Report into Crippen’s death condemns race safety

Posted April 15, 2011, at 9:26 p.m.

GENEVA — A panel investigating the death of open-water swimmer Fran Crippen during an October race in United Arab Emirates said Friday that there is an “urgent need” to improve the sport’s safety standards.

An independent task force appointed by FINA, swimming’s governing body, following the drowning of the 26-year-old American said some rules were not followed by organizers in Fujairah or race officials.

The five-member panel led by Gunnar Werner, a Swedish lawyer and former FINA vice president, challenged the organization’s leaders to respond to about 60 recommendations.

The task force called on FINA to create working groups to help update the rules and “keep up with the sport as it moves forward as an Olympic sport.”

Crippen, a six-time U.S. national champion from suburban Philadelphia, died near the end of a 10-kilometer marathon World Cup event in warm temperatures. No one noticed him slip beneath the surface and his body was not found until two hours later.

“There is an urgent need for an organizational commitment to athlete safety as a top priority,” the report concluded.

Crippen’s death was the first competitive fatality in FINA’s history. FINA published the report on its website and in a news release Friday without accompanying comment, two days after scathing criticism from former International Olympic Committee vice president Dick Pound, who headed a separate investigation for USA Swimming.

Crippen’s coach, Dick Shoulberg, said FINA only released the report after Pound complained that his five-member commission received no cooperation from the international governing body, despite numerous requests for information about the swimmer’s death.

“I think FINA realized after listening to Dick Pound’s comments about not cooperating and everyone saying it was giving FINA a big black eye, they came to the realization that they had better speak up,” Shoulberg told The Associated Press. “I’m so happy that they did speak up.”

But Shoulberg said he and Crippen’s family intend to keep the pressure on FINA until the safety recommendations are adopted.

“We can’t let up until everything’s definite,” the coach said. “We want safety in open water. We want to make sure someone has a set of eyes on every kid.”

Shoulberg also called on FINA to reconsider holding open-water races in Shanghai this summer as part of the aquatic world championships.

Already, he said, USA Swimming is reconsidering a June qualifying meet in Fort Myers, Fla., because of concerns the temperature might exceed the limits recommended by Pound’s commission — a water temperature of 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit or a combined water and air temperature of 145.4 degrees.

“The people in FINA need to move that race from Shanghai,” Shoulberg said. “There’s no way it can’t be hot in Shanghai.”

The FINA report noted that Crippen was a swimmer who “represented the United States and most importantly his family with the utmost devotion, pride and honor in everything he did.”

The report detailed the autopsy, which concluded that he died from drowning and heat exhaustion. However, the report did not exclude that a heart abnormality could have been a factor or “uncontrolled exercise-induced asthma” in unfavorable race conditions.

Werner’s panel examined a “multitude of factors” that may have contributed to creating such a dangerous race environment.

FINA’s open-water regulations were “too vague, leaving room for interpretation,” the report said. Even those inadequate rules were “not addressed or properly implemented at the Fujairah event by the organizing committee and the FINA representative.”

The course had no mandatory health and safety certificate, and organizers had no liability insurance demanded by FINA, the task force said.

While Fujairah met FINA’s standard for providing rescue boats, the rules did not stipulate how they should be equipped or positioned, or require pilots to have lifesaving skills.

“Inadequate surveillance and safety measures made it difficult, and at times impossible to recognize and act upon an athlete in distress,” the report said.

The autopsy noted that water temperatures last Oct. 26 were in the mid-80s with an air temperature above 100 — far above the recommended limits in the Pound report.

Werner’s team noted that existing FINA rules had no recommended upper temperature limit for racing.

The report urged FINA to prevent racing in water above 82.4 degrees, and look at a safe ratio of combined air and water temperatures. Water and air quality standards also should be confirmed by international organizations.

FINA should introduce medical action plans for organizers and consider using GPS technology to track swimmers, the report advised.

A World Cup rule requiring swimmers to complete the final open-water race also should be scrapped. Crippen perhaps continued at the season-ending Fujairah event “despite feeling distressed or fatigued” because of the rule, the report suggested.

FINA was asked to re-examine its bidding process for awarding events, and to require better facilities before cities and federations could be considered.

Werner’s team was asked to supply an “independent, unbiased and transparent report” and propose “useful, effective and firm recommendations” to improve the sport.

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AP National Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this report.

 

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