Officiating in open water swimming is crucial to who ultimately stands on the podium. FINA selects the referees who officiate at its World Championships and at the Olympic Games.
Unlike pool swimming and similar to water polo, physicality is an accepted, inevitable and inherent part of the sport. There are two primary rules that have an essential impact on who receives the gold, silver and bronze medals: the unsportsmanlike conduct rule and the impeding rule.
The unsportsmanlike conduct rule is easier for a referee to call. A yellow or red card is given when a punch is thrown or an elbow or kick is given to the body or face of a competitor. At FINA races, ribs have been broken, teeth have been chipped, corneas have been torn, and lacerations are not uncommon as a result of unsportsmanlike conduct by swimmers.
The impeding rule is more difficult for a referee to call. This is when a swimmer locks arms with another swimmer, pulls on the ankles of a competitor (ziplining), or pushes a competitor off their intended line or in towards a turn buoy.
But there are two more important concepts that makes these rules difficult for referees to call: intention and consequences.
A vast majority of referees believe that intention is an essential element in calling a rule infraction. That is, if an athlete INTENDS to punch, kick, elbow, pull or impede another competitor, then and only then is the athlete guilty of a rule infraction. These referees believe that if an athlete does NOT intend to punch, kick, elbow, pull or impede another competitor, and only do so unintentionally, then these athletes are not guilty of a rule infraction – and no warning whistle, yellow card or red card is given.
There are two fundamental problems with the ruling of intention:
(1) how does a referee know the actual intention of an athlete?
(2) the consequences are the same to a victim of an intentional or unintentional kick, elbow, pulling or impeding. That is, races are lost and medal positions can change when the victim is kicked, elbowed, pulled back or impeded whether or not the instigator purposefully intended to do so – or unintentionally did so.
As the sport exists today, it is the referee’s authority to decide whether the actions of the instigator are intentional or not. This is arguably an extremely difficult call to make. How realistically can a referee know that an athlete has a certain intention or not?
But the second problem is even greater: the consequences. The victim bears the entire brunt of the infraction. The victims are the ones who lose valuable seconds when they are pulled back. The victims are the ones who have to swim with the pain of a kick or an elbow.
Because these infractions – intentional or not – occur instantaneously while the swimmers are racing in large packs or swimming around a turn buoy, they are not always seen by the referee. And sometimes, these acts of physicality are simply ignored – purposefully – by the referees.
Like water polo, diving and synchronized swimming, open water swimming referees can have a direct impact on who stands on the medal podium by the calls they make and do not make. Essentially, the gold, silver and bronze medals can be traced back to whether or not a referee makes a call – or not – in the critical seconds after acts of physicality occur in national and international competitions.
But, with the exception of the emerging use of drone cameras, there are no perspectives or replays of these acts of physicality. FINA does not allow videos of specific acts of physicality or controversial calls or non-calls to be posted publicly.
Spectators and coaches are not usually not witnesses to these acts of physicality except for the end of races. Only the referees are witnesses to these acts. They have a unique vantage point that is not available to spectators, fans or coaches. There is no oversight whether or not referees make “good” calls or simply ignore these acts of physicality. And, most importantly, the victims have no opportunity to appeal acts of physicality where they are pulled back, impeded, elbowed or kicked. These athletes simply have to live with the consequences of being a victim.
The officiating uproar in the diving, synchronized swimming and water polo communities ultimately and rightly led to rules being more well-defined and tightened up and referee conduct reviews established and made objectively fair – at least as much as humanly possible. But the open water swimming community has not followed – and we believe it is high time that FINA and other governing bodies immediately do so. Why put off a complete review of officiating? If nothing is wrong, then the rules can stay the same. If something is wrong, as we believe, then the sport can be improved.
We strongly believe that the athletes deserve their sport to be officiated in a fair and objective manner – and the ruling elites have an obligation to institute these long-overdue changes.
We told Alex Meyer and Fran Crippen of these fundamental issues with FINA officiating years ago. It was and remains an unresolved – and never publicly discussed – issue among the FINA family. How and why referees are selected to officiate at FINA open water swimming events is up to the FINA Commission, a select group of inside TOWSC (Technical Open Water Swimming Committee) members.
Some referees simply do not make calls that other third-party referees would immediately call. Some referees simply “swallow their whistle” when a foul is committed by a swimmer from a friendly country. This gives distinct disadvantages to athletes from certain countries. We have witnessed referees who will not make calls or even give warning whistles to swimmers from their region of the world. Similar to diving or synchronized referees who gave high scores to athletes from favored nations, or made questionable calls or non-calls in water polo games, there are some open water swimming referees who will not call rule infractions.
These officials unfairly hurt the victims of rule infractions and cause great angst among the athletes, especially those athletes whose personalities dictate that they play fair and by the rules.
Why does this situation exist? There are three reasons:
(1) open water swimming rules remain vague and undefined
(2) open water swimming referees have the authority to decide the intention of athletes in the heat of the battle
(3) open water swimming referees are not reviewed or judged by an independent group of experienced peers
(4) there are no consequences to referees who do NOT make the correct calls during the race.
Essentially, if a referee makes a controversial call, then the referee may be called to the table behind closed doors – or simply not asked to referee a major competition again. His or her actions can have a direct impact on whether they are offered additional officiating assignments at World Championships and Olympics.
The athletes have always known about this uniquely unregulated part of officiating in the open water swimming world. FINA and TOWSC members may disagree, but the athletes know.
The art, rules and oversight of officiating should be elevated professionally in order to improve the sport of open water swimming. The timing is right. The sport deserves this. The athletes deserve this.
Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association