as often, the swimmers continue to swim on, focused on what they are doing. Occasionally, swimmers simply ignore the referee’s action or are breathing in the other direction.

So time can lapse, but the FINA referees are not obligated to continue to hold up the yellow card and continue to blow their whistle in order to catch the attention of the swimmers. But they try as best they can.

And occasionally, the referee finally catches the attention of the swimmer when the pack breaks up and the swimmers are not longer in the scrum and dealing with the immediacy of physicality while racing.

But there are still charges from influential members of the (pool) swimming community that “open water swimming cannot be taken seriously” because of the [implied poor] officiating in the sport.

Other believe and claim, “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.”

Open water swimmers prefer to call their “bar brawls” during competition something more accurately like “incidental contact”. But when the stakes are high with prize money or Olympic medals, incidental contact can perhaps be better defined as “intentional physicality“. This is where experienced officials can and should step in and make objective judgment calls.

While some in the pool swimming world may consider this unbecoming or unprofessional, it is currently how the best and most competition athletes at the highest echelon of the sport of open water swimming have developed and the races are currently officiated on the FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup and FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix circuits.

I acknowledge the frustration of the swimmers, but I believe we got [the rulings] right [at the 2016 Rio Olympics],” said head referee Sid Cassidy to ESPN after the race.

American Olympic open water swimming coach Dave Kelsheimer acknowledged, “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.”

Shelley Taylor-Smith, the first and to date the only woman to officiate an Olympic 10K Marathon Swim final, says, “It is difficult for referees to give yellow or red cards…and sometimes, it is difficult for swimmers to see them. Jack’s yellow card was issued to him way after the altercation when he could see the yellow flag and his number. The ref needed to ensure he saw it. It could have been 5 minutes [after the actual infraction].”

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association