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Fran Crippen: Inquiry Must Be Independent

Oct 25, 2010  - Craig Lord


A swimmer has died. Too much has been said that preempts proper inquiry and what has been said by officials speaks volumes about the need for independent inquiry - so that the tragedy of Fran Crippen can never be repeated and so that FINA's role if genuinely understood and not left to self-interpretation when the chips are down like never before

A swimmer has died. A family has lost a son, a brother, a grandchild. A sport has lost one of its finest. Coach Jack Roach today performs a professional task that must surely be the saddest and most challenging of his long years in the sport as he receives the body of a USA team member in readiness for repatriation. 

A sorrowful chapter has begun, for the stable of FINA sports has never before lost an athlete in the race (the 1983 Summer Universiade, in Edmonton, Canada, was marred by tragedy when Soviet diver Sergei Chalibashvili died eight days after hitting his head on the platform while attempting a reverse 3½ in competition, though that event was not held under FINA auspices). Tragedy demands different treatment. Let those thoughts be foremost in the minds of the guardians of world aquatic sports as investigations get underway into the death of American Fran Crippen in an Olympic-distance 10km marathon race run by FINA in the United Arab Emirates last Saturday.

SwimNews has heard from swimmers and officials there when the saddest events imaginable unfolded: they believe wholeheartedly that conditions contributed heavily to the death of Fran Crippen. And these are among the first comments of officialdom:

"We are sorry that the guy died but what can we do. This guy was tired and he pushed himself a lot," Ayman Saad, executive director of the UAE swimming association, said. "He went down 400 meters before the finish line" in Fujairah, added Saad. What can we do? Well nothing now (although Mr Saad might try some lessons in how to deal with death). The question is what might have been done to avoid death in the water.

"What we know initially is that he exerted himself more than he could, that's what we know," said FINA President Julio Maglione of Uruguay, attending an International Olympic Committee conference in Acapulco, Mexico. It is a terrible thing to be asked for instant comment in the face of such tragedy and the longer-term considered thought will carry more meaning and weight - but for now it has to be said that, actually, we know no such thing.

Crippen was world-class, a world bronze medallist, a title contender, a supremely fit young man, an athlete who did not sprint away from the pack at the start and then fade from view. He raced in the way that he has proved himself capable of racing all season long. As coach Richard Shoulberg put it: Crippen was as "fit as a fiddle".

The only reason, it seems at this point, that his exertion might have all been too much was the heat in the water: at 30C plus (and swimmers believe that surface heat, sun beating down, was nearer 40C), the temperatures were significantly outside the range deemed unacceptable for swimmers racing 50m in a pool.

UAE Swimming Federation Secretary Saeed Al Hamour told CNN that doctors had determined that severe fatigue was behind Crippen's death by heart failure. Severe fatigue caused by what, is the question pertinent to a man who had gone the distance and done so better than the vast majority many times over, without the need for any medical intervention. We are talking about a supremely fit athlete not a member of the public who trains for a few months to get through a charity marathon.

"The competition was monitored and supervised by the International Swimming Federation. All security measures were taken care of as needed," Al Hamour said. "We've organized so far 14 competitions and championships and never had any death." Irrelevant - for you have one now, which is why the Fujairah police department has opened a file.

All of the above, including on the one hand the gut-instinct of swimmers who suffered but survived on the day and on the other the first somewhat defensive reactions of officials, need to make way for genuine inquiry. FINA's best move would be to invite into its world a genuinely independent inquiry led by a member of the international judiciary or someone of that ilk, a man of woman trained to see both sides but in the end come to a conclusion unfettered by the taint of bias through membership of one interest or another, a man or woman with no side who will consider the stark and bold questions in the cold of a hot and tragic day on October 23, 2010 - and do so without fear of consequence to friendships, professional or business relationships.

Among the questions that need addressing:

  • did a medical officer pass Fran Crippen as fit to compete that day?
  • was there any sign that the swimmer was unfit to race before he took the plunge?
  • did swimmers raise questions about water temperatures at the venue?
  • were there sufficient guide boats and escorts to monitor every swimmer in the race?
  • given that Crippen's death appears to have occurred just 400m from the finish line, were there no lifeguards on the shore ready to take the plunbge precisely in the event of a swimmer going down?
  • were the FINA referee, the safety officer and the medical officer, all three positions carrying weight of responsibility under FINA rules, aware of the concerns expressed by swimmers and officials, including coaches, about water temperatures before the race?
  • were members of the FINA executive made aware of concerns among swimmers that the race was being held in unsuitable conditions? 
  • why is is unacceptable for 50m swimmers to race in temperatures over 28C when open water swimmers are not protected by any upper temperature limit by the same FINA rule book?
  • did FINA have a sports science team in place, did USA Swimming have a sports science team in place - for studies exist that would surely have told organisers that holding the race in 33C carried immense risks (and more on that at a later point).

Such questions cannot be put and answered by the same set of people. Not only is it likely that the questions would not be framed in quite the same way but the answers given to members of a club by fellow members of that club are unlikely to be as clear as the clarity demanded when a human being loses his life. Officials fear blame. It is an understandable reaction. But what is called for here is understanding so that change can be made. If then an independent judicial authority decides that blame needs to be apportioned, so be it.

FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu was right to say: "We have to wait for the investigation and then we will come up with our position on this. Otherwise it’s only speculation."

Gunnar Werner, FINA veteran, retired Swedish Judge and a member of FINA’s legal commission, is to lead FINA's investigation. He was due to arrive in the UAE Sunday. "When he finishes his inquiry we’ll put out our position," Marculescu said. "We understand that they have the medical report in Arabic and they will translate it to English and send it to us. This is a swimmer with a lot of experience. He was a fantastic guy and he came from a big swimming family. We’ve never had something like that happen in our sport before. I’m sorry for him and his family."

Nothing wrong with the above position - and quite right that FINA should look into its own affairs. But when death is the question, then FINA would be wise to also invite independent judgement.

FINA has held self-inquiry before, on doping, suits and other topics. This is wholly different. The only way forward is an independent inquiry, out of respect for Crippen and his family, and in the best interests of aquatic sports, its protagonists and those who run the show.