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FINA Punishes Man At Helm When Fran Died

Feb 17, 2011  - Craig Lord

The FINA Bureau, including the link man, or liaison, for the federation's Technical Open Water Committee, Dennis Miller, of Fiji, have dropped two key officials from their list of head referees, including the man in charge for FINA when Fran Crippen (USA) died in hot waters off the coast of Fujairah, UAE, on October 23 last year.

Valerijus Belovas, of Lithuania, and leading light in the American open water world, Steven Munatones, a long-time campaigner for safety in the sport, have been informed by Miller and FINA's executive director Cornel Marculescu, that their services as head referees are no longer required. 

The decision was taken at the latest meeting of the Bureau in Frankfurt. In the case of Belovas, the move is being interpreted widely as a punishment directly related to the events of October 23. The decision on Munatones is more worrying for many in all FINA sports watching to see how the federation will handle the Crippen Inquiry and how it will deal with the harsh lessons that flow from the only in-competition death and the biggest tragedy in FINA's 103-year history.

Munatones was not involved in events in Fujairah, where tragic events highlighted a cultural problem within FINA when it comes to transparency and crisis management, including open discussion about the organisation of a sport, including the responsibilities of FINA and its representatives, that has been held up as an example of a sport that has not been run with the best interests of athletes in mind, while falling down on rules and competition protocols fit for purpose.

A source told SwimNews that the American, a leading figure in the open water world, has been punished for "speaking to the media about internal affairs". Many argue that there is nothing internal about the death of a swimmer and that all issues should be transparent, with honesty, however painful, the only path to progress worth taking, the only path likely to result in meaningful change of the kind that Crippen himself had called for.

In that context, the decision on Munatones is baffling. The world media database confirms that he has been quoted, along with many others, on open water safety and indeed the death of Fran Crippen. His thoughts on some of the issues can be heard here at Swimming World TV.

Munatones runs the Open Water Source website, where you can find information about the Protecting Athletes: Open Water Safety Conference in San Francisco next month, alongside other members of the TOWSC.

However, there is nothing to be found that would suggest Munatones, a member of the FINA TOWSC, has been indiscreet and shared what FINA may consider to be confidential information. For the record, SwimNews did not rely on Munatones for a single word of our article headlined Fran Crippen: The Questions Facing FINA.

That article does refer to the case of Belovas, however, and noted the words that he sent in a mail (not to SwimNews) in the wake of the tragedy in Fujairah: "Organisation of the competition in Fujairah did not differ at all from what I have been observing for as long as 15 years. Organisation of other FINA events was even worse ... I would like to emphasize that what happened during the World Cup in Fujairah could happen during any competition. ... We need new specifications, requirements to the organization of safety during competitions and it is namely us who have to do this. I am very sorry about what has happened and declare that there were no violations of the competition organization applied in our usual practice during the World Cup in Fujairah."

While Belovas's role on October 23 leaves the official with questions to answer, the tone of the quote above cuts to the heart of the problem that FINA must resolve: "I would like to emphasize that what happened during the World Cup in Fujairah could happen during any competition. ... We need new specifications, requirements to the organization of safety during competitions and it is namely us who have to do this" - in other words, we have not been running the sport to the required standard to ensure the safety of athletes and as such changes are of the utmost importance.

Against that backdrop, many in aquatic sports have been flabbergasted by the fact that FINA did not suspend its open water circuit this season until the results and recommendations of the Crippen Inquiry are revealed and necessary changes, many demanded by the world's leading open water swimmers in an 11-point plan sent to FINA, made. When complaints, including one from Fran Crippen's father Peter, were made that the UAE continues to appear on the current open water circuit, Marculescu explained the federation's dilemma and nodded to contractual and legal obligations: "We don't confirm that we will go there [by including UAE on the schedule] nor do we wish to take any decision until we have the decisions of the task force [investigating Fran Crippen's death].

"We are on standby. We can't take it [UAE] out, it's too early. There is no official confirmation [from the task force] about what happened but there is a contract there. Legally we cannot say we will not go there until we have something on the table to tell us what happened."

The report of the FINA task force is expected to be made public in March, around the time that a parallel report is due from an independent inquiry called for by USA Swimming. No specific date has yet been set for either report to appear, the nature of inquiries complex and multi-facetted.

Meanwhile, in an open water tragedy before the world of FINA, the body of Nick Mellet, a South African open water swimmer was found four days after he disappeared in the Midmar Mile in Pietermaritzburg at the weekend. He had suffered a heart attack. The event saw 15,000 swimmers take part in a race witnessed by Charlene Wittstock, wife-in-waiting of Prince Albert of Monaco.