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FINA: New Open Water Rules Due ASAP

Apr 17, 2011  - Craig Lord

FINA's Open Water Swimming Technical Committee is to work with the International Triathlon Union and the International Olympic Committee Sports Medicine Committee to fine tune the detail of recommendations made by two inquiries into the death of American swimmer Fran Crippen in a 10km marathon race off the coast of UAE last October.

Cornel Marculescu, chief executive of FINA, told SwimNews from Shanghai that recommendations contained in the FINA Task Force report and the independent investigation of an Open Water Review Commission led by Dick Pound on behalf of USA Swimming could not wait until the world championships in July and would be implemented as soon as the scientific foundation was established for ambient temperature parameters.

The FINA Bureau is not scheduled to meet until July but Marculescu said:  "Not in Shanghai but from now. The working group will start their work this week." He added: We fought hard to have in our hands an Olympic event and we have to take it seriously."

The race that would end in tragedy on October 23 last year in Fujairah took place at noon when water temperatures were said to have been over 31C and surface temperatures over 40C. The heat and related issues of feeding stations and the number and types of safety vehicles were raised as issues of concern by swimmers, coaches and managers on the eve of racing - but the race, the venue for which was switched at the 11th hour - went ahead as planned.

Fran Crippen, who would have turned 27 years old today, drowned, the autopsy report confirmed, while citing heat exhaustion as among most probable causes in what led to one of the world's fittest swimmers drowning.  At the end of the race as swimmers joined others in searching for Crippen, whose disappearance from the race had not been noticed, several other athletes had to be hospitalised and given shoreside treatment for heat exhaustion. At the world open water championships in Roberval in Canada last yearn, swimmers complained that the water was too cold, at around 16C. 

"We are sincerely sorry for what happened," said Marculescu. "It is very important that happens now  is that we get the technical committee working this week with the IOC sports medicine committee and the triathlon federation … we will establish a working group because we need to have a scientific basis for the temperature levels [maximum and minimum and not only the water]."

Contrary to the assertions of some senior figures in the sport and the criticism handed down by Pound and USA Swimming when it released the recommendations of its Commission last Wednesday,  the director denied that there had been any attempt to withhold information from the US team and also denied that the FINA Task Force report had been returned to the panel of experts charged with investigating Fran Crippen's death.  He acknowledged that there had been "misunderstandings".

"That [the Task Force report published on Friday] is the only version. I have never spoken to the Task Force, not even had lunch or dinner with them," said Marculescu. "We decided to put it out on Friday because of the misunderstanding of our position. It was not [a question of] saying 'no' or 'yes' to US swimming [FINA task force/US Commission]. There was a misunderstanding because [contact] was made by a private firm [of lawyers] working in New York. There was confusion over that." 

Sensitivity over the death, "respect for Fran Crippen" and compassion for the Crippen family had led to FINA being caution when releasing any information, said Marculescu. "But we were not involved in their [task force] work. They were free to say what they wanted - and you see from the report, they did (sic)."

However uncomfortable it may be for FINA, the director indicated, it was critical that the federation "put out a proper and transparent job". He admitted that mistakes had been made but sought to distance those as being directly  linked to the death of Fran Crippen.

"We have made mistakes, there are mistakes," said Marculescu. "However those did not lead to the tragedy. It is difficult to see what the circumstances were. Not everything was perfect but that was not the reason why this tragedy happened."

In implied criticism of USA Swimming, which had no official representative for its swimmers in Fujairah last October, Marculescu: "From now you cannot enter any more without having your coach there. You can't go around the world without a designated federation coach." Until now swimmers had represented their federation but also themselves, travelling to FINA open water races without full official backing from their federation, without realising, perhaps, that official liability rested with federations represented by athletes.  "Our entry form is very clear … all liability [rests with] the federation, except in the case of negligence."

Marculescu is in Shanghai for updates and meetings for the FINA World Championships to be held there in July. He and representatives of the OWSTC, Dennis Miller and Ronny Wong, would meet tomorrow with organisers to choose one of two venues for the open water events, one a rowing basin the other a protected sea stretch of coastal water. That meeting would also look at charts relating to weather and environment norms for the time of the year in which racing will be held in July. 

Marculescu agreed that FINA had learned harsh lessons from the tragic death of Fran Crippen and suggested that there would be no short cuts in the implementation of a new regime in open water. He lamented the fact that the flow of information related to events on October 23 last year  had contributed to "misunderstanding", adding that transparency and communication were issues that FINA needed to make improvements on.