Midmar Mile debate

2014-02-17 00:00

COLIN McDougall’s letter “Midmar Mile debate” (The Witness, February 13) cannot go unchallenged.

He states that “more effort has to be put in place when swimmers face difficulty in the water”.

What more would he like us to do? If he took time to read the front page of The Witness on February 12, he would have seen the graphic outlining the number of craft on the water for the safety of swimmers, and the fact that we exceed the Events and Competitions Act requirement of one lifeguard per 50 swimmers by having four per 50 lining the route of every race.

When a swimmer enters the event, he or she will have signed an indemnity, which effectively confirms to the organisers that he or she is competent and in good enough health to attempt the event. There is no way that the organisers can be held responsible if a swimmer has a medical emergency on the water. The lifeguards are on the look-out for this type of occurrence and are trained to assist if and when they see it.

The SAPS can only list a swimmer as a “missing person”, which does not necessarily mean he or she had drowned (even though it was and is presumed that he succumbed in the water), but until a body is actually retrieved, cancelling the event on a presumption is not an option.

When a timing chip is activated at the start and not deactivated at the finish, it does not automatically mean a swimmer has drowned.

Every year, there are swimmers who exit the dam either by returning to the start or by being removed from the water, some of whom fail to hand in their chips for deactivation.

The timing team has to sift through these non-finishers to ensure that they are, in fact, out of the water. If the race was stopped every time this happened, we wouldn’t have a race.

It is also not common practice in any adventure sport to cancel events if a death occurs, and while the organisers are not insensitive to the grief of the family, they also have an obligation to the rest of the competitors.

It is a fine line we tread in matters like this. We can’t just announce a suspected drowning as that would cause panic and conjecture. We can and do, however, announce publicly that we are looking for a particular person, which we do numerous times over the weekend, in the hope that the swimmer is still in the resort.

The search-and-rescue team goes about its business as soon as it is able. However, the conditions have to be calm for the sniffer dog to find a scent, but even with the inclement weather on the day, they were on the water as soon as the final race was completed.

As with any tragedy, there will always be a flood of criticism, advice and comment from people sitting on the sidelines who have little or no experience in these matters, and none of whom put their hands up and offer their services at future events.

The Midmar Mile is acknowledged world wide as having one of the best water-safety teams and records in open-water swimming, but even with this in place, accidents can still happen.

Spare a thought, too, for the devastated race director who has, and continues to face, a barrage of flak and criticism from all and sundry who are very quick to lay the blame squarely on his shoulders when in fact there is not much more that he or his team could have done to prevent this tragedy. No one is trying to detract or deflect from the tragic loss of Thabo van Straten, but pointing fingers and laying blame is helping no one.

The organisers’ deepest sympathies have been and continue to be offered to his family in this trying time.

• Martin Godfrey is a veteran of the Midmar Mile, having swum it for the 40th time this year. He is also involved with the broadcasting during the event and was part of the management team at the start.

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