Many open water races do not have officials overseeing much of the course with the exception of the start, major turns and finishes. In these cases, among the most competitive swimmers, almost anything goes…and almost nothing is called and no one is disqualified.
However, in most open water swims, a very large majority of athletes compete in a courteous manner and only inadvertently cause problems for other swimmers.
At the highest levels of the sport, whether it is a men’s race or a women’s race, at least 25 swimmers will swim in large tight packs, each close enough to touch each other.
During these tight races, arms frequently get tangled and legs get pulled in the midst of a lot of kicking, thrashing and splashing. Swimmers can get kicked, elbowed, bumped, pulled, banged, kneed, cut off, scratched and jostled at the turns, feeding stations and finishes.
But, it is the responsibility of the referees to maintain order and fairness during the races. When are whistles blown? When are fouls, yellow cards and disqualifications called? Under the established FINA rules of open water, there is a head referee, two assistant referees, turn judges and feeding station judges who are responsible for the race fairness and should be in constant contact with one another via hand-held radios.
The head referee and the assistant referees should be positioned in boats along the course and work hand-in-hand with their boat drivers who navigate as directed by the referees. The other judges are positioned near the turn buoys and two feeding stations, respectively.
The head referee should position himself as close as possible to the second and third swimmers in the lead pack and makes him or herself visible to everyone in the lead pack by standing and carefully watching the swimmers for the entire 2-hour race from the bow of his boat.
If there are windy conditions, the driver should attempt to position the boat so the swimmers are not a position to breathe the suffocating exhaust fumes from the motor. The driver should be close to the swimmers, but not so close as to create waves or fumes to disrupt the swimmers.
The assistant referee positions him or herself further back in the lead pack in a separate boat, constantly watching for rule infractions. Generally, because the first 50-75% of the race of a 10K race will probably include as many as 25 swimmers in one large tightly bound pack, often two referees can positioned themselves only a few meters from the entire pack – the head referee towards the front, and the assistant referee towards the back in separate boats.
What are the infractions that referees can and should call?
Under the general unsportsmanlike rule, swimmers can be disqualified for making intentional contact, obstruction or interference with another swimmer. Such unsportsmanlike conduct should be judged solely by the head referee. A great example of high quality referee work is this National race:
(we know it’s over 1 hour, but you should not watch it entirely, it’s perfect at every moment so you understand what great referee work looks like)
But with swimmers constantly bumping each other, the referee’s key consideration is if the physical contact was intentional or not. A very high majority of the bumping is simply unintentional instances of contact that do not require intervention by the referees and are an integral part of the sport.
On the other hand, when swimmers are swimming too aggressively, the referees should quickly become pro-active and try to reduce further escalation of inappropriate activities among the swimmers.
Warning whistles and directives given by hand motions should be repeatedly used by the referees. For example, when three swimmers are swimming together and the two outside swimmers start to squeeze the middle swimmer, the referee should blow his or her whistle and give hand signals to instruct the two outside swimmers to separate and give the middle swimmer some more room. On the other hand, if swimmers lock arms while swimming stroke-for-stroke or run into each other during the crush around the turn buoys, the referee can and should judge this to be unintentional contact.
While most physical contact among the swimmers is viewed as accidental or part of the sport, there is a subjective element that is entirely dependent upon the referee’s experience and perspective.
This subjective element is essential when deciding when athletes should be disqualified.
In general, whistle warnings may be given fairly frequently throughout the race – perhaps 2-4 times per loop during a relatively “clean” race and 5-10 times per loop during a more aggressive race.
At the first rule infraction when the referee judges contact to be intentional and unsportsmanlike, the head referee can show a yellow flag to the swimmer or swimmers with a card bearing the swimmer’s number.
This number is written with black markers on their shoulders, shoulder blades and back of hands for identification purposes. See image on the right to see how it looks like.
On the second infringement, the swimmers can be shown a red flag and a card bearing their number. The head referee can inform the swimmer to immediately leave the water.