By David Rieder
CHARLESTON − FINA confirmed Thursday that it will indeed return the 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup to the United Arab Emirates for the first time since October 23, 2010, when American Fran Crippen died less than a kilometer from the finish.
Prior to Thursday’s announcement, USA Swimming had already announced it would not financially support any swimmer planning to compete in Abu Dhabi, and members of the swimming community have already spoken out in disgust with FINA. But the governing body’s return the UAE should not be what has everyone up in arms.
When the race goes off on March 13, it will have been more than four years since Crippen died in nearly-90 degree water in Fujairah. Despite his death, FINA should not punish the UAE forever. If the federation is in good standing, can financially support such an event, and can provide proper safety for the swim, no one should fault FINA for returning to the UAE. However, FINA does deserve to be blasted for the manner in which they are going back.
Swimming World reported Thursday that FINA has tripled the prize pool for the race relative to any other World Cup event in order to incentivize the world’s best open water swimmers to make the trek to Abu Dhabi. They set the date knowing it would conflict with the Crippen Cup 10K − an event explicitly to honor the memory of the open water standout − set for two weeks later in Florida. And, perhaps most disgustingly of all, they are allowing the man in charge of the race where Crippen died to organize this new event in the UAE.
Let’s begin with FINA providing extra incentive for swimmers to come to the event in Abu Dhabi. In the fateful race that led to Crippen’s death, the UAE did not have enough safety officials on the course to even notice that Crippen had disappeared underwater. The UAE has already shown they cannot handle too big a field, and yet FINA is trying to incentivize more athletes − many of them dependent on prize money from races just like this − to attend?
Before holding another event in the UAE, FINA should hold a smaller test event to prove that the federation is capable of meeting the safety standards of a bigger race. Even if the March 13 race in Abu Dhabi does go off without a hitch, the ends do not justify the means; FINA and the UAE must have every possible precaution in place and not just bank on the probability that tragedy will be avoided.
But FINA has proven repeatedly that, even in the wake of the Crippen disaster, they still don’t prioritize swimmer safety. After Crippen died from the intense heat during the race in Fujairah, FINA instituted a rule that was supposed to prevent any race from proceeding at temperatures above 31 degrees Celsius. But less than a year later, at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, FINA refused to stop the 25K race when the temperatures reached that mark.
Many of the top athletes in that race, including both reigning World Champions, withdrew before the race began, while others, including the USA’s Claire Thompson, were pulled from the water during the race. As soon as the temperature reached 31, the race should have stopped immediately. FINA turned a blind eye to safety in 2011, and they could be doing the same here.
And during the race the swimmers’ safety will be at the mercy of Ayman Saad, who remarkably still has his job as Executive Director of the UAE swimming federation. Saad, responsible for the 2010 event in which Crippen died and, ultimately, the safety of the athletes in that race, asked the FINA Open Water Technical Committee to triple the prize money for the event to encourage attendance. The Committee agreed, in violation of their own rules.
Before any athlete considers attending to the March 13 race in Abu Dhabi, I ask them to remember Saad’s words in the wake of Crippen’s death: “We are sorry that the guy died but what can we do. This guy was tired and he pushed himself a lot.” Mr. Saad, most athletes have to push themselves a lot to swim all-out for two hours, and, yes, most of them will be rather tired at the end. Only once, in your race, did a swimmer die from overexertion.
FINA has entrusted Saad and his federation to host another major open water event without ensuring extra safety precautions and is tempting athletes to attend by dangling money in their faces. Fran Crippen’s death was the greatest tragedy swimming has seen in recent memory. But maybe the greater tragedy is watching FINA make a mockery of his legacy, a slap in the face to his family, friends, teammates, and all those who want to honor his memory.