The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series
“We all know that silence during WW2 killed millions of people. We also know that corruption and greed in FINA killed Fran Crippen“ – that’s the reminder that USA Swimming received recently with a plea for the world’s most powerful swim federation to hold FINA’s feet to the fire on athlete safety.
The statement is stark, one likely to set various folk wearing blazers bristling, scoffing and shaking their heads, just as the wider world of swimming shrugs with sadness as if to say ‘this much we knew’.
Silence, corruption and greed. Have they been at play in world swimming? There is plenty of evidence that would explain a communal nod with ripples and Mexican waves washing back from far and wide in answer to the question: ‘what do you think of FINA’s leadership?’
Today would have been the 34th birthday of Fran Crippen. He was a son, a brother, a club and USA teammate. He may by now have been a husband, a father. Life and all of that was lost to him and those who loved him on October 23, 2010, as a direct consequence of failings in the organisation of a FINA open water World Cup event off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, according to two reports into the death of the American swimmer that fateful day.
In a series of emails to the leadership of USA Swimming in the past several months, Coach Dick Shoulberg – who guided Crippen in the water and beyond, his relationship extending to the Crippen family in the way that good partnerships in the pool often do – asks:
- When are we going to take action of the head of FINA open water to remove him from his responsibilities?
- When is FINA going to check worldly temperatures and average temperatures of venues before they inform that the venues are not safe for competition?
The questions stem from one of the latest events that confirms FINA’s culture of going along to get along takes priority over athlete interests and safety for the leadership of international and domestic federations at every turn. As you read this reminder of an extract from our May 2017 archive, keep in mind that the higher limits of water temperature in open water events made the FINA rule book as a direct consequence of Fran Crippen’s death:
Richard Shoulberg, the coach and mentor to the late Fran Crippen has called on USA Swimming to put its foot down with FINA and demand an explanation and consequences after the 10km events at the Asian Open Water Championships was held in waters off the Malaysian coast at 31.9 degrees Celsius last weekend.
The FINA limit since two inquiries recommended that temperature limits and other race conditions be imposed after American ace Crippen died in a badly flawed FINA world cup event off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in 2010 has been what pool swimmers covering much shorter distances would consider as a warm 31C (the pool water upper limit for those racing just 50m is 3C cooler).
FINA official Ronnie Wong, who served as chairman of the international federation’s Technical Open Water Swimming Committee when it established rule OWS 5.5 (specifying temperature limits), is the man cited as giving a thumbs up to the race off Malaysia that was swum in 31.9C, around the same temperature as waters in which Fran Crippen died in 2010…
Team Japan complained but no-one else did and Wong and other FINA officials dismissed the correct protest of Japan and let the race go on.
Japan proved the hero of the hour, day and Open Water in this latest year of FINA folly: it pulled its entire team from the Asian championships, placing athlete safety over all else.
All of that despite the death of Fran Crippen, followed by the promotion up the FINA ranks of the man in charge on the day and the two inquiry reports that followed before the UAE was handed back its world cup event.
End of archive – but not the living history of the death of a swimmer and how the FINA leadership continue to play a direct role in doing the wrong thing.
Just three years after Crippen’s death, FINA was planning to return its cup event to the UAE – and then did so after just four years. The decision led to USA boycott – not one that came from USA Swimming but the athletes themselves.
Alex Meyer, the USA swimmer who helped to search for teammate and friend Crippen at the end of the tragic 2010 race, wrote to FINA in 2014 to oppose the UAE’s involvement. To host an event where Crippen died would “fly in the face of human decency”, wrote Meyer. His note also noted:
“Mr. Ayman Saad [the man promoted by FINA after Crippen’s death] and his organizing committee executed the World Cup race in 2010 with such gross incompetence and negligence (and handled the aftermath just as poorly) that I don’t believe they should ever be given a second chance.”
Move on four years – and we know what other poor outcomes are out there. A race at which water temperatures clearly tested upper limits competition set for an 8am start was moved to a 6am start so that officials could measure the water temperatures at 4am. The record shows that at 7am, the race underway, water temperatures exceeded FINA rules. The race should have been cancelled before it began. Even if we accept the dubious morality of shifting a race to a 4am water test and 6am start, the race should have been halted and cancelled at 7am at the very latest, the rules on water temperatures dictating that no further racing should have taken place.
Neither FINA nor the Asian Swimming Federation, both with jurisdiction over the conditions in which races held between its members unfold, took any serious action against those who actively ensured that FINA rules were broken and the safety and welfare of athletes put at risk.
Sadly, this is far from the first time that leading figures at FINA have either turned a blind eye when rules have been broken or even actively sought to deny that clear rules apply at all. Take the official response from FINA to say that facilities rules – covering pool width, length and depth – don’t apply when world record are set, the ratification of a 1500m free world s/c mark in a New Zealand pool too shallow at the dive end for safety taking priority over the views of experts written into the rulebook with a view to ensuring the welfare of swimmers. Even FINA’s in-house athletes’ group assumes that facilities rules apply when world records are set. And that’s because they do. No question, regardless of FINA’s discombobulation.
The head of the ASF, meanwhile, is also FINA first vice-president and heir-apparent to the global-fed throne, Husain Al-Musallam, who was cited as a “co-conspirator” to massive fraud by the U.S. Justice Department in its case against guilty-plea Guam soccer official Richard Lai. Almost $1m was received by Lai from bank accounts in the control of Al-Musallam and his boss at the Olympic Council for Asia, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah.
For Wong, Al-Musallam and FINA prize-winner Sheikh Ahmad it is business as usual. But not for Shoulberg, the Crippen family and others. And there will be no peace until USA Swimming does the right thing.
It might start by asking Cornel Marculescu, the FINA Director, to explain why the following questions sent to the international federation last year by SwimVortex have never been answered:
- did the Asian OW Championships unfold in waters of 31.9C as widely reported?
- if so, why was that allowed to happen and who allowed it to happen given the upper limit imposed in FINA rules when it comes to water temperatures for open water competitions held under FINA rules by your member organisations?
- if what is reported is correct, will FINA be taking disciplinary action against any officials and the Asian Swimming Federation, of which the first vice-president of FINA is a top ranking official?
- … will FINA be offering a sincere apology to Fran Crippen’s family, teammates, the Japan national Open Water Team and the wider Open water swimming community?
No replies. The safety is athletes is just not important enough for FINA to get over its problem with anyone who asks awkward questions, anyone who suggests they need to learn how to agree to disagree yet remain professional in their dealings with the federations stakeholders and a wider world that includes legitimate media and the reasonable questions out by journalists.
Important to note that the USA, along with other teams, also withdrew its swimmers from the Universiade open water event in 2017 because water temperatures were too high. Once more, there were top FINA officials present who should and could have insisted that the race was cancelled. Arguments of jurisdiction are bogus, as the Constitution of FINA confirms on several levels in many places. All those competing at the Universiade were (and are) members of FINA and compete under FINA rules.
USA’s FINA Bureau member is FINA vice-president Dale Neuburger. To this website’s knowledge, he has not called for either Al-Musallam nor Wong, the two senior Asian officials with direct FINA responsible for the event Japan withdrew from, to step down.
In the series of email exchanges between Shoulberg and USA Swimming, the message the coach wants to get home screams from the page. Here’s a couple of examples:
Note to USA Swimming’s new CEO Tim Hinchley (new to the job and sport and fair to allow him time to get to grips with several cultural and governance issues screaming for attention), January 2018:
- I live in Pennsylvania and when it became public knowledge that the Penn State football program, along with administrators, covered up sexual abuse, a shockwave went throughout the state and we still feel the repercussions today.
- I am also sure there is a shockwave in Colorado Springs and Michigan State right now that has been heard around the world due to the discovery of a cover up of a sexual abuse case.
- You may or may not know that Fran Crippen in the summer of 2010 going into the fall, wrote to Chuck [Wielgus, CEO of USA Swimming who passed away in 2017] in an effort to discuss with employees at USA Swimming about how unsafe Open Water was and how they, the athletes, need protection from an administrator through their attendance at the open water events to keep all fina open water venues safe. That request was denied.
- I have talked to Mike [Unger, assistant director], Lindsay [Mintenko, USA team director] and other people from US Swimming that USA Swimming needs to hold FINA accountable for their latest actions in open water at the world university games. The head of FINA open water was present at the world university games and Asian games where countries at both meets pulled out due to safety.
- Unfortunately, the head of FINA was present at these competitions and did not follow his protocol. It is time that USA Swimming requests the removal of the FINA open water head.
- Will silence kill another person? That is the question.
- It is our duty to ensure the safety of the sport. So, what are you going to do to protect all athletes from all nations? I had the pleasure of coaching all four of the Crippen children from the time they were little age groupers and, to this day, it is still painful to lose Fran. In my opinion, FINA and USA Swimming did not protect the athletes and chose to be silent on the open water safety issue this past summer.
And from March this year, reminding many concerned at USA Swimming that they are still to take the action Shoulberg and others are aching for them to take:
- “My question to all of you is what have you done publicly requesting FINA not to allow the race to take place when they are breaking their own rules?
- Why have you not held FINA accountable?
- I was told by people at US Swimming it was not a high priority open water safety, to fight FINA and eliminate the current Head of Open Water Swimming.
- Let us never forget that Fran Crippen in the late summer of 2010, wrote to Chuck Wielgus asking that US Swimming send a representative to all Open Water FINA contests because Fran, in his writings, said that many venues were not safe and that the athlete had no voice with FINA. Chuck’s response was that it was not in the budget. However, months later, they found the money to hire Bryce [Elser, USA Swimming National Team Open Water Program Director].
- I know we are all saddened by the latest allegations of cover-ups in Olympic sports, and how people at the highest level of sports look the other way.
- When are we going to stop looking the other way and make FINA Open Water contests safe for each athlete from every country?
- I told Pat Crippen, Fran’s mother, that I will not be silent. So, why is USA Swimming continuing to be silent?
That last question from coach Dick Shoulberg hangs heavy in the air this day 34 years after the birth of Fran Crippen. RIP.