An open water swimmer’s opinion of the Ronan Keating/Richard Branson Irish Sea relay swim

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Most of the swimmers and many others reading this will have heard of the Richard Branson / Ronan Keating Irish Sea Relay swim. By the way, look at some of the headlines. (“Richard Branson to swim the Irish Sea”). We had a bit of fun about it on the Sandycove email list when it was announced. But a few times I’ve seen statements to the effect of “it’ll be good for our sport because it’ll raise its profile”. And of course, since it’s a big charity fund-raising event, it’s considered crass to question this aspect. To question these basic principles is to be churlish, egotistical or selfish. So one has to keep quiet. I disagree. (And I know I’m not the only one). Think about the Olympic stadii in various places around the world. Those in well-developed and wealthier countries become part of the national sports infrastructure. Some others don’t fare so well, like Greece. Greece was the smallest country to host an Olympics. Apart from the huge cost, even before their current problems, four years after the 2004 Olympics, the various facilities were mostly unused. Partly because Greece isn’t big enough to support their ongoing use efficiently. That huge investment doesn’t translate into useful facilities or any resurgence in sport in Greece. Instead it left a debt that will have to be paid for a long time. I believe the analogy to the Richard Branson swim and Open Water is similar. But I’ll try to be more specific.

  • Richard Branson and Ronan Keating don’t love Open Water swimming.

You know how I know that? Because that’s the main reason we do what we do. Because every one of us prefers the sea to a pool. We all love swimming. To be out there. For the challenge or the camaraderie or the sheer existential pleasure. It’s a tautology. We swim because we are swimmers. Sure, we all had to start, we all developed the love of it. Maybe they will too, you say. Maybe they will indeed. But have you read anything about it so far that indicates they love it? No. There’s only moaning about cold and not being good swimmers or being afraid of the water. I also believe that you would have to be fairly naive to believe there’s no self-promotion for Richard Branson going on here.

  • It’s disingenuous.

In the early advertising there was much claims about a so-called World Record. Repeatedly it asked what record before this tag was dropped. I emailed the Marie Keating Foundation months ago and asked this question myself, but received no response. For the benefits of publicity they exaggerated the difficulty. It’s a team of 12 swimmers for dog’s sake. Those of us with big swims done know we like to try to explain the difficulty. We also know how some people with little or no experience sometimes belittle our achievements. (Or our friends, which I have a real personal difficulty with, when people put down my friends, but that’s another story). But never, ever have I heard a swimmer exaggerate one of their swims. Many are downright self-deprecating, like Lisa or Finbarr. We celebrate real achievement and don’t like to see others claiming something is more difficult that it was.

  • It will not bring any people to the sport.

How anyone can think it will bring people to Open Water is beyond me. Let’s call it  the David Walliams effect. All English Channel swimmers know this. “If David Walliams (an English T.V. comedian) can swim the Channel it can’t be that hard”. The same people don’t know David Walliams was a swimmer all his life and trained like we all do. We all respect him because there’s no way to cheat the Channel. He’s one of us. He’s the real thing. Anyone who gets across does it by hard work. It’s one of the reasons all Soloists respect each other. We all know what it takes. So a few years later is there one extra person who became an open water swimmer because of David Walliams swimming the Channel? I’ve never met one, though I’ve met a lot who knew about it. That’s hardy absolute. But if you wish to refute, please provide some figures. The same thing will apply to the Branson/Keating swim. If you are the kind of person who needs a Celebrity Endorsement to take up Open Water swimming, you will NOT take up Open Water swimming … because what it needs more than anything else are the love for it I mentioned above, and a sense of determination. Who is going to get into cold Irish or English water because Ronan Keating did? In a wetsuit.

  • Big charitable events take from smaller events
In over a year I raised about €2000 for the RNLI. By swimming the Channel solo. I’m not a great self-publicist. And I was busy training. While charities will no doubt benefit, it’s also highly likely, as this pattern always repeats, that others will suffer. Someone who knows nothing about swimming who donates €50 on the Marie Keating Foundation “because it’s such a brave thing you are doing” is not going to do the same to the girl in the next town doing a Solo but without much publicity. In this case charitable donations are a zero-sum game. The donations are not really for the swim itself, but for the publicity.
  • Much fuss about little.
It’s a 12 person team. Seriously. I was part of a double English Channel relay of five. Lots of you are also relayists. This was actually the bit that made us all chuckle so much initially. Who out there thinks this team are going to be hanging off the back of a re-purposed trawler or sitting on rolls of rope vomiting in the rain while waiting their swim leg? Of course I could be wrong about this.
I am reminded of an incident in Irish Swimming a few years back which some of us will recall. Someone we know here made a very difficult and brave decision to go public on a reported North Channel swim and publicly question its validity (a swim that has never since been validated). He did it because he loved the sport and believed that an unsubstantiated North Channel swim would have severe consequences for the sport if left unchallenged. I think the Richard Branson swim will actually have a similar effect. It will detract from our sport. Celebrities parachuting in, taking lots of media attention, for a not very significant swim, will detract from actual achievements in open water swimming.
Call this what you want. Churlish, ungracious, selfish, unsubstantiated or wrong. Get started on the hate mail. (Yes, I get hate mail).
But don’t call it an isolated opinion.

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