World champion open water swimmer Eva Fabian has written an open letter to FINA addressing its new rules on when to mandate wetsuits for open water races.
FINA changed its rules last August, with some of the biggest updates coming in open water. Most notably, FINA will now mandate wetsuits for open water races when the temperature is below 18 degrees Celsius. Fabian points out some specific wrinkles to that rule – for example, when water temperature shows a great range in varying parts of the course. Fabian says that officials at the FINA Marathon Swimming World Cup event in Setubal (which starts tomorrow) indicated to coaches that if six temperatures were taken along the course, the lowest temperature would determine if the wetsuit rule would come into play or not. Fabian says coaches and swimmers suggested an average temperature be used instead, in order to prevent the possibility of heat exhaustion incidents caused by wetsuit use in a course that is generally warm (and with warm air temperature) but has one temperature taken below the 18 degree threshold.
You can read the full open letter below:
An Open letter to FINA World Cup Race Officials who asked for athlete feedback regarding the use of wetsuits for FINA 10K open water races:
The Technical meeting for the FINA World Cup Race in Portugal today indicated that FINA is indeed unprepared to make a decision about how to use the temperature information obtained at a venue in conjunction with their new Wetsuit rule.
For example, when there are different temperatures at different places in the course, do they use an average temperature, or select the lowest? This scenario was presented by coaches to officials, who said the lowest temperature is the deciding value. The coaches then stated their concern about a situation where the majority of the course was too warm to use wetsuits, but one spot might be cooler. Coaches and athletes were in shock to hear that in the hypothetical scenario with 6 temperatures taken on different locations in the course, if 5 measurements were 28C but 1 measurement (the lowest) was 18C, then FINA would adhere to the lowest temperature and declare a wetsuit mandatory race.
Coaches asked to see this ruling, and were told that the rule didn’t exist, but that nevertheless the official was making the decision to use this format for determining whether it was a wetsuit race or not.
The coaches unanimously agreed that using the average temperature would be the most safe method of determining the temperature of the course. FINA resisted and declared that 6 temperatures were to be taken, and the lowest used as the determining factor. For example, the majority of the swim tomorrow will take place under the hot sun with an air temperature of 28-30C, and will be swum in water that will likely be above the optional wetsuit temperature range (at or above 20 deg C) with only a very small segment within the optional wetsuit range.
The coaches believed overheating was the most overriding health concern for the athletes. The only known incident in the sport came from overheating, not cool water. In 2010, American athlete Fran Crippen died during a FINA world cup circuit race in the UAE, a race that was held under extreme heat conditions. It is demeaning and insulting that FINA is ignoring the concerns of coaches and athletes pertaining to overheating yet again.
One coach said it was disgusting that FINA would ask athletes and coaches to choose between athlete safety and professional success, as a wetsuit “option” isn’t an option if you want to be competitive. As FINA officials stated in the meeting, wetsuits are a major buoyancy advantage and swimmers simply swam faster in them.
There is another aspect of FINA races potentially involving wetsuits that has not been well thought out: pre-race numbering. Athletes and coaches were informed that the wetsuit needed to be worn when athletes were receiving numbers on their body prior to the race. This is a potentially dangerous plan in that it requires athletes to put on and wear their wetsuits for approximately 45 minutes to one hour before the race in the 28-30C weather. There will be no air conditioned tents available. This could contribute to a potential situation with overheating before the athletes even begin the competition.
Air temperature is also an important factor in athlete safety during races. Wearing a full body covering suit made of neoprene, especially in 30C weather, is a safety concern. FINA did not agree to take the air temperature into consideration even though it can contribute to overheating in a 2 hour marathon event.
FINA stated that this race was to be an “experiment” with how wetsuits affect the physiology and performance of athletes when the water temperature is borderline too warm for wetsuits (or above the wetsuit range in 5 out of 6 temperature measurements) and the air temperature is hot. “Experimenting” on professional athletes during important races in their careers, putting their lives in danger… that isn’t what sports are about. That isn’t a standard to aspire to.
I agree and am glad that FINA is seeking feedback from athletes and coaches after competitions involving wetsuits. However, after the technical meeting today, it is apparent that there are a lot of untested variables that potentially impact athlete safety that were not considered when making this new wetsuit rule. I hope FINA will address these concerns and put athlete safety first.