In the first leg of the 2013 FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup this weekend in Santos, Brazil, the heavy favorite was double Olympic medalist Thomas Lurz of Germany. Lurz remains at his peak even in his mid-30s.

But it was Romain Beraud of France who came out ahead. And Lurz was not even in the top 3 as Italy’s Federico Vanelli and Matteo Furlan joined Beraud on the awards podium.

What happened to Lurz? Evidently, at the 8.2 km mark as he was taking his last drink at the feeding station, Lurz was disqualified by the FINA referee for pushing or holding onto the feeding stick. It was not an unfair advantage of a competitor that he was red-carded for; it was a thing. Known as one of the finest ambassadors in the sport who has little need for physicality and no reason for cheating, it was shocking to the 7-time world champion. “He said I was pushing or holding onto the feeding stick when I took my last drink. I don’t understand this reason. It was the first time I received a [red] card in my life.”

His frustration is understanding. For experienced observers, and especially among the top men coming into the last stages of a highly competitive 10 km race, it is unfathomable for an elite athlete to actually think – let alone attempt or execute – a manuever like “pushing or holding onto a feeding stick” for an unfair advantage. In fact, to do so would actually slow a swimmer down and would be to their disadvantage.

To gain an advantage by pushing off the feeding stick assumes that the feeding stick is held firmly in position. And that is not the case because the coach is simply holding the feeding stick out to the athlete over the water. To hold onto the feeding stick makes no sense whatsoever as the athletes are intent on racing and are entirely focused on moving forward while obtaining something to hydrate. Holding onto something implies the need to float; Lurz and all his competitors have every motivation to do anything but float in a professional marathon swim.

Now there is a moment in every race where athletes come racing down the feeding station with their hearts beating and lungs bursting, sometimes with their goggles foggy or with water inside and competitors on either side of them. In these cases, where their coaches stick out their feeding sticks, it is not a perfect hand-off as is shown in photos. Hands frequently touch the feeding stick as the athlete tries to grab the water bottle. But these are inadvertent brushes of human skin to a feeding stick – and most definitely not – advantageous moves of any sort.

We believe that if every hand that touches a feeding stick is deemed worthy of a red card, then there would be few swimmers left in the professional races. In a solo channel swim when there is no one else around or in an amateur race where there are fewer swimmers around, there is ample time to stop, tread water and carefully touch only the top lip of the cup or water bottle without touching the feeding stick. But in professional marathon swims, touching, pushing, or holding onto feeding sticks simply is not in the game plan of competitive swimmers who want to race and win – and bears the swimmer no unfair advantage.

When it comes to officiating at amateur or professional races, officials understand the rules and make judgment calls in all fairness to all athletes within the context of the competition.

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