The Inconsistencies in Marathon Swimming

Posted by Scott Zornig, 1 July 2012

Marathon swimming is an amazing sport that tests the limits of human endurance like few other athletic endeavors. I would put marathon swimming right alongside the Tour de France, ultra marathons, free diving, mountain climbing and the Iditarod. Marathon swimming includes long distances, cold water, unpredictable currents, large waves, darkness, predators and plenty of risk, which uniquely challenges a person both physically and mentally.

As wonderful as the sport is, it has always bothered me that the sanctioning organizations have not established universal marathon swimming rules which govern all marathon swims. The lack of uniformity has created an inconsistent sport from lake to lake, channel to channel, sea to sea. Can you imagine if baseball or soccer were played differently in each region or country?

Let me ask you this: How can a swim be considered a success under one organization while the same swim under another organization would not be recognized? Better yet, how can a swim done in the same water years before the existence of an organization be ratified, yet today, the identical swim would not meet the organizations current standards and result in disqualification? How can a sanctioning organization in an area known for extremely cold water, large predators and numerous attacks disallow electronic shark devices which might protect a swimmer from a possible encounter, but allow neoprene caps which protect the swimmer from hypothermia? How can a swimmer be permitted to exit the water in the middle of the swim due to lightning or an alleged predator sighting, and then allowed to return and finish? How can people be inducted in to the IMSHOF who have not followed the most basic and sacred rules of marathon swimming? Why do we not have unanimous agreement between the governing bodies on what constitutes a legal swimsuit? Why have the sanctioning organizations not even agreed on what the minimum distance of a marathon swim is (i.e., 10 km, 10 miles, 20 km, 20 miles)?

It is no wonder why there is so much confusion inside and outside our sport on what constitutes a true marathon swim. Of course, it makes matters worse when individuals make up their own rules and label it a marathon swim.

There are two schools of thought regarding the rules in marathon swims. Some will argue that marathon swims are different in various parts of the world so rules should vary according to conditions and elements. This group believes that one only needs to satisfy the rules of the sanctioning organization for the swim to count.

On the other hand, the hardliners believe that the sport should be consistent. The same set of rules should apply to everyone and it is up to each swimmer to train and prepare for whatever a swim yields. A swim in the Cook Strait for example, should be conducted according to the same set of rules as a swim in the English or Catalina Channel and vice versa. If the water is cold, so what! You wear the same costume whether you are swimming a marathon in the icy waters of Alaska or the tepid channels in Hawaii. Is the area known for sharks? Is the water swarming with Jelly Fish? The hardliners say it does not matter if you are swimming in Cape Town, Lake Tahoe, the Caribbean or the Dead Sea; the same set of rules should apply to every marathon organization and swimmer and must be followed for the swim to be recognized…whatever those universal rules are!

I prefer one set of rules for all swims and swimmers, but it would mean that the governing organizations around the world must meet, put aside all differences and unify. This is easier said than done and would involve give-and-take from every organization. It would require each organization to amend rules, but would result in a much stronger, uniform sport.

So where do the sanctioning committees agree and what are the differences? The below list should give you a pretty good idea as it pertains to solo marathon swims. Please understand I am not suggesting what the rules should be nor would I say the SBCSA’s rules are necessarily the correct ones. The SBCSA has a few rules I would change tomorrow if it was solely my decision.

Agreement between marathon sanctioning organizations

A) Universally allowed by all sanctioning marathon organizations
B) Universally disallowed by sanctioning marathon organizations. (Note: some organizations will allow swimmers to use select items in an “assisted” or special category.)

Disagreement between marathon sanctioning organizations

There are 10 marathon sanctioning organizations in the United States and approximately 20 in other countries around the world. In my opinion, it would be advantageous for these 30 sanctioning organizations to unify our sport for the following reasons:

First, our sport becomes more robust if our rules are consistent and well defined. It gives us one loud voice saying the same thing verses many soft voices differing on what qualifies as a marathon swim. Secondly, when a swim takes place in a non-governed area, a united organization could either bless the swim as having been done according to internationally recognized rules or declare it a “non-swim” or an “assisted swim”. Thirdly, everyone would play by the same set of rules which mean less people will be interpreting or making up rules for themselves. Finally, we make it easier for the outside world to understand the difference between a marathon swim verses an assisted endeavor or incomplete swim.

On a side note, one of my pet peeves is when the new term “adventure swim” is used to describe a marathon distance swim which is not done according to traditional marathon swimming rules. While I appreciate that some are finally making an effort to distinguish themselves from true marathon swimmers, I think the term “adventure swimmer” is misleading. A swim is either a “marathon swim” (done according to the rules of the marathon swimming organizations) or an “assisted swim” (meaning the swimmer was helped across the water). In my opinion, an example of an adventure swim is Lynne Cox conquering the Bering Strait or Captain Matthew Webb attempting to navigate the whirlpool rapids below Niagara Falls. “Adventure swims” are endeavors shorter than a marathon, but are still done with the basics…suit, cap, goggles and skin lubricant….no toys allowed!

This summer, Diana Nyad and Penny Palfrey will be attempting to swim from Cuba to Florida. If either is successful, it could go down as the greatest swim ever completed. I understand they will not be using shark cages, but may employ electronic shark shields and suits which are specially designed to withstand the sting of a Jelly fish. It is a shame that this endeavor would be recognized by some organizations, but not others. If they are successful, all organizations together should be celebrating their accomplishment or denouncing it based upon mutual rules.

Unfortunately, sanctioning organizations tend to think and care about their own body of water. Most do not concern themselves with global marathon swimming. Our voices have been quiet outside our respective organizations. We do not meet, rarely talk to each other and have done a poor job uniting our sport. Most sanctioning organizations do not even have representation on the selection committee of the IMSHOF (International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame).

I believe the solution is simple; A committee should be formed which is made up of every marathon sanctioning organization with a desire to unify the sport. If there are 30 organizations worldwide, then 30 representatives should be on this committee and new seats should be created as new sanctioning organizations are formed. This committee’s charter would be to unify and protect the sport. Members would vote on rule changes or additions to the sport such as new technology. The existence of this committee would serve to educate the world on what is a marathon swim. Perhaps this committee could even have a voice in nominating and selecting future hall of fame members as well. If you really want to think outside the box, this committee could have annual marathon swimming awards and recognition. A committee made up of every marathon sanctioning organization in the world would only serve to strengthen our sport.

If you agree, then please let the various marathon swimming organizations know your feelings. Perhaps a tidal wave of comments from marathon swimmers will convince the more influential sanctioning organizations of the importance of unity. The strongest marathon swimming organizations would not only have to “buy in”, but drive this. It almost would have to start with support from the big three due to their size, strength, history and reputation.

I think finding common ground is good for our sport. It allows us to leave a well-defined, established, respected sport for future generations. It allows out sport to be understood by all. It enables us to define marathon swimming in parts of the world where there are no sanctioning organizations. It enables us to recognize only those who have done true marathon swims.

We have a special sport that is becoming more popular by the minute, but lack of agreement weakens it. We need unification. We must draw a line somewhere in the sand before the beach completely erodes!

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