Olympic Marathon Runners Are Protected. What About Marathon Swimmers?

Courtesy of International Olympic Committee, Odaiba Marine Park, Tokyo Bay, Japan.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that the 2020 Tokyo Olympic marathon and race walking events will be moved to Sapporo on the Japanese northern island of Hokkaido. Compared to Tokyo, Sapporo has significantly lower air temperatures where air temperatures and humidity levels in Tokyo are expected extremely high during the Olympic Games. In Sapporo, temperatures are as much as 6°C cooler than in Tokyo.

The plans for the marathon run and race walks – in addition to changes to runs 5000m and longer, rugby and cycling – are being taken by the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee in consultation with the IOC in order to mitigate the effects of the high temperatures and high humidity that are expected in the Japanese summer.

In contrast, FINA and its Technical Open Water Swimming Committee have stated that no changes will be made to the marathon swimming venue despite poor water quality and water temperatures that may exceed 31°C.

The IOC Medical and Scientific Commission Adverse Weather Impact Expert Working Group believe the expected conditions will place unsafe heat stress on the athletes – and have therefore changed its venue and time.

The IOC and FINA have discussed these changes with the host city of Tokyo, the international track & field governing body, the National Olympic Committees, Olympic Broadcasting Services, and the Rights-Holding Broadcasters (RHBs). In contrast, the marathon swimmers have to swim in the same venue – Odaiba Marine Park – that exceeded poor water quality standards and FINA’s own guidelines during the test event this summer.

I really do not understand why FINA and the IOC cannot reconsider the unsafe conditions of Odaiba Marine Park for the marathon swimmers when they rightly and quickly considered the plight of the marathon runners – and made reasonable decisions,” said Steven Munatones who was disciplined by both FINA and USA Swimming for complaining about safety in FINA races and proposing countermeasures in 2011. “Why is the health and safety of Olympic 10K Marathon swimmers not considered at the same level of runners, rugby players and cyclists? It is very sad to me.”

In contrast to the existing stance of the FINA, IOC President Thomas Bach said, “Athletes’ health and well-being are always at the heart of our concerns. A range of measures to protect the athletes have already been announced. The new far-reaching proposals to move the marathon and race walking events show how seriously we take such concerns. The Olympic Games are the platform where athletes can give ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ performances, and these measures ensure they have the conditions to give their best. I would like to thank World Athletics, and we look forward to working with them on the implementation.”

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said, “We have been working closely with the IOC and Tokyo 2020 on the potential weather conditions at next year’s Olympic Games and will continue to work with the IOC and Tokyo 2020 on the proposal to move the road events to Sapporo. Giving athletes the best platform for their performances within the environment they are in is central to all major events, and we will work with the organisers to create the very best marathon and race walk courses for next year’s Olympic Games.”

But the same is not – sadly – true for Olympic marathon swimmers.

According to Japan’s Kyodo News, after the Tokyo 2020 Marathon Swimming Test Event was cut short from 10 km to 5 km due to the warm weather and warm water conditions, the Para Triathlon World Cup course along the same course in Odaiba Marine Park was canceled due to poor water quality that failed the parameters set by the International Triathlon Union.

According to the officials, E. coli in the water was higher than the maximum level set by the International Triathlon Union. Note: Strains such as E. coli O157:H7 can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

Munatones predicted, “If there is no Plan B for the Tokyo Olympics and if it rains, the resulting urban runoff will create major water quality problems in Odaiba Marine Park that sits near the heart of Tokyo, a densely populated metropolis of 9.2 million people.”

Japanese news has reported that triathlon officials said that there is a possibility that the triathlon venue can be moved.

But Tokyo Bay will remain for the marathon swimmers – apparently – no matter what. No matter what the water temperatures or water quality is.

FINA’s executive director Cornel Marculescu is not going to move the race from Odaiba Marine Park – despite the concerns of swimmers and the facts presented by third parties – according to the FINA officials and national team coaches,” said Munatones. “He is the sole decision-maker and not one of the FINA officials or the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee members can or will contradict him, especially in public. But at least Cornel is considering said to change the start time of the Tokyo Olympic 10K Marathon Swim to between 5:00 am to 6:30 am depending on the water temperature.”

In the recent World Beach Games in Doha, Qatar last week the timing and temperature of the water lead to further issues. “When the lives and health of athletes are in question, water temperature and water quality should not even be an issue. These things should be black and white,” commented Munatones.

But Craig Lord of Swimming World Magazine reported that the water temperature measured 30.9°C (87.6°C) before the race. While lower than the FINA self-imposed maximum temperature of 31°C, the water temperature was measured at 4:00 am – a very convenient time for the FINA-appointed race officials to circumvent its own rules. Lord reported, “Swimmers claim that the water was measured at 4 am and that it was hotter than 31°C by the time the actual racing was underway.”

While swimmers know about this issue, few in the sport are publicly going to complain for fear of backlash from FINA. As Lord wrote, “…a leading swimmer who raced at the Beach Games last weekend told Swimming World that ‘it was 30.9°C at 4 am but the water temperatures were above the FINA upper limit during the race.'” Another top 10 swimmer told Lord, “They measured it at around 4 am and took that as the temperature by the time we were racing, it was hotter, over the limit and someone should have intervened. I’m really sad and even angry about this. It isn’t the first time they’ve trashed Fran’s memory and felt that it’s ok to push the line of safety.”

Importantly and very telling, the swimmers, their coaches, and the national federation administrators will remain unnamed and anonymous – for no one wants to face the rash of Marculescu.

Copyright © 2008 – 2019 by World Open Water Swimming Association