A bid by the United Arab Emirates to host an elite 10-kilometer open water race in 2015, five years after Fran Crippen drowned there during a race conducted with inadequate safety precautions, is drawing intense criticism from the swimming community in the United States and elsewhere.
The proposal to add the race to the World Cup marathon series sanctioned by FINA, swimming's international governing body, was considered last month by FINA's Technical Open Water Swimming Committee at meetings in Hungary. Two representatives from the UAE swimming federation were appointed to the 18-member committee last year, one of whom, executive director Ayman Saad of Egypt, oversaw the race in which Crippen died.
Several committee members contacted by ESPN.com would not comment on the specifics of their discussions on the issue. The final decision rests with the 22 elected members of the FINA Bureau, who will meet in late November in Doha, Qatar.
Alex Meyer, Crippen's close friend and teammate who helped search for him the day of the 2010 race, voiced his vehement opposition to holding a competition in the UAE in a recent letter to USA Swimming officials that he shared with ESPN.com. Meyer wrote that putting athlete safety in the hands of the same national organization that so badly botched it four years ago would "fly in the face of human decency," especially if the race were to be designated as the series finale in October near the anniversary of Crippen's death. Dates under consideration include March, April and October.
Meyer wrote that he expected U.S. athletes would boycott the event if it winds up on the calendar. "Mr. Ayman Saad 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," he wrote.
A race in the UAE in October would likely be held in the same brutally hot conditions as those that contributed to Crippen's death and put other athletes in distress, Meyer wrote. At least three female swimmers had to be treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration after the race.
"Even if they could guarantee an exemplary safety plan and response ... high stakes and dangerous environmental conditions is the most dangerous competitive situation an athlete can be put in. I do not believe this race would be safe," Meyer wrote.
FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu of Romania, reached by telephone while in transit in Russia on Wednesday, said he does not have a personal opinion on the UAE bid. Asked whether it was advisable to choose a host venue that would make many athletes uneasy, Marculescu said, "It's not about feelings, it's about rules."
New, stricter safety standards adopted by FINA in the wake of the Crippen tragedy will be uniformly applied to all open water races, Marculescu said. "The measures are very strong and mandatory," he said. "If anything is not according to the rules, the event is canceled."
An e-mailed request for comment to Saad was not answered. FINA vice president Dale Neuburger, the only U.S. member of the FINA Bureau, could not be reached for comment. Neuburger is a partner and North American director for TSE Consulting, which provides various services for international sports organizations. The TSE Consulting website lists the UAE Swimming Federation and the Dubai Sports Council as past and present clients, respectively. It was not clear whether that would prevent Neuburger from voting on the UAE proposal.
USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus said his organization shares Meyer's view and called the concept of asking athletes to return to the UAE at this juncture "completely inappropriate."
American officials expressed their strong displeasure with FINA a year ago when Saad was appointed to the open water committee, through a letter written by United States Aquatics Sports president Jim Wood. That body is the official FINA representative for all U.S. water sports, including diving, water polo and synchronized swimming.
"We have nothing against Mr. Saad personally, but FINA naming to the TOWSC the person who was in charge of the race in which Fran Crippen died is at the very least disappointing," Wood wrote in the October 2013 letter. "Fran Crippen's death and the circumstances surrounding it was one of the most tragic days in the history of our sport. To now appoint to the TOWSC the person who was intimately involved and ultimately responsible for that competition is an insult to everyone worldwide who cared deeply about Fran Crippen and his contribution to our sport."
"It seems to us that FINA has not listened to our concerns, and they're blind to the optics of this," Wielgus told ESPN.com in a phone interview. "FINA's message back to us [in 2013] was 'Go pound sand.'"
In October 2011, a year after Crippen's death, Saad told The National, the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper, that his federation would not host another international open water event for "several years."
"We cannot move on from this sad moment," Saad said. He later added, referring to athletes who were at the 2010 race, "If you ask them if they want to come back to Dubai, of course they will say no. But let them see what we have done and they will come one by one."
Crippen drowned in a FINA-sanctioned 10K race conducted in water and air temperatures that hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Fujairah, UAE four years ago this month. FINA had no maximum temperature rule at the time. Crippen slipped beneath the water unnoticed, probably losing consciousness due to heat exhaustion, an autopsy concluded. His body was found by divers 500 yards from the finish line two hours after the top male swimmers finished, following a desperate, fruitless search by fellow athletes.
A FINA investigation concluded that race organizers did not properly monitor swimmers in the water and had poor communication, no contingency plans and inadequate safety personnel on the course and the shore. There were no sanctions imposed on the UAE federation. That report and separate recommendations by USA Swimming -- whose investigation was limited by a lack of cooperation from FINA -- led to reforms and heightened awareness by both governing bodies.
However, the new water temperature ceiling of 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 F) established by FINA is still considered too high by many swimmers and coaches because of the high pace of an elite race, and average sea temperatures in the UAE approach or exceed that limit from June through October.
The loss of the charismatic 26-year-old from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, hit the sport hard. Crippen, whose sisters Maddy, Claire and Teresa competed at the elite and NCAA levels, was connected to legions of swimmers through his high school days at Germantown Academy, his college years at the University of Virginia and his stints with the U.S. national team. He was a leading contender for a 2012 Olympic slot and was pushing for increased financial and staff support for open water swimmers at the time of the tragedy. The Crippen family helped establish the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation, which holds events to promote open water safety and raise funds to assist aspiring athletes.
Crippen's parents, Pete and Pat, reached an out-of-court settlement, the terms of which are confidential, with FINA and USA Swimming in December 2012.
"Pat and I are very disappointed that FINA would consider an open water event in UAE," Pete Crippen wrote in an email to ESPN.com. "If they do consider swimming a race in the UAE, we hope coaches, swimmers and the loved ones of swimmers planning to attend will be on high alert. Take caution to be absolutely sure FINA, the race organizers, and the race officials have and will follow protocol for a safe swim, paying particular attention to the air and water temperatures, and the number of safety personnel in the water and out. Do not be hesitant to pull out on race day if the conditions are not appropriate."
A number of current and former athletes contacted by ESPN.com said they were strongly opposed to awarding a race to the UAE. Thomas Lurz of Germany, a double Olympic medalist in the 10K event and multiple world champion at distances ranging from 5 to 25 kilometers, wrote in an e-mailed response, "Of course I don't think it would be good to race there again."
U.S. open water swimmer Christine Jennings, who experienced severe symptoms of heat exhaustion and tried to summon help without success before finishing the 2010 race in Fujairah, said she was "kind of in disbelief" when she heard the idea was under consideration.
"The sport has come a long way in terms of safety," said Jennings, the 2013 10K national champion. She cited the decision to move this year's Pan-Pacific open water championships from Australia to Hawaii because of pollution levels on the Gold Coast. But she does not think the UAE federation was held sufficiently accountable for its role in Crippen's death. "That country does not deserve to have a race there ever again," Jennings said by phone from her home in Colorado.
2012 Olympic 10K gold medalist Ous Mellouli of Tunisia, a USC alumnus who trains with the Trojan Swim Club, said he understands the resistance to the proposal, but thinks safety protocols adopted by FINA in the wake of the tragedy should be enough to make races safe wherever they are held.
International Olympic Committee member and former World Anti-Doping Agency chief Dick Pound of Canada, who chaired the USA Swimming-convened panel that issued recommendations after Crippen's death, went further. Pound said a well-run race could be "a tribute, in some respects" to lessons learned, as long as it was "organized at the best possible level this time." Athletes opposed to it, he said, "could vote with their feet."
Pound scolded FINA in 2011 for withholding information from his panel and delaying disclosure of its own investigation. That spurred FINA to release the report a day later, a report Pound called "surprisingly thorough and judgmental" and which established a framework for improved safety standards.
That progress notwithstanding, skeptics remain. One of them is longtime swim coach Jay Benner, a Seattle-area native and former professional open water competitor who served as the UAE's national (pool) team coach for nearly five years.
Benner, who returned to the United States to run a club program in Ridgefield, Connecticut, after his UAE contract was terminated at the end of July, said he does not believe the UAE federation has the skills, expertise and organizational wherewithal to host a 10K race that would meet the required criteria. He said he observed slipshod swimmer monitoring and course safety at the Arab open water championships held in Abu Dhabi last year.
"This is a real snub at the U.S. and open water swimming, and the people who loved Fran," Benner said.