Gladiator or gentleman yogi

Where is competitive freediving heading

By: Sebastian Naslund

There has been one question, one issue since the start of competetive freediving that has divided the freedivers. What kind of control should the freediver show upon surfacing? The answer has been anything from:

1) just keep your head above the surface and survive.

2) deliver a series of signals while showing not the slightest sign of LMC (twitches due to hypoxia).

What kind of rules does Aida need in order to grow as a sport?


Aida is the main federation that validates records and keeps a ranking list from some 40+ competitions a year. It has grown to be an organization of 41 member states of which most are very small. They have very few active members and not much activity among them, as compared to the numerous CMAS organizations around the world with 1000´s of clubs and 10th of thousands of divers.

But still Aida has developed performance freediving ever since 1994 and it is within the Aida community we put our hopes for a prosperous future of competitive freediving.

Is Aida up to the job?

The resources of Aida today

- The loyalty of the freedivers to the idea of Aida.

- The rules (that has been developed through the years)

- The educated judges (the wardens of the rules).

- The education system (generating lots of income to Aida, selling the brand)

- The instructors (Their reputation will decide if Aida can be a major player on the education market).

- The statutes and the working procedures of the organization. (will the leaders keep the respect of the freedivers?)

- Money (Yes Aida has money, what it does with it not even the members knows).

All freedivers and just about every top level freediver has shown loyalty to Aida and prioritized Aida world records and world championships. The real test of this loyalty will come the day money move into the sport. The day there is a non Aida competition with huge amounts of prize money and full media coverage. When this competition challenges the Aida World Championship.

Lack of drama

This brings us back to the core issue. Are Aida rules media friendly? Media shapes the perception of our sport. No matter what press releases or internet pages Aida develops.

Media will always write articles and do documentaries and praising the gentleman approach to freediving. Freedivers sitting crosslegged meditating under water, claiming they can lower their heart rate by will. This myth will always be maintained. But real media coverage is when our sport is portrayed just like a sport, a competition between individuals. That does not happen often.

Unfortunately it is hard to make freediving exciting for the non freediver (and even for the freedivers themselves). In fotboll there is drama every time a ball is kicked by a player. How does he think, where will he shoot the ball, will he succeed, what is the position of his opponents, his team mates? Every second a small drama is played out within a bigger drama. In short – the worlds biggest sport, with the worlds biggest audience.

But freediving is not a team sport. Freediving is something else, slower in the way the game evolves. No interaction between team mates or opponents. It is basically a one man sport even in a competition. That is why those that wants to do away with record attempts have not succeeded. Record attempts is so much linked to the history of the sport and its essence. One man against the challenges the ocean. It fits perfectly with the yogi-myth. But yogis does not come out of a dive with violent spasms, with no recollection of what happened.

The same question over and over

The Aida community has always debated the Surface Protocol. What shall a freediver do in order to get a white card (approved)? It started out with just asking the athlete to stay above the surface with the head and show an OK sign. An LMC rule was added. No shaking due to hypoxia (even blank staring) was allowed after the dive. This proved very hard to judge objectively. After a vote that divided the organization. The LMC rule was done away with. Many athletes where fed up with subjective ruling, the defenders of the rule clamed more judge education was needed.

The new Surface protocol was harder, first 20 seconds, then 15 seconds during which the athlete must remove face equipment, make and OK sign and say I am OK. It was thought that it would more or less not be possible to do this with heavy LMC. The international board of Aida did not bother to try the rule out, or in any way describe what variations of these three tasks would be accepted. A degree of subjectivity remained.

It was not taken into account that hypoxia disorientates freedivers that pushes themselves to the edge: they make extra movements, turn in different directions, different Ok signs, make strange sounds when speech muscles are affected by LMC. (The rules where more detailed in the following two rule-updates).


Then Swedish freediver Jens Schou appeared. He managed to do the SP in the right order towards the judge, within in time – with one of the heaviest LMC´s competitive freediving has ever seen. And it was all filmed and put on internet. A freak occurrence said the defenders of the new rule. But the freak occurrence appeared again, and by other freedivers.

The board added another rule – the post blackout mechanical movements (PBOMM). It was claimed that in a heavy LMC there is something that is actually a blackout. The freediver drifting in and out of consciousness every half second. This producing very clear nods with the head (sometimes the whole body). A more distinct shaking in comparison with LMC. At first (for a long time) there was no description of what a PBOMM looked like. Later a description was added.

With or without LMC

No one that has experience would argue against the fact that by adjusting the rules we can control how the athletes behave. We can quite accurately adjust how close to LMC/BO they will go. It’s a question of political will. The search has been for an easy objective way to judge, as well as keeping LMC out of the sport. The inventors and defenders of the SP-rule and PBOMM addition, where wrong in their claim that it would keep LMC out of the sport.

LMC is heavily present in the sport. The nature of the SP also dictates how close to BO the athletes are willing to go in order to claim the record or the medal. The winners of the last World Championship walked away with some 2000 euro of prizes, and lots of honour and some media cover and some happy personal sponsors. That is worth some shaking by the line.

Spectator sport

Including the athletes themselves some 300 people where watching the finals in the World Championships in Aarhus Denmark, the biggest gathering of freedivers ever. There was sport commentating, under water cameras and some very spectacular dives with athletes coming up on the edge of BO fighting with heavy LMC trying and in many cases succeeding to do the SP. The audience standing in their seats where gasping apparently taken in by the drama. The last WC saw numerous blackouts. Watched with great curiosity by freedivers and non-freedivers alike. There where those in the audience that found blackouts a scary thing, but still they were fascinated.

So the big question is…

Do we want athletes pushing it to the limit, fighting with the SP at the end. Adding that kind of drama that can be found in other sports: will he make it or not!? Look at the way he is fighting to regain control.

Audience and media are one unit, they are linked. Will the audience like the PBOMM fighting? It is easy to say that a clear majority does. So does media. They want drama. A few will turn their faces and shy away from this gladiator spectacle, but most will stay and watch with awe.

If Aida chooses this way, freediving will still be portrayed as one of the most dangerous sports in the world. Which will feel odd for the athletes, since they all know it is one of the safest sports in the world. And still, while media might want the Gladiator angle, does the freedivers themselves want this?

The most dangerous sport in the world

If looking at competitive freediving and its athletes it is not a dangerous game if done by the safety standards that has evolved during the years.

CMAS left the world record validating scene because they said I was becoming dangerous. Maybe it was. Aida was created and took over, evolved and spread. While the CMAS watched and did nothing, the Aida community learned and developed safety standards.

For the CMAS and its members pushing yourself in freediving has been a tabu. Thus no detailed understanding of the sport has evolved in this organization. As Aida divers pushed on by trial and error they started to understand the mechanisms of breath hold and blackouts, they adjusted training methods and safety set ups accordingly.

Is a blackout dangerous?

If you are alone or among people that does not understand freediving a blackout in water might be your death. If instead among trained divebuddies it is more like a short fainting that most likely leaves no permanent damage.

But is that true? Well is neither true nor false. We see freedivers again and again blacking out under water, taken to the surface with no water in their lungs, regaining consciousness mostly within 10-30 seconds, and at the most feel a slight headache (if no squeeze or ear barotrauma has been suffered). Will a BO leave some kind of scar, will repeated BO´s lead to some permanent damage? Will all hard training freedivers have Parkinssons disease at the end of their lives? We just don’t know. But there are no real indications that they will have.

A study in Sweden is sometimes used as proof that freediving is dangerous. Several freedivers held their breath until low values of O2 saturation. One held his breath for 7 minutes until only seconds away from BO. The scientist measures markers for brain damage. And yes they find signs of brain damage (if long term or short term they can not say). But what they can say is that the level of brain damage is as much as when a football player heads a ball that the goalkeeper kicked out. And this happens again and again every day watched by millions of people cheering at them.

No the smoking gun that proves long term damage of freediving has yet to be found.

The ones that talks about safety issues when it comes to an athlete dipping airways for a second after a performance are getting fewer and fewer – statistics speaks for itself.

Moral panic

It is somehow that freediving is judged differently just because it is done under water, in a (for the journalist) hostile environment.

Journalist likes to spoke the audience, or feel responsible by warning the audience. “Look someone fainted in a pool, lets ban breath holding”. And many doctors play along taking the stance of a responsible general practitioner and suggesting a ban on everything that looks remotely dangerous. They oversee the whole picture and lacks the attitude of a dedicated sports doctor with apnea knowledge. Top level freedivers are not small children that are unaware of risks. Adventure sports are about taking risks.

Whatever the freedivers do, competitions in freediving will most likely always be PERCEIVED as dangerous by the few interested in audience and media. Mainly because media now and then writes the same article over and over. They WANT it to be dangerous, its a better story.

And as many has said: sponsors are not deterred by a sport perceived as hard core. It just attracts OTHER kind of sponsors. Or in our case hardly any.

Conclusion. We can go with the perceived image of our sport and work from there. Or we can continue to try and educate media/audience about the fact that it LOOKS bad but most likely isn’t (that’s an up hill struggle trying to win that fight). Right now we are sort of taking both roads.

Should we get rid of PBOMM and move towards survival rules?

By using the rules of competitive freediving Aida can set the standard of what is an approved dive. Because these dives will be seen on TV and on Youtube. Young divers will follow the example of the winners. We already see at courses and at recreational level freediving that divers can call a dive with an LMC a personal best.

Seeing the difference between LMC and PBOMM isn’t that hard if you are a good judge. You just have to see many, even feel the difference yourself. An additional problem is the fact that some judges are reluctant to show red cards, specially in world championships and specially not to famous athletes.

We could remove PBOMM and the following will happen:

- More BO, more LMC.

- Easier judging, more fair treatment of athletes.

- The sport will be perceived as even more dangerous.

- Competitions would not really get any more dangerous.

(but training among beginners most likely will).

And lets face it: an LMC and PBOMM surfacing doesn’t not look like control. Freediving could be a gentleman's sport, and about body awareness, and knowing your limits. Done in style. But it is moving towards a more gladiator kind of sport (which actually I believe will adhere to media, audience and sponsors (the three are linked)).

What we do with the SP/PBPMM rule will decide which road we take.