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COMPETITION FREEDIVING: HARMING OUR SPORT?

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P

PJB

Well-Known Member
Jun 2, 2014
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Events over the past 3 years make it clear that it's perhaps time for Apnea to take a hard, honest look in the mirror. Concessions have to be made, truth has to be admitted - not least of which is the growing sense that 'organised' depth competition is perhaps not ready or mature enough for mass participation and media scrutiny. It certainly doesn't seem ready for consumption by the non-freediving public. I am as passionate about the sport as anyone, but I'm sorry: no sensible person, freediver or not, can take pleasure or learn much that is interesting or good from witnessing a significant percentage of competitors at an event effectively 'drowning', convulsing or coughing up blood in the name of 'sport'. No, something is wrong here. There's also no shortage of irony.

As freedivers we all tend to feel (and never seem shy to publicly pronounce) apnea as being 'pure'; that it should be 'aspirational' to non-participants and that it can take us to a deeper consciousness and occupies a 'special place' in the world of sport. Well it seems to me that the evidence strongly contradicts this mindset, at least in the realm of organised depth competition. I realise this opinion won't go down too well, but let's step back a little and consider a few aspects that have bearing on my argument:

1. WE DON'T KNOW ENOUGH (NOT YET ANYWAY)
Apnea stands virtually alone amongst tests of human capability in the extreme nature of the physiological changes it triggers in participants. No other sport I'm aware of makes such deep, not to mention obscure, demands on its top exponents; elite apneists are expected to force their DNA to enter a time machine and 'remember' an ancient reflex - right down to the cellular level - in order to execute (ie survive) a maximal effort. So far so good, but in organized competition we expect these athletes to do this AGAINST one another 'on demand' and under conditions of extreme mental and (as in Cyprus recently) environmental stress. If medical discovery has made apnea 'cough up' many of its secrets, then why are its most informed elite competitors coughing up blood in public? That the sport's cognoscenti could muse in Cyprus, post fact, about the 'surprising' effects of executing maximal dives 'early in the day' after a third of the competitors blacked out in a single discipline, means you surely don't need me to suggest that we might not be ready for the Big Time yet. The unique adaptations required, combined with the fact that blackout-failure or even an out of control samba in a depth discipline technically IMPLIES drowning and death to most external observers, just compound the problem. Think about it for a second: who in their right mind would wish to follow - let alone learn more about or participate in - an activity that showcases itself in this way?

2. APNEA IS NOT LIKE OTHER SPORT
An argument I've come up against is that 'many other mainstream sports involve serious injury or risk of death, so why pick on Apnea?' The usual suspects are typically rock climbing, skydiving, motor racing, freestyle moto-x and extreme skiing. Sorry, once again, but Apnea is different and all these are convenient red herrings for apneists either unwilling or unable to see the wood for the trees. But I'll play along, so let's take them one by one:

Competition climbing does exist, but under strictly controlled, safe conditions where the consequences of 'failure' are benign. Of course climbers do compete fiercely for reputation and individual sponsorship outside of the organised competition format, but in this realm it is not an organised competitive sport but rather a way of life. That said, free solo climbing perhaps offers the best analog for apnea because each freedive is in effect a 'negative free-solo'. Tell me then: would YOU like to attend a 'world individual free solo climbing championships'? If so then best you take tranquilizers (for yourself) and a big helmet.

Skydivers also compete, but its an equipment-intensive, coordination-driven sport where gravity does most of the work. Can you recall an incident where a third of all skydivers smacked into the ground in competition in full view of the grandstand? There is, of course, wingsuit flying - also a better analog for apnea - but it's never been promoted as an organised competition because... well that's obvious, isn't it.

Motor racing is also competitive and dangerous, but maximally equipment-intensive with many layers of built-in safety in the modern era. In turn Freestyle MX, while also an equipment-intensive, skill-based sport, enjoys the inherent benefit of having most of its 'dirty laundry' washed far away from the public view on the test track or beneath padded clothing. And the same can be said for extreme mountain skiing.

3. 'CULTURAL' DISSONANCE
Cognitive dissonance is the ability to simultaneously hold 2 opposing beliefs. I think Apnea might be suffering from this as we collectively, in our own different ways, work towards bringing it into the mainstream. In apnea the dissonance relates to culture: as I alluded to above virtually every apneist I've ever met will, at some point, extol (the legitimate) virtues of the sport: natural, peaceful, wholesome, generous, healthy; a sport that that seeks, in its basic ethos, to place 'the moment' and intensity of inner sensations above raw performance; a gateway to self-awareness. Now try square this with Nick Mevoli, Cyprus 2015 and the countless other competition divers who keep blacking out or surreptitiously spit into their hand to check for blood post-dive and then ask yourself: given the limits of our knowledge and the highly individual and, more importantly, NON-LINEAR relationship between training, personal development and performance in apnea, is this a sport that's ready to take its place alongside others on the public stage? Of course it CAN. But should it?

So after all this ...and if you're still reading... you're probably wondering whether I have a solution to propose. No I don't. I'm cynical enough to know that nothing I say will convince AIDA and many (if not most) freedivers that lining up a bunch of head-strong, highly motivated individuals on a given day and asking them to 'show what they're made of' so they can prove that they're a 'better' diver than someone else ON THAT DAY - just so we can hand them a medal - might be a bad idea. So no solution I'm afraid, but I do have an opinion and it is this: if we listen carefully, and humbly, to what I believe the the science of Apnea has been TRYING to suggest to us, which is that the activity is perhaps too individual, too physiologically obscure and complex - too fickle - to sustain the level of organised competition and sponsorship our sport's Organizational Heads seem to be striving for, particularly in the depth disciplines. Don't get me wrong: I wholly support the pursuit of personal, national and world record attempts. I also believe that our best athletes are beacons - lighthouses - of human potential in every respect and they should be supported. But rather than facilitating a platform where individuals pit themselves against one another in - sorry again - what appears to be a manifestly counterproductive way, AIDA should perhaps direct its efforts towards assisting rare individual talent in raising sponsorship and achieving milestones safely, away from the pressures and hollowness of organized depth competition and the public eye.

Finally, please understand that I don't mean to take anything away from competition athletes - they freely choose to participate, and it is their right to do so. But let us also then make an effort to call things by their proper names. A pillar of the field of neuro-linguistic programming states that 'the result of a communication IS its meaning, irrespective of its intent'. Right now organised depth competition is proving itself to be more of a STUNT than a legitimate sporting event in the general sense, and the presence of safety divers doesn't fool anyone. Even a child understands that each blackout is nothing less than death, cheated. It looks scary, and its ugly; the safeties merely provide a little lipstick. I'm not sure if this the right way to showcase our beautiful sport.

Apnea Instructor (AA) South Africa
 
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Bill McIntyre

Bill McIntyre

San Clemente, CA
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Jan 27, 2005
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Well said. STUNT is an appropriate description.
 
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J Campbell

J Campbell

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Sep 17, 2001
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Deep divers routinely cough up blood. This is too extreme. If you are doing an activity that actually causes your lung tissue to bleed - well that's nuts! I myself have never produced blood from a dive. But if I ever do I will know I have reached my limit, and I will back off - never to attempt that depth again.
 
P

PJB

Well-Known Member
Jun 2, 2014
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Hi All,

I've had a week to reflect on my initial post. While nothing I've heard or read since has altered the essence of my perspective, a robust but constructive exchange with none other than Aharon Solomons - someone whose opinion and experience I value - made me reconsider one aspect of my argument. More specifically, and besides other areas of disagreement, Aharon pointed out that, in failing to offer any alternatives or potential solutions, my post offered little positive. He has a point. Thing is, my position rests on an 'outsider's perspective'; an assessment informed by superimposing the events of the past 3 years over AIDA's insistence to try and offer freediving to a broader audience when the evidence suggests that apnea is simply not the same as other sports. It remains subject to non-linear outcomes between inputs and outputs, the visual and medical outcomes of 'failure' are troubling to say the least, organizational capabilities are lacking or incompetent (sorry AIDA), and we live in the Facebook/Twitter age. Nevertheless, here follow some proposals:

1. How can 'the numbers' be the absolute measure of who's best on the day? Surely self-knowledge and restraint are as (if not more) relevant in an activity such as this? I posit that an elite freediver should be able to demonstrate all three qualities if they are to participate in showcasing the sport. Thus, blacking out, repeatedly failing surface protocols and squeezing indicates an athlete either unwilling or unable to listen to their own body, whatever the ambient conditions may be. Or they simply refuse to listen because, hey, it's COMPETITION DAY and who cares? - if they get it wrong there are safety divers and medics, right? Well, let's look into that:

2. The focus on athletes overshadows the stresses on others. While on a course together I had the privilege of speaking with 2 members of the team that had tried to resuscitate Nick Mevoli, and the experience mostly left me wondering about the fairness of burdening safety crews - amateur or not - with the responsibility to assist, save or resuscitate competitors who push beyond their capability. Another thought experiment: imagine if, on the Olympic track, athletes that pushed too hard suffered cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated on the spot. Who'd want to be a medic there?

3. Enough preamble. I repeat: my view is that a competition athlete must also demonstrate self-knowledge and responsibility to their own health and the well being of those tasked with their safety. Otherwise what are we trying to achieve? So here are my suggestions:
a) Competitors that black out should be removed from the competition (no result) and banned from competing for 3 months. Competitors that Black out in back-to-back competitions should be banned for 6 months.

b) A competitor that fails a surface protocol gets a warning. If they fail another SP in the same competition they should also be ejected from the competition and get a 3 month ban.

c) Records and personal best attempts are a different matter. Those in attendance either love you (friends & family), have paid to be there (sponsors) or are paid to be there (safeties and judges). This is the cutting edge. It's the athlete vs themselves and the water - ie its a 'private' matter - so in my opinion they can black out, samba or squeeze away at will.

Feasible? Realistic? I don't know. But that's what I think...
 
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Stephan Whelan

Stephan Whelan

Papa Smurf
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Jan 7, 1999
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Interesting debate - we've shared it on our social media accounts to see if we can broaden the conversation.
 
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A

Alun

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Oct 5, 2001
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I totally agree with your insightful post PJB. if i had to offer one piece of advice to any beginner freediver - it would be to avoid competitive freediving. not getting sucked into the world of competitions is the best decision i ever made in freediving. in doing so I've been able to focus purely on my own diving. this has enabled me to progress far further and without incident than i ever would have done otherwise.
 
Bill McIntyre

Bill McIntyre

San Clemente, CA
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Jan 27, 2005
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Thing is, my position rests on an 'outsider's perspective'; an assessment informed by superimposing the events of the past 3 years over AIDA's insistence to try and offer freediving to a broader audience when the evidence suggests that apnea is simply not the same as other sports. .

It sounds to me that you are a relative insider, at least compared to me. I'm such an outsider that many competitive freedivers will probably consider that I'm not worth even listening too, but here is what it looks like from here.

I'm a spear fisherman who does it while free diving. The shorter and shallower the dive that gets me a fish, the more I like it. Reading about things like the Nick Mevoli death and near misses where competitors cough up blood, are too befuddled to complete the surface protocal, etc. has turned me off so much that I don't even follow competitive diving any more. I don't want to read about people barely avoiding death. Just in the last week there have been threads here about the results of a big competition, and I didn't even click on them.

Perhaps real freedivers won't care what a guy like me thinks. But if AIDA wants to expand the audience for its competitions, maybe it should consider the possibility that I'm not alone in being turned off. I put this competition in the same category of UFC and MMA fighting, and I don't watch them either.
 
K

karl bellamy

Guest
PJB, I sit on your side of the fence. I find depth competitions a tad counter intuitive putting it mildly to what one is taught and learnt.
Sure by all means let people attempt records and pb's with all the support that can be mustered, but do so in a calm, safe and relaxed environment. Pressuring freediving competitors to preform at set time, set day, set conditions etc isn't conducive to great outcomes.
Many of my colleagues and friends find the competition of depth freediving utter madness after hearing about all the blackouts, sambas that have been happening. This alone turns them off the sport.
However, we are by nature also competitive, that being said maybe organisers could better plan comps by extending the time a diver has to set a depth and maybe some form of pre qualifier prior to the event done at state, national level.
Better training and education are maybe a few areas that need to be addressed by organisers.
A former champion depth freediver who saw the results from a recent competition also remarked and was shocked at the amount of B/O and sambas and wondered what was going on?

As for bans, make the competitor pre qualify for their next comp after a 6 month logged recovery and training schedule, regardless of the nature of the DNQ.
 
P

PJB

Well-Known Member
Jun 2, 2014
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It sounds to me that you are a relative insider, at least compared to me. I'm such an outsider that many competitive freedivers will probably consider that I'm not worth even listening too, but here is what it looks like from here.

I'm a spear fisherman who does it while free diving. The shorter and shallower the dive that gets me a fish, the more I like it. Reading about things like the Nick Mevoli death and near misses where competitors cough up blood, are too befuddled to complete the surface protocal, etc. has turned me off so much that I don't even follow competitive diving any more. I don't want to read about people barely avoiding death. Just in the last week there have been threads here about the results of a big competition, and I didn't even click on them.

Perhaps real freedivers won't care what a guy like me thinks. But if AIDA wants to expand the audience for its competitions, maybe it should consider the possibility that I'm not alone in being turned off. I put this competition in the same category of UFC and MMA fighting, and I don't watch them either.

Thanks Bill.

Not much to say but: 'QED'.

Keep Well
 
Adam Stern

Adam Stern

New Member
Oct 12, 2015
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PJB,

Please detail your experience in Competition Freediving as a competitor, a spectator, a judge or a safety diver. What you have described sounds extrodinarily illinformed as does your suggested remedy for the current 'situation.'
 
mermaidgirl

mermaidgirl

Well-Known Member
Mar 11, 2008
189
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PJB,

Please detail your experience in Competition Freediving as a competitor, a spectator, a judge or a safety diver. What you have described sounds extrodinarily illinformed as does your suggested remedy for the current 'situation.'
Thanks Adam, I think a lot of people are misinformed about freediving comps. There is a wide range of opportunity for all levels of diver and volunteer. Some people are on the professional level while others just enjoy the atmosphere and camaraderie at comps.
 
Azrael3000

Azrael3000

Man with a custom title
Nov 5, 2011
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@Adam Stern & @mermaidgirl why don't you describe your experience and view on the topic instead?

@PJB: Similar to Alun I am not taking part in competitions except as support (coach, safety) and so far it was only pool comps. What I wanted to thank you for is raising the issue of stress on others as this should not be ignored. Finally, a good and important topic to discuss overall.
 
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AmberNerissa

AmberNerissa

Member
Mar 23, 2012
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Interesting point of view but I don't think competitive freediving is the problem. Far more freedivers die outside of competition. Spearfishing, freediving alone etc. Also, does this include pool freediving competitions or just depth?

Another thought experiment: imagine if, on the Olympic track, athletes that pushed too hard suffered cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated on the spot. Who'd want to be a medic there?

People die running marathons all the time. Actually the majority of competitive runners experience some sort of injury every year. I've been freediving - competitively - for 4 years and have never had an injury.
 
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Stephan Whelan

Stephan Whelan

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I'm interested to see the debate but one thing I wanted to say is... in more than 20 years of competitive competition freediving (more than 50,000 competitive dives - and that is just AIDA stats) - only one person has lost their life - Nicholas Mevoli in 2013. After that there was a review and how squeezes and coughing up blood is dealt with (at least from a regulation standpoint) was changed.
 
C

cdavis

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Jan 21, 2003
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PJB and Stephen both make very good points. Personally,I'm uninterested in participating in competition, but I enjoy hearing about good ones, and lots of other people, divers and non divers alike, are interested. It also appears to me that the number of bad ones, with lots of BOs, squeezes, etc, is growing. That needs to stop. The review following Nicks death was all good, but almost certainly did not go far enough. Depth freediving is dangerous on a lot of levels and human nature will get competitors into trouble if the rules allow. Bad publicity bleeds over into restriction on pool apnea, even swimming underwater laps and affects me. When a significant percentage of competition participants are coming up incapacitated or injured, that is very bad publicity. Clearly, the rules need to be strengthened. I lack the expertise to suggest how they should be strengthened, but they should, now.

Connor
 
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Erik

Erik

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Jan 21, 2001
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Interesting point of view but I don't think competitive freediving is the problem. Far more freedivers die outside of competition. Spearfishing, freediving alone etc. Also, does this include pool freediving competitions or just depth?



People die running marathons all the time. Actually the majority of competitive runners experience some sort of injury every year. I've been freediving - competitively - for 4 years and have never had an injury.

I agree with you for the most part, especially about divers dying recreationally. So how responsible is AIDA etc for that? They put out lots of info in courses and online and have protocols for safety at comps. Good thing or lots would die at comps. IMOpinion AIDA and competitions shouldn't be held responsible if they've educated and informed adults about how to be careful in and out of comps.


However I think what was stated wasn't about deaths, it was more analogous to BO's, LMC, squeezes, hacking, eyes rolled in the back of the head, puking. I've seen lots of seizures (work) and some BO's at comps and it is upsetting for many, even traumatic. It's the closest to seeing someone die without them dying.

Long ago I BO'd in a competition; no biggie for me (actually a cool experience I won't get into here) at the time but others who witnessed it were VERY upset by it.

I don't compete anymore but back then I would have been angry if someone tried to stop me!

And as an ultrarunner I had to look up some stats just for some balance: .5 per 100,00 of marathoners die during a race, other research saying that 95% of that .5% heart attack die with a genetic predisposition. Generally injuries for runners are tendon and ligament strains, not something that traumatizes EMR/EMT's/volunteers I'd think :)

To me, the bigger question is; why should the sport be promoted so much; what is the benefit of trying to attract bigger audiences? Certainly someone will benefit financially, but I think that generally, freediving organically attracts people for reasons other than growth, jobs and aggressive marketing. Actually the opposite I think; an escape from that kind of energy.

It ain't NASCAR ;)
Thank FSM!
R'amen,
Erik.

PS- glad you're injury-free!
 
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Erik

Erik

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And BTW we all need to listen to Bill and CD; you can't buy patina!
 
mermaidgirl

mermaidgirl

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I'm interested to see the debate but one thing I wanted to say is... in more than 20 years of competitive competition freediving (more than 50,000 competitive dives - and that is just AIDA stats) - only one person has lost their life - Nicholas Mevoli in 2013. After that there was a review and how squeezes and coughing up blood is dealt with (at least from a regulation standpoint) was changed.
Stephan is correct , Aida competition is quite safe and we are constantly working to make it safer. We have new safety protocols regarding squeezes and serious blackouts. If the competition dr./medic finds that an athlete is compromised ;they are suspended from diving until they are medically cleared . The reason we have not had stricter criteria regarding short surface blackouts is that there is no scientific evidence that proves that diving after a blackout is detrimental. Many athletes have had many blackouts and have not shown symptoms afterwards. However, Aida has financially supported research in squeezes and we have found the evidence to support the new restrictions that have been imposed. At the 2015 Depth World Championships all competitor's o-sat levels were checked post-dive. Any low levels were re-checked before being cleared to dive. Low o-sats appear to reflect difficulty in recovery and possible squeeze. Erika Shagatay and staff were there doing more work on their squeeze study. Athletes were also ultra-sounded. Any athlete that showed any evidence of squeeze was suspended until cleared. Athletes are now doing a better job of monitoring themselves and resting when needed. as evidenced by Guillaume Nery and others. We hope that the mind-set is changing and divers realize that they need to take care of themselves.
Aida also paid for the pathology on Nick Mevoli. The report is now finalized and we know that Nick suffered repeated squeezes . His lungs were scarred to the extent that it damaged his heart and this had a direct correlation to his death. We will publish this report in the near future.
Many people want to compete and find it very rewarding. For those of you who do not, ( Bill Mac - whom I know from spearfishing) that is fine but there is no reason to criticize those who do. Personally, I enjoy competition in several sports but I have no desire to be an ultimate fighter , mud wrestler, or do water ballet but I also have no right to tell those athletes that they should not compete in their chosen sport.
There is room in freediving for all levels of participation and enjoyment.
 
A

Alun

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Oct 5, 2001
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i think one of the points being made is that some think freediving is not well suited to competition. some sports/activities certainly are well suited and have a positive impact. But I would argue that this is generally not the case for freediving - and increasingly so in recent years.

As for the AIDA stats, there may have been 50,000 competitive dives, but I would guess the majority of those were pool based which is certainly very safe and controlled. Most of the remainder were probably for dives less than 50-60m - again generally low risk. what percentage were for dives over 100m... 0.5%, 0.1%? now consider the incidence of problems we are only now beginning to face and things don't look quite so rosy.

it's good that AIDA have introduced new safety protocols but what did it take for these to come about. It would be far better had they been introduced much earlier and not as a reaction when things inevitably go wrong. yes hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it's not hard to see these problems coming. One major step in the wrong direction from my point of view was when AIDA decided to allow sambas in competitions. I expect many reading this won't even remember this and have only ever known 'I'm ok' etc. I can't think of anything more damaging to the public image of freediving than divers surfacing barely conscious and coughing up blood. worse still if such divers complete the SP and their dives are judged to be valid! what message does this send out? instructors would be horrified if their students did this, yet, many go to their competitions and do exactly this.

another point I would like to make is that increasing the stakes in competitive freediving will without doubt have an impact on the number and severity of incidents unless the organisations get a very firm grip of things. Increasing stakes such as significant sums of prize money from sponsors, media coverage or being included (not that it would ever happen) in the Olympics. the higher the stakes the greater the risks some competitive divers will inevitably take. It's the same with anything and freediving is no different.

Of course everyone has the right to compete if they want - that's their choice. It only becomes a problem when the outcome of these competitions has a negative impact on the wider freediving community. this impact, whether positive or negative, is within the control of the organisations. it's down to them to be proactive rather than reactive, to get a grip of things and consider the bigger picture. as an example, one of the key things they need to get a grip of is the use of counter balances. they've been around for years but incredibly there are apparently no minimum performance (e.g ascent speed) standards or test specifications. I can only find this...

"AIDA and/or the jury may require testing and/or demonstration of the counter balance and other safety equipment prior to the commencement of any competition."

may require?! ... that says it all.
 
C

cdavis

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Jan 21, 2003
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Excellent discussion!

I'd like to suggest a mindset for competitions. The diver should be normal after the dive. That means no blackouts, sambas, spitting blood, etc. There should be a penalty for any of those. The logic: any of those indicate the diver has exceeded the limit that would be safe if he was diving alone. The penalty is needed to enforce the mindset in the face of competitive pressure.

There is a mindset in some competitive circles that, since competition safety is so good, BOs and sambas are no big deal. And, strictly from the physiological point of view, that is probably true. Lots of divers used to (still do) consider mild squeezes as no big deal, just part of diving deep. Turns out, that is not true. As we have seen, those mindsets, plus the pressure of competition, lead to bad things and not just for the divers involved. Competitions, AIDA and otherwise, would do themselves and the rest of the freediving community a great service if they can figure out how to apply a more conservative mindset.

Ahh, but the devil is truly in the details.
 
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