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Athlete & Expert Evidence Piles Up

Oct 26, 2010  - Craig Lord

The case against those responsible for the 10km race in Fujairah (UAE) in which Fran Crippen (USA) died last Saturday is mounting day after day as more swimmers reveal the dreadful conditions and alleged shortfall of safety measures that they were forced to endure despite pre-race warnings delivered at the official technical meeting.

Christine Jennings, one of Crippen's teammates and among those who suffered health problems during the 10km race, has spoken to reporter Amy Shipley the Washington Post. The swimmer's testimony is galling: she swam in trouble on her back for several minutes during the race but no-one came to her assistance and so she struggled on to the finish, her health and welfare clearly placed in danger.

Jennings words and Shipley's report will surely send a chill up the spines of those who allowed the race to proceed in conditions that ought, if reports are even close to being correct, to have sent warning bells ringing in the ears of all those through the chain of command, from FINA's technical committee upwards to the Executive Director of FINA and those at the helm of the organising committee for the Fujairah race.

The trouble for all those involved in the governance of the event on Saturday is that the knowledge that would surely have helped them heed the warnings of delegates and coaches at the pre-race technical meeting - at an event that was shifted from one location to another within days of the race - was out there. This is not a question of hindsight. The bells were clanging loud and clear. On a fair few levels and themes, none of the "lessons" supposed to now be learned from the tragedy of Fran Crippen's death are new. 

Take sports science. Go back to October 2008 and read this at sportsscientists.com.

Where was the expert advice in Fujairah? FINA has a series of commissions. Those commissions were originally designed to surround the international federation with the expert knowledge across several fields that is essential to running a modern international sports organisation fit for the 21st Century. 

One of the issues for an independent inquiry ought to be this one raised by an expert who wrote to SwimNews to say: "It is an oversight by FINA to not have a group in place to manage these events in a professional way. If the water was as hot as they say it was, then for every degree over 29, the impact of the environment would have increasing consequences and the athletes should be advised accordingly with regards to what they need to do to cope with the conditions.

"This should be a FINA responsibility in a global way, but also to some degree a USA Swimming sports medicine issue, since they should know the impact of temperature (air and water) as it increases over the safe level and pre-race [liquid] intake and racing intake should change accordingly. For example: if athletes are advised to ingest liquid every 1,000m versus the normal 2,500m then it's the athlete's responsibility to do that.  If they don't, then the athlete takes on some level of culpability in the result. I say some level since it sounds to me like the conditions were potentially at a level where the race should not have been put into the hands of people competing for position and money to begin with."

The independent inquiry called by USA Swimming will doubtless look at all such issues. It would also be pertinent, of course, to the independent inquiry that FINA is now under pressure to instigate. FINA's record on self-investigation is not a shining example for those who feel that self-investigation is sufficient. In the early 1990s, its inquiry into the GDR doping years and State Plan 14:25, meant that the international federation had to face the truth and accept it but the damning conclusions of its report and subsequent events in which FINA honorees were handed criminal records by German courts did nothing to remove those criminals from the list of those who wear FINA badges of honour. Among the GDR officials who remain to this day on FINA's list of "pin" winners is Dr Lothar Kipke, a man once described as the "Mengele" of the GDR sports system. The damage to health and welfare of young athletes was legion, yet not a single record was removed, nor a prize removed from the very officials who thumped an anti-doping tub with one hand when in public, while using the other to jab needles full of steroids into the backsides of young teenagers in private. 

The debate that will now follow as a result of Fran Crippen's death is unlikely to be confined to open water and ought to be extended to the wider world of FINA, swimmers, coaches and managers are now saying. Issues of governance were at the eye of the storm in Fujairah, according to delegates and others there on the day, people who now allege that their warnings fell on deaf ears.

"FINA needs to understand what happened and not brush this off as some freak incident, which it wasn't," Jennings told Shipley. "They need to make changes. They signed off on this race. . . . There are a lot of questions I want to ask."

She is far from being alone, the calls for FINA to call an independent inquiry into events growing by the hour.