USA Swimming boycotting March open water race in Abu Dhabi
More than four years after the death of open water star Fran Crippen, swimming’s international governing body plans to hold a World Cup race in the United Arab Emirates.
The United States is not happy about that decision.
USA Swimming opposes the March 13 event in Abu Dhabi, saying it was "disappointed" that FINA decided to return to a country where Crippen died during an open water race in October 2010.
American swimmers could still choose to compete in the 10-kilometer race, but the national organization will not provide any financial assistance or support personnel. That makes it highly unlikely that any U.S. athlete will make the trip to the Middle East.
"The U.S. swimming family is still mourning the death of Fran Crippen," said Chuck Wielgus, the executive director of USA Swimming. The organization "has no plans to support or send athletes to the UAE for this event."
An autopsy found the 26-year-old Crippen died from drowning and heat exhaustion, though it didn’t exclude other factors. Due to organizational shortcomings, no one noticed initially when the swimmer from suburban Philadelphia disappeared. His body was found by divers two hours later.
FINA defends the decision to put Abu Dhabi on the World Cup calendar, saying it would be unfair to bar the country from ever hosting another open water race.
"We cannot banish a federation for life," executive director Cornel Marculescu told The Associated Press on Thursday.
He stressed that the March event is dependent on there being no issues at a test event the previous month, which is restricted to local swimmers and will be held under the supervision of FINA’s open water technical committee.
"If that goes well," Marculescu said, "then we will have the world series event in March."
While many swimmers complained that oppressive heat contributed to Crippen’s death, Marculescu noted that the autopsy did not exclude that a heart abnormality or "uncontrolled exercise-induced asthma" in unfavorable race conditions could have been factors.
"Even today, we don’t know why he died," Marculescu said.
As for USA Swimming’s decision to skip the event, he added, "It’s up to them. It’s not mandatory" to compete.
A 2011 report commissioned by USA Swimming determined that Crippen was apparently overcome by the heat, lost consciousness and went under, causing him to drown when no one noticed he was missing. While unsure of the circumstances that allowed that to happen, former International Olympic Committee vice president Dick Pound called it an inexcusable breach of safety.
"How was it that within 300 meters of the finish line a swimmer can go under and nobody see him?" said Pound, who headed a five-member panel.
After conducting its own investigation, FINA said there an "urgent need" to improve safety standards in the grueling sport, which includes races ranging from 5 to 25 kilometers, held on natural courses such as oceans, harbors and lakes. A 10-kilometer race was added to the Olympic program in 2008, and there were no problems in Beijing or London, both of which set up courses on small bodies of water where it was much easier to monitor the competitors.
The inaugural Olympic race was held at Beijing’s rowing and canoeing basin, while London used the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park.
Still, critics say FINA hasn’t gone far enough to improve its safety standards, most notably complaining that the maximum water temperature allowed for races is still too high.
In Abu Dhabi, the average March air temperatures are nowhere near as high as the sweltering summer months. Still, it’s not unusual for the thermometer to rise into the mid- to upper-80s in the desert country.