The Challenge for FINA's Open Water Safety Committee: The "NFL Dilemma"

There has recently been an uproar about the initial report coming out of FINA’s “independent” open water committee. As Craig Lord at reported, FINA actually sent back the initial report to the committee, supposedly with changes that need to be made. This completely destroys the credibility of the committee, in my opinion, as it becomes more of a FINA puppet committee, especially if they asked the committee to reconsider the findings of guilt or any other conclusion that might have legal ramifications.

There is, however, one (and only one) scenario in which I think FINA was justified to do so. That would be if they sent the report back to the committee with the following note attached: “We agree with everything contained within this report, and think that it’s a splendid way to make Open Water swimming a safer sport. We would now like to expand your mandate to develop a report that includes the affects that these changes and solutions would have on the very nature of our sport.”

The death of even a single swimmer should not be overlooked, brushed past, or otherwise marginalized. But I’m going to go off of the “politically correct” path a little, and ask what is the cost of creating a perfectly safe sport? There’s a metaphor that I like a lot which goes as follows: Let’s say a governor was elected on a platform to reduce the number of vehicle deaths in his state every year. It would be easy: drop the speed limit on every major highway to 30 miles per hour. This would decimate (literally, I’d bet cut to about one-tenth) the number of motor vehicle deaths each year. But that governor, despite saving tens of thousands of lives every year with one stroke of his pen, wouldn’t have a chance at re-election.

Why? Because you can only take safety to a certain point before it interferes with the very nature of the activity that people are trying to make safer.

Here’s a few proposals that could drastically improve the level of safety at open water swimming events:

1. Have a very narrow temperature that events are allowed inbut then you’re severely limiting the global spread of the sport, the number of people who can participate in it without completely dedicating their lives to it, and drastically increasing the costs of the sport for those who live in certain climates.

2. Have a spotter/lifeguard boat for every single swimmer in the race- This would certainly improve the safety, because the likelihood of a swimmer not receiving immediate medical attention if they were in trouble would drop drastically. But in a sport that is simply not designed to ever have a huge spectator market, does this price too many athletes out of open water swimming? Would it then become a sport that only professional athletes could afford to participate in, and if so, would the sport survive?

3. Have the races swum in “waves” of a few swimmers, so that there is less congestion, and it’s easier to identify struggling swimmersThis would hugely extend the amount of time that a race would take, and would also destroy the “pack” mentality and much of the strategy involved in the sport, thus greatly diluting it’s excitement.

4. Have the swimmers wear buoy’s to where it will be plain to see if one stops moving– This will be an easier sell to your average open water swimmer, but look at how reluctant athletes are to changing equipment. Football, basketball, and hockey players never change to newer, safer helmets until the league tells them that they have to. How would the athletes respond to this?

So as you can see, some of the most obvious solutions, that would hugely increase safety, would not allow the sport to thrive, grow, or maybe even survive.

I call it the NFL dilemma. The NFL has instituted all sorts of measures to prevent devastating injuries like concussions and paralysis (which are sort of their equivalents of death in open water swimming), and many have whined that those solutions take away from the game. But the NFL has a much huger margin of error. The sport will continue to thrive with these new regulations, and for every fan they lose, they’ll probably gain 2 more by mothers who don’t want to see young men have their heads torn off every Sunday. Open water swimming does not have that revenue margin.

We have to ask ourselves, then, what risks are we (or the swimmers themselves) willing to take to make the sport safer? There have been some numbers thrown around that state that there were approximately 16 open water swimming deaths in 3,600 races last year. We aren’t sure if the open water swimming deaths stat includes triathlons, though as we’ve previously posted, there have been studies done like this for triathlon swimmers too. Let’s say those deaths don’t include triathlons. That’s roughly 1 in 225 races. Factor that by, maybe, 100 unique swimmers per race? That’s 1 death for every 22,500 open water swimmers, and that’s a worst-case scenario.

And that figure is even without considering how these people died. In some of these deaths, the open water swimming might not have been the mitigating factor. It may have been people not being in proper physical condition to swim the distance that they were swimming. We have no indication if those stats only include races, or people training alone (in which case there’s nothing FINA can do about it). There have been two recent high-profile cases of high school basketball players dropped dead in the middle of a game, and there’s nothing that could have been changed about the safety of those games to make them any better. No matter the precautions, no sport will ever be 100% safe.

Now look, it’s undoubtable that the race that claimed Fran Crippen’s life could have been safer. FINA failed in this race. It’s almost amazing that there isn’t a higher number of these deaths in this sport. Reports that we’ve heard (something like three boats for a mile course?) indicate that the safety measures were absolutely appalling. We (and by we, I mean race organizers) can certainly do better than that, especially knowing how warm the water was going to be. But FINA has two jobs to do (make the sport safer and continue it on the herculean path of growth), whereas the Open Water committee only had one task (make the sport safer).

Do we think that FINA would actually be so crass and cruel that they really don’t care about how safe the sport is? If the OWS committee gave them solid, feasible ideas, why would they send it back? The black-eye that Fran Crippen’s tragic passing has caused more harm to the organization than open water swimming, at any size, will ever bring-in in revenue, so it’s not an issue of greediness. I think that everyone needs to take a deep breath and wait for the full and final report to be released. Then, with these ideas in mind, we can all make up our own minds about whether or not FINA has come up with reasonable, safe, and viable solutions.

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About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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