Tokyo 2020 Olympic Marathon: A Tale Of Two Venues & Swimmer Safety

Fran Crippen - Photo Courtesy:

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Marathon Goes North for runners and walkers – swimmers deserve the same safety protections: time to Go North, move the swim 500 miles upstream


The Coordination Committee for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is meeting in Tokyo this week. If they have a scintilla of interest in the safety and welfare of swimmers they must follow moves in track and field and move the Marathon north to Hokkaido, where the waters and air are cooler and the conditions far more conducive to elite sport.

Last time I looked, there was no Olympic Bathing Contest. We’re talking world-class swimmers racing not far from the pace of the longest pool race, 1500m – over 10km; we’re talking athletes with a mindset never to give up, no matter what; we’re talking about conditions the IOC, FINA and national Olympic associations and federations will place their athletes in and have full responsibility for, with no excuse nor legal let-out allowable.

The International Olympic Committee has already made its mind up for the Marathon of runners and walkers: no Tokyo – too hot, too many doubts, too many risks, so Sapporo on Hokkaido island it is. Wise move.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike had said she wanted the events to stay in the host city – but she will not have to run, nor walk, nor swim.

“It’s not a matter of if the Tokyo government insists, the decision has been taken,” said John Coates, chairman of the IOC’s coordination commission.

The women’s marathon at the recent World Championships in Doha saw 28 of the 68 starters withdraw, Heat, humidity. The duration is the same in a running marathon as the 10km swim: around the 2-hour mark among the best.

When the race is in water, you can’t see the sweat, nor the pain, nor the angst, nor the  anxiety etched on the face of the athlete, nor hear the pound of heart, nor sense the strain of lung, nor add all of that up and consider the mental state of those toiling.

Out of sight should not mean out of mind.

Make no mistake, for all the reasons above and more, the dangers are not only as real but even greater.

Fran Crippen was the first swimmer in history to die in a FINA event. Just last week, on the 9th Commemoration Day of his death, we heard a “For Safety’s Sake” plea from Fran’s parents Pat and Pete. Why? Because FINA continues to allow racing to take place in conditions that exceed its 31.0C upper water-temperature limit, one set as a direct result of the tragic events of 2010.

The American ace lost his life because of the conditions he was placed in during a World Cup event off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in October 2010. You can read one of the inquiry reports in full at the end of this piece on the wise withdrawal of fellow Americans Haley Anderson and Ashley Twichell, who joined their male teammates in a decision backed and advised by USA Swimming to steer clear of the recent World Beach Games in Doha, Qatar.


Ashley Twichell and Haley Anderson – Photo Courtesy: Andy Ross

FINA was asked to comment. It returned no word, as has become its practice on many issues involving athlete safety and welfare. Each time that happens, FINA’s leadership is exposed as lacking leadership skills at the helm of the organisation, not to mention morals, expertise. It is perceived as an organisation void, if not of expertise, of people with the courage to speak out and place athlete safety above their own survival in an organisation thirsting for transparency checks, balances and whole-scale reform.

Here’s what Coates had to say when it came to the move on the marathon of runners and long, fast walkers:

“The IOC was shocked by what we saw in Doha in very similar conditions, in terms of temperature and humidity, to what’s expected here in Tokyo. We didn’t want Tokyo to be remembered for similar images as you will have seen in Doha in the marathon and in the race-walking events.”

So, will Coates, from the land Down Under with some of the finest swimmers the world has ever known down the decades, extend his concerns to the water; will he get on the phone to FINA and insist ‘safety first – for swimmers, too’? Will he note that ‘vigilance’ of the kind missing in the race that costs Fran Crippen his life, is not enough: who wants to see an Olympic marathon with half the field struggling in heat and some unable to finish a treacherous course. We’re not at war: we’re into sport, fair play and safety first.

The wise answer for Coates and Co would be: you bet we’ll intervene. Lives depend on it, as do reputations, now and in the history book that will record the roles people actually played.


Fran Crippen – Never Again … a 2015 Swimming World cover … and since then, races under FINA rules have been held in waters over the 31C limit – Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine

Swimming is a sport with blood on its hands in open water. One death is one too many. Never Again was the mantra and slogan oft heard in the wake of Fran Crippen‘s death. And yet, money and politics (the latter forbidden under the terms of the Olympic Charter) continue to the controlling forces when it comes to choosing open water venues and organisers.

Swimming is a sport that has increasingly been held in places unsuited to swimming, both in terms of the risks of natural circumstances and the lack of organisation skills and knowledge in the specific realm of world-class swimmers and the conditions they need to be at their best.

Ana Cunha, of Brazil, noted of late that swimmers are chasing “hot water” in their preparations for Tokyo 2020. Imagine that, an Olympic marathon a decade after the passing of Fran Crippen and the most valuable lessons learned have, apparently, already been lost to money and politics and time passing.

It need not be. Head north to Sapporo and Hokkaido and we find the home of famous races such as the Tsugaru Channel crossing from Honshu to Hokkaido. Long tried and tested, the waters and weather conditions are calmer, cooler, far more conducive to athlete safety that this:

The Terror In The Teeth Of Tokyo’s Test Events

In August this year, Open Water swimmers lined up to race in the Tokyo 2020 test event. They raced over 5km at Odaiba Marine Park, half the Olympic distance, as part of the ongoing ‘Ready Steady Tokyo’ test event series.

FINA’s statement on the moment included this:

“The International Swimming Federation (FINA) has been keeping a close eye on temperatures in the Japanese capital, stressing that the well-being of the competitors remains its highest priority. The start time for the men’s event, originally scheduled for 10:00 local time, was moved forwards to 07:00, in line with the start of the women’s event.”

Gosh, well, there’s a guarantee. Let’s just move the event by three hours – or perhaps more, depending on what we find on the day.

Of course, the sensible thing would be NOT to leave it to the day, not to have to make last-minute changes in a sport that knows what happened when Fran and mates were told the night before he died that the World Cup race would not be held in the expected and advertised location but would be moved to the other side of a peninsula into different climatic conditions.

And, as it would turn out on a chessboard of debating Sheikhs, moved to a place that was neither nearly as vigilant as it should have been nor ready to host world-class athletes, particularly when FINA had imposed this joyous condition on top of the weather and the hot waters: swimmers must finish the race or forfeit their season earnings.

Imagine that: to you, with your world-class athletic mindset of ‘never give up’, we ask you to toil and boil in a bath at Olympic speed and, no matter what, we’ll make that ‘never give up’ a double jeopardy just to make sure you all turn up, even if you’d rather have not done so.

Experts tend not to flood the FINA top table but they do exist in FINA and out there beyond – and big federations know who they are. Even so, not a single one of them managed to stop the fateful race back in 2010, if indeed any of them tried (the evidence in the inquiry reports of Fran’s passing suggest that no federation raised an official objection to even stop the chain of events that led to a meet being moved in its entirety at the 11th hour, let alone the chain of events that led to the death of a swimmer).

Back to Tokyo And The Heat Of August 2019


Ous Mellouli – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Oussama Mellouli, the 35-year-old US-based Tunisian who claimed Olympic gold in the pool (Beijing 2008) and in the Serpentine (London 2012) said:

“That was the warmest race I’ve ever done. It felt good for the first 2 km then I got super overheated.”

The event started at 7 a.m. – just when FINA thinks it will be ok to start the Olympic Marathon proper in 2020. The air was already over 30 degrees Celsius in a Japanese capital, weltering through a heat wave.

“The water temperature was high so I’m a bit concerned about that,” said Japan’s Yumi Kida, who guzzled iced water before the race in an effort to reduce her body heat.

There’s more: on water quality, David Gerrard from FINA’s medical committee, was optimistic before water tests came back.

“What we have had are readings from the last month, daily readings that have given us very clear indications of the water quality, which has been good.”

Go back a year, and then two years, to October 2017: Tokyo 2020 organisers were left red-faced when tests revealed levels of E. coli bacteria more than 20 times higher than international standards.

In 2018, organisers said tests using underwater “screens” to filter the water had successfully reduced bacteria levels at the venue, which will also host the triathlon.

Of course, you cannot “filter out” E Coli, as Pete Crippen, father of Fran, pointed out to Swimming World last week before the 9th anniversary of his son’s passing.

The question and answer for the Tokyo2020 Coordination Committee this week is simple:

  • Where there is doubt let there be certainty and safety. Where there is doubt about the safety and welfare of athletes and a very obvious and clear alternative is possible – an alternative already taken by the IOC in the interests of marathon runners and walkers – should we not remove that doubt and move the venue now?
  • Yes, without a shadow of a doubt.

FINA, which is on official organisational watch at all Olympic Games aquatics events, should be pressing for the move north. It should be doing that now, without hesitation. Tokyo authorities should understand, rejoice and know that forever more they will be celebrated for putting athletes, their safety and welfare, above politics, pride, money and all those other things prized in competitions where the only winner is the self-serving blazer.

Kirsty Coventry: Please Use Your Voice – and make it Loud and Clear


Kirsty Coventry – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Kirsty Coventry is one of the Athlete Representatives on the Coordination Committee. She knows better than most and possible all at the table what it means to do a set of 20x200m swims at as close-to-race-pace as possible in waters of 29C, never mind race a 10km at top speed in waters that test or exceed the astonishing FINA upper limit of 31C for open water swimming.

Kirsty Coventry‘s upper limit when she twice raced to Olympic gold over 200m backstroke (just four laps of an Olympic pool) was 28C. We need to hear her voice. We need authorities to understand that the Kirsty Coventrys of the world are only valuable as athlete representatives if they are allowed to perform that task in the no-compromise way they approached their athletic careers that made them household names; and they need to do that knowing that their position is ring-fenced and not subject to political whim and dependency on staying on message and observing Olympic omertà.

Athletes deserve safety and they deserve certainty well out from Tokyo 2020. No swimmer should be doing what Cunha says they are: chasing hot water. Madness – and it need not be. Coates and the rest of the IOC should put a stop to it now.

And FINA leadership: you know better than any that you have an eternal duty to Fran Crippen, his family and the memory of what was, what should not have been and what could have been avoided and should be avoided forever more. Go north: win-win.