The death of US Olympic swimming hopeful Fran Crippen while competing in the United Arab Emirates this weekend has kicked off a flurry of criticism. While concerns have focused on how the event was managed, Crippen's death also highlights the extraordinary demands elite athletes face today as they strive to best decades of modern records – ostensibly coming closer to the ultimate limits of the human body.
Crippen, the 2009 bronze medalist in 10 km open-water swimming, died near the end of a World Cup of the same distance in Fajuirah, east of Dubai. According to international rules, he was required to finish the event – held in unusually warm water – in order to collect prize money awarded for the overall circuit.
Early reports said his teammate – not lifeguards or race staff – was the first to realize he was missing. Deep-sea divers found his body two hours later.
Crippen's sister says he wrote letters about safety concerns
The event – the last in a series of marathon World Cups – was overseen by the international swimming federation, FINA. The federation has promised an inquiry. But it said that the event, which was hosted by the UAE's swimming federation, appeared to be in accord with safety standards.
“What we know initially is that he exerted himself more than he could, that’s what we know,” said FINA President Julio Maglione of Uruguay, attending an International Olympic Committee conference in Acapulco, Mexico. “The medical report said it was huge overexertion, that’s what they told me."
But the winner of the race and Crippen's sister, Maddy, raised concerns about a lack of safety measures and poor management of the race.
"My goal is to talk to everyone who was there and to hear exactly who was there and what safety measures were there," said Ms. Crippen on "Good Morning America."
"But the one thing that I do know is that in the months leading up to this event my brother had written letters to different organizing committees about safety, the number of people that were there, the doctors that should be there, the support staff and the lack thereof," she said.
USA Swimming planning to lead major review
One major concern was how hot the water was. FINA sets the maximum temperature for pool races at 25- 28 degrees Celsius (77-82 degrees Fahrenheit). There is no maximum limit in open-water races such as Saturday's, but swimmers estimated the temperature was significantly outside of the range deemed acceptable in a pool.
"The water was amazingly hot. For sure, it was more than 30 degrees [Celsius, or 86 degrees Fahrenheit]," said winner Thomas Lurz of Germany, according to the Associated Press. "Nobody thought such things like yesterday could happen. ...It shows it was really just too hot. It was not just one swimmer. There were many swimmers who had serious problems in the water."
USA Swimming is seeking a major review of how open-water races are held, according to Swimming World. "USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus... has already stated several times that USA Swimming plans on taking a leadership role in pushing for stronger water safety with the sport of open water, and most particularly those swims sanctioned by FINA, in hopes to guarantee that such a death will never happen again," wrote Swimming World.
Are sports getting too extreme?
While deaths of elite athletes are extremely rare – swimming officials said Crippen's case was the first they knew of – there have been several other recent examples. US runner Ryan Shay collapsed in the 2007 Olympic marathon trials in New York City and was pronounced dead.
And the fatal crash of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on an unprecedentedly difficult track at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics raised questions about whether international sports officials have gone over the line in attempt to make top-level competition thrilling for spectators and exhilarating for athletes.
The 10-km open-water event Crippen competed in this weekend is a grueling race, lasting nearly as long as a running marathon. At this weekend's race in the UAE, Crippen reportedly told his coach earlier in the race that he wasn't feeling well, but continued anyway. Three other swimmers were hospitalized after the race, and Lurz said still others exhibited symptoms related to the heat.
“I’m sure he tried everything because he is a sportsman, he had a heart as [a] sportsman,” said Lurz, the winner. “He would never give up.”