Paid To Do Nothing

Mohamed Ali is quoted as saying, “It is often the pebble in your shoe that causes the most problems, not the size of the mountain.” One such pebble exists in the sport of swimming. I have never understood why Swimming New Zealand fine swimmers for scratching outside of certain times. The swimmers have all paid to enter the event, but if they then decided not to swim, get stung with a fee for the scratching. Not just any old fee either. Often the scratching fee is three or four times more than the cost of entering the race. Why is that? How is it possibly justified? The answer of course is it is not.

Swimmers who enter a competition pay an entry fee to buy something. What have they bought? They have bought the supervision of a referee, a starter, a couple of judges, three time keepers and some administration staff to manage and report the result of their swim. But primarily they have rented a lane of water to swim in for a specified distance. That’s what their entry fee pays for.

What the entry fee of around $10 means is that for the thirty seconds or so that it takes to swim 50 meters swimmers have rented that lane from the organiser. The lane has been temporarily bought and paid for by the competitor. For the duration of the race, it belongs to the swimmer. Why then should the swimmer pay again if he or she decides not to use it?

At the point the organiser accepted the swimmers money the lane was available solely to the swimmer. If he or she decided to swim the race inside the rules they would be rewarded with a result. If they swam the race outside the rules they would be disqualified. If they did not swim at all they would forfeit the opportunity to get a result. Under no circumstances is there any justification to levy a fine.

Once the entry fee has been paid and accepted, what goes on in the lane, even if nothing happens, is the responsibility of the person who rented the lane space. The organisers have no involvement.

Oh, I’ve heard all sorts of reasons to justify punitive scratching fines. When Brian Palmer was at Auckland Swimming he had a list of reasons as long as your arm. Empty lanes, he said, meant the centre was losing money, the meet would go one for ever; it was unfair on officials and was an insult to spectators. None of that is true and certainly none of it takes precedence over the right of a swimmer who has paid to rent a lane to use the lane in any way they want.

The absence of a swimmer is not costing the organiser any more. The cost of the entry fee covers the cost of hiring the pool and the swimmer has already paid for that. After the payment of the entry fee whether the lane is swum in or not has no financial effect. Empty lanes do not mean the meet goes on any longer than originally planned. When officials and spectators got their program before the meet began they anticipated a meet of a certain length. That does not change if someone decides not to swim in a race. The meet stays the same length.

There is no justification for a double fee in the form of a fine for “late” scratching. It has all been paid for in the entry fee, including by swimmers who scratch.

Most importantly there are good reasons for over entering and late scratching – reasons that should not end up attracting an exorbitant fine. The races selected for a swimmer are very much part of a swimmers final preparation.  Longer races improve endurance. Shorter races improve speed. Races over the athlete’s best distance are necessary to perfect the race plan. At the time of entering an event the balance of longer, shorter or on distance may not always be obvious. For that reason I have often entered all three in order to select the one I need closer to the time and when I have access to the swimmer’s most up-to-date training information. No way in the world should I be expected to pay extra for doing what’s right for the swimmer.

Think of entering a race like hiring a rental car. If you hire the car for five days and on one of the days decide to stay home and not drive anywhere the rental firm don’t fine you for the day the car was not used. They do not make you pay extra for the day off. Hiring a lane to swim a race should be viewed the same way.

Booking a seat to fly from Auckland to Wellington is the same. If you miss the flight and their airplane flies with an empty seat the airline don’t fine you for the missed flight. You pay for the ticket and that’s all. Most airlines would not mind at all if their seats were booked and paid for and no one turned up to fly.

Monopoly sports like swimming tend to financially exploit their position in the market. They charge like wounded bulls because they have no competition. Scratching fines are an example of their bad behaviour. That is why we will be challenging their uncompetitive monopoly once one or two other legal issues are sorted out.

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