F.R.E.E.'s response to accusations of allowing samba's in competition

**Editors note – With the continued controversial issues arising within the various record certification entities, Deeperblue.net feels that it is necessary to impart unbiased information as we receive it from ALL concerned. The following editorial does not necessarily reperesent the viewpoints of deeperblue.net or it’s staff

Cliff Etzel – Freediving Editor**

From: Rudi Castineyra, President of F.R.E.E

Dear freedivers,
Recent exchanges on this and other lists have taken place, where the important subject of blackout/samba has been questioned as to how the different organizations approach it.

As president of F.R.E.E., I want to take the time to explain how we see this issue and why we have decided to adopt our points of view. Ever since FREE was created, our organization’s motto has been “”Safety and Fairness””, in that order.

We believe that safety is the number one concern by which to govern record regulation and freediving training, and as such, our rules are by far the strictest ones of any freediving organization. We analyze and approve every concept, standard, rule or point of view that we work with by making sure that it complies with our definitions or both, safety and then fairness. Therefore, the subject of Blackout/samba has also two perspectives to it, one from the safety side and one from the fairness side.

As far as safety is concerned, FREE makes it mandatory for all freedivers attempting records to organize a comprehensive group of professional scuba divers to act as their safety divers, in drastic contrast to the rules of the other organizations. It is our collective experience that freediving records MUST be done with several redundant safety factors in place, the first and most important of which is the human factor, which translates into a safety diving team at all times with the freediver. This means that doing a record, or just attempting it, the FREE way requires a heavy investment in divers and logistical concerns, which may well exclude all those divers trying to become world champions on “”the cheap””. The notion that an organization should favor those freedivers who do not have the necessary financial means to provide acceptable levels of safety for their performances is WRONG. Those individuals believing that freediving can be done and/or attempted with sub-standard safety measurements have no place in this sport, and unfortunately those are the individuals which are bringing great harm to the sport, all in the name of “”providing world record opportunities for the masses””. It is not a case of who is better sponsored or who has more money or more media attention, it is simply a case of who is willing to work hard enough to comply with the needed safety standards. We don’t favor any freedivers more than we favor others for their financial resources, but we DO accept those performances that are done with safety in mind, and disapprove of those that are done for personal satisfaction and gain and nothing else. If the diver is willing to set a world record, then it is imperative that this is done under the right safety procedures. There simply can’t be another way about it.

As far as blackout/ samba (BO/S), we must first understand the perception of the general freediving public regarding this matter and what it really is on the other hand. For many years, a samba has been something to be ashamed of, an “”uncontrolled”” performance, something as illegal as doping or rules violations. Understandably, there exist very strong feelings towards BO/S, as this is the number one cause of deaths in freediving. In that sense, BO/S is a problem that we all must fight against. But fighting against it doesn’t mean trying to hide the fact that such things can and will happen, and that as long as we go underwater holding our breath, a BO/S is as likely to happen as a twisted ankle every time we run. What must be eliminated, or minimized, are the mind frames and attitudes, which result in divers blacking out. Every freediver can be safe and conservative, however, many choose not to be. Unfortunately, we don’t have much control over the thousands of divers that everyday practice spearfishing (the number one risk group for blackout/samba), snorkeling, or other forms of recreational freediving around the world. Within this group exists that large number of cavalier, macho, selfish, ignorant or plain uneducated freedivers which contribute the biggest percentage to the toll of BO/S victims every year. Whether they act this way knowingly or unknowingly must be analyzed and understood (for example, the many starving and illiterate sponge/lobster indian divers from coastal tribes cannot be called “”irresponsible””), but this is not the point. We cannot establish an organization, a sort of “”freediving police”” that can control the actions of these divers, at least not yet. So implementing safety and educational standards that can reach all of them is our best solution at this point. However, what we can do, and we can do RIGHT AWAY, is having strict safety rules so that those high-performance freedivers competing in tournaments or attempting world records will be safe in case of a BO/S or any other emergency. And this is what FREE strives to do and has managed to do so far. Instead of criticizing those performances that end up with a BO/S, all other organizations should first make sure that they have every angle of their rules covered and enforced so that if and when a BO/S happens, the victims can be safely, quickly and effectively helped or rescued. For this, it is elemental to know that a loss of motor function and/or consciousness can happen as a result of one of many, or a combination of several, risk factors, not the traditional hypoxic syndrome during the final, shallow stages of a dive. A FREEDIVING ACCIDENT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYBODY, AT ANY DEPTH, AT ANY TIME, DURING ANY DIVE. This we know, and thus, our rules are designed to anticipate, prevent, and deal with any such possible scenario. We are proud of our meticulous approach towards safety and feel that performances like World Records, which although a very small part of what freediving is as a whole, should be the ones exhibiting the highest level of safety.

World Records are the most visible and biggest link between our sport and the general audiences out there. It doesn’t mean that we should be concerned with safety only for World Records and competitions, and that we should not care about the many freedivers dying every year under less glamorous conditions since we cannot control them, no. It means that since we can control all these high-class performances, this part at least should be done at all times, and done well. To make the sport of freediving safe we need to start somewhere, and the perfect starting point are all those performances which can be controlled and regulated by the organizations and which will have a huge impact on the way many beginners and amateurs understand, approach and value safety. If the reigning World Champion does his/her records under evidently unsafe conditions, how can we expect, or even demand, that all other freedivers do otherwise? In this regard, FREE has done a very careful job, looking at all possible scenarios and we invite anyone to take a look at our rules and requirements so they can understand why we feel that we offer a really comprehensive approach in terms of safety.

Now, when it comes to the Fairness part of the equation, this is how FREE views BO/S during competitive events and world records. First of all, we, like everybody else, prefer those performances where everything is done clearly and cleanly, and the athlete finishes in total control of him/herself. However, we need to realize that a freediving record dive (whether a world record or just a small club competition) must be looked at in the same way all other competitive sports are regulated. There has to be a minimum standard, and if the performance falls under that minimum standard, then the athlete is disqualified. Likewise, if the athlete completes the performance only slightly higher than the minimum standard, then he/she is worthy of the result, regardless of whether it looks pretty or ugly, or whether the other divers manage to perform at the highest level. We need to define where the limits should be drawn for freediving, and allow any performance that falls within these limits. This is the essence of fairness and justice, not the subjectivity of who looks “”fresher”” or more “”in control””. Freediving is not artistic ice-skating, there are no extra points to be awarded for style or control or form. What is acceptable and what isn’t?

There is the question. For this, we took a look at all other sports with available sets of rules, and came to the conclusion that the most important parameter is defining when the performance being judged starts and when it ends. What happens before or after this is inconsequential. Freediving is the act of performing a certain task underwater, reaching a depth or a length, while in a state of apnea or breath holding. Breath holding is what defines a freediving performance, what makes it freediving indeed, so the performance should be measured from the start to the end of the act of apnea. Furthermore, the true performance starts only when the freediver sinks underwater and the act of apnea becomes mandatory, since breathing cannot resume until the diver returns to the surface. Thus, as long as the diver’s airways are underwater and the diver is still completing a portion of the performance, we consider the performance as “”in progress””. Once the diver finishes the performance and he/she is back at the surface, the breathing process can be resumed and we are no longer witnessing a freedive or breath-hold dive. Therefore, at this point, if all rules have been complied with, the freediver has successfully completed the dive. To signal the end of the performance, the freediver must either deliver a confirmation tag to the surface judge in the case of constant ballast dives, or establish bodily contact with this judge in the case of variable ballast attempts. For this purpose, the judge must be positioned right alongside the line, where the freediver is expected to emerge. Once the freediver has emerged, it is the Judge’s duty to approach him/her and receive the tag or hand shake from him/her to declare the end of the freedive. During the time that it takes for the judge to receive the tag from the freediver, the freediver must not be helped or touched by anyone (or through the whole dive) and he/she must remain with the head vertically out of the water. Once the tag/signal has been received by the judge, there is logically no other parameter the freediver must follow. The performance is over at this point, the freediver has crossed the “”finish line””, cleared the height without dropping the bar, or any other comparison to any other sport you wish to make. If the freediver suffers a blackout or samba afterwards, well, technically this doesn’t affect the performance anymore. We knew this point would be controversial, but we are sure that it is truly fair and just, the way rules should be. Let’s not forget that rules are meant to take into account the whole spectrum of factors that play a part in a performance, and to balance out all of them in the best possible equilibrium.

Are we encouraging divers to blackout or to have a samba just because of our definition of what an acceptable performance is? I don’t think so, not at all. The thing is, a world record is a superlative achievement, the kind of performance only realized by the best of the best, and as such, it represents a level of accomplishment which is supposed to be at the limits of human ability in that particular sport. It would be senseless and illogical to expect a freediver that has just emerged from a record dive to be “”fresh”” or in “”total control”” or without any “”signs of hypoxia””. How can there be no signs of hypoxia after a breath hold performance of this kind? If diving to the record depth was all that easy, then a lot of freedivers would be able to accomplish this, not just a very small group, so it would be fair to assume and accept that setting a world record would test the limits of any athlete, included freedivers. Why then penalize them because of a loss of motor control after the completion of a world record dive? Why should there be any shame in completing this performance in a less than perfect state of control, isn’t this what happens in most other sports? Why should we treat freediving any differently, just because of this old taboo that if “”you’re good enough you shouldn’t have a samba””?

Nobody doubts the high jumper or the pole-vaulter when they jump and touch the bar, which moves and shakes, but doesn’t come down. Or the runner that passes out or falls to the floor after winning the race, with massive muscular fatigue and shutdown, what about that? Something like that is much worse than a samba, the loss of muscle control is much more acute, yet the runner is seen as a hero, somebody who just gave his/her everything to realize this performance. The freediver, however, should be penalized and reprimanded for having a samba, why? Remember something, we are not talking about samba now as the same safety hazard that results in many deaths every year. In the contest of a competitive activity, this should be looked at as something different. The runner is respected because he/she crosses the finish line before collapsing (and would be even more respected if they collapse before the finish line and manage to finish anyway) and so the freediver should be respected if they manage to cross the “”line”” in their sport. In this case, returning back to the surface and delivering a tag or a signal personally to the judge, why should there be anything else to be accomplished? Yes, it would be unfortunate and it wouldn’t look good, especially not for the freediver, if he/she has a samba or a blackout after completing the dive, but realistically, the dive is over at that point. Asking a diver to perform any certain skill like removing a mask, or answer a question, or not exhibit any signs of hypoxia, or whatever, are, again, subjective acts which have nothing to do with the performance. Besides, they can be seen and understood in many different ways by many different persons acting as judges. The freediver may not be wearing a mask, or it may be hard to establish eye contact with a judge, or he/she may be too excited to remember his/her date of birth, or too tired to talk or perform any other duty except recovering. We even feel that requiring a freediver to follow any of these “”procedures”” that have nothing to do with the act of freediving could actually result in the freediver not totally concentrating on that VERY important period of recovery after such a performance. In that sense, making a diver go through all this is a potential safety threat. The freediver has started the dive at the surface, reached the planned depth, returned to the surface and validated this return by delivering a signal to a judge, so the performance has happened within the acceptable limits and that’s all that should be required. This is what’s essential for the rules to be just and fair.

In the end, the freediver that routinely manages to complete a dive without any problems will become the one that ultimately is able to reach depths nobody else can. But, as long as there are other divers able to complete a dive within the parameters explained above, we feel that they too deserve the same title and recognition. The most important thing is to require the freediver to have a support team well organized and trained enough to deal with a BO/S wherever it happens, included at the surface after completing the dive. Then, the second most important thing is to enforce these rules strictly with every aspiring record setter, so that they only attempt a record if they are reasonably sure or convinced that they can complete the performance in control of themselves. Those freedivers who must arrange the proper logistical organization as required by FREE will definitely only attempt a performance if they feel that it is realistically within their reach. Consequently, those freedivers who can organize record attempts without such strict requirements are the ones likely to attempt a performance that will end with a blackout or a samba, since they don’t have “”much to loose””. Finally, the subjectivity of all these post-dive “”tests”” being applied today by other organizations and individuals are VERY open to personal interpretation, thus making them not only unsafe, but also prone to unfair, unsporting and dishonest judging decisions. Imagine loosing a result because “”you didn’t remove your mask in 15 seconds”” or “”you didn’t look the judge in the eye””, or even worse, “”you showed signs of hypoxia”” after the dive. As long as these criteria and parameters are being implemented in freediving, the sport will never reach the level of recognition and credibility that it needs and deserves. Many officials from other organizations claim that they oppose sambas in competitions because this gives the public the “”wrong”” idea that freediving “”could”” be a risky activity, or that it may give the “”young”” a wrong example. Yet, these are the same people which defend their “”vision”” of safety by allowing records to be attempted with basically no safety divers in the water. There are many dangerous sports in the world, which don’t lack a massive number of followers, sponsors and media to promote them. But, the most successful ones are those, which don’t hinder the performances of their athletes just to make the sport look “”safe””. No. Those sports which openly accept the degree of danger and risk involved in them, but which have strict and proven safety procedures in place to minimize those risks are the sports that have the respect of the admirers. We feel that all those trying to eliminate sambas from competitions just because they give the wrong example to the young should do better in letting the young know that freediving records and competitions are a very small part of the sport (and a part that should certainly happen only under the safest of conditions), and instead teach the young to avoid sambas and blackouts during regular freediving. This is where we are loosing many lives every year, not during performances where human beings are trying to push a limit, which understandably, can require the most from an athlete.

Cliff Etzel
Cliff is the former Freediving editor of DeeperBlue.com. He is now a freelance journalist and film-maker.

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