International swimming officials have added a 10-kilometer open water race in the United Arab Emirates to the 2015 calendar over strenuous objections from the United States, putting the event back in the hands of the national federation cited for inadequate safety practices in the 2010 drowning death of Fran Crippen.
FINA's Marathon World Cup series schedule now includes a race in Abu Dhabi on March 13, with the notation "tbc" -- to be confirmed. The race is contingent on the success of a test event to be held Feb. 22, using local swimmers on the same course. Under an agreement reached at the international governing body's meetings in Spain late last year, safety measures are to be evaluated by four members of its Technical Open Water Swimming Committee.
However, a scant eight weeks before the actual race is slated to take place, little to no information regarding the test event has been revealed by FINA or relayed to athletes and national federations, and the exact course location is still unclear. An email from ESPN.com last week requesting comment from multiple committee members yielded two polite responses but no specifics.
The UAE swimming federation originally proposed holding the race in a saltwater creek in Dubai, where other elite events have been staged, and submitted paperwork on safety plans. But the site was changed to an unspecified location in Abu Dhabi without explanation after FINA's November meetings. (The race in which Crippen died was held in another emirate, Fujairah.)
TOWSC members were divided in initial discussions of awarding a 10K to the UAE. The UAE federation originally wanted the committee to consider a race date in October at or near the end of the series, but members quashed that idea because of the likelihood of the same smothering heat that was a factor in Crippen's death.
Open water swimmers from several countries have voiced their opposition to returning to the UAE, and it's a near-certainty that U.S. athletes will boycott. The national governing body, USA Swimming, cannot compel its athletes to stay away, but executive director Chuck Wielgus told ESPN.com in an email that the organization is "disappointed" with FINA's decision and added, "the USA Swimming family still mourns Fran's loss, and as such we have no plans to support or send athletes to an open water event in the UAE."
Conditions, layout and safety infrastructure are by necessity different for any given open water course, and the dearth of details about the UAE event begs the question of why athletes -- many of them already dubious at the prospect -- would choose to compete there.
FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu of Romania supported awarding a race to the UAE five years after Crippen's death and insisted that if the test event does not meet international standards, "we will not go forward" with the 10K.
"You cannot banish for life a federation where this happens," Marculescu told ESPN.com. "This is very sensitive, a big tragedy, but there are deaths and accidents in other sports and the races are still there. For sure, there were mistakes on the course [in 2010]. They will take all the necessary steps so no one can disappear like that again."
That is not comforting enough for many who remain dissatisfied with the way FINA handled the aftermath of Crippen's death in brutally hot conditions in October 2010.
An independent investigation commissioned by FINA produced a thorough report that exposed glaring safety deficiencies on the part of the organizers and gaps in FINA's own oversight. But the UAE swimming federation was never officially sanctioned, and in 2013, race director Ayman Saad -- an Egyptian who is executive director of the UAE federation -- was given a slot on the TOWSC, angering U.S. swimming officials.
FINA has beefed up its safety protocols and, after years with no ceiling for water temperature, established a maximum of 31 degrees Celsius (87.8 Fahrenheit) -- progress, but still considered too high by many athletes and coaches.
Tim Liebhold, a retired 200 IM national champion and ex officio member of the USA Swimming board of directors, called the recent process that led to awarding a 10K race to the UAE a "farce" and emblematic of FINA's minimal efforts to respect athlete concerns.
"I have no doubt the test event will be 'successful,' however they define 'successful,'" said Liebhold, a structural engineer in Madison, Wis.
"It may be the safest event in history, but from my perspective, as someone who was touched by Fran, I can't emotionally get over returning to that same location with the same people."
Multiple Olympic and world champion backstroker Aaron Peirsol, who sits on FINA's Athletes Commission, said he was disturbed to hear of the apparent lack of solid information on the UAE event. "If they're scrambling, that's no place to put the athletes," said Peirsol, who also has competed in open water races.
Crippen's father, Pete, said in an emailed response that he and wife Pat are "dismayed" at the prospect of a 10K taking place in the UAE, and even more troubled that Saad is involved. The Crippens reached a confidential out-of-court settlement with FINA and USA Swimming in 2012.
The 2015 Marathon World Cup series for men and women offers a total prize purse of $20,000 per event and, including Abu Dhabi, consists of 11 events spread over the Americas, Europe, Asia and Oceania. Points earned at each event accumulate toward the series title, with a top individual prize of $20,000, and the series provides the only consistent competition for athletes hoping to qualify for the Olympic event that debuted in 2008. This season's edition is the first to have a title sponsor, the Chinese apparel maker Hosa.
FINA rules listed on its website require that an information bulletin about the race be sent to national federations at least 12 weeks before a race. It was unclear whether that had been done in the case of the unconfirmed Abu Dhabi race, but the only bulletin available on the website is the one for the series opener in Argentina on Feb. 7.
Coincidentally, elite open water swimmers will have a 10K alternative in the United States in March. The second annual Crippen Cup 10K Marathon Invitational, sponsored by the foundation established in Fran Crippen's name, will be held in Fort Myers, Florida, on March 28. The event was scheduled prior to FINA's decision to award a race to the UAE.
U.S. and foreign swimmers who meet qualifying standards will compete for a total of $10,000 in prize money. The foundation, dedicated to promoting open water safety and supporting athletes, also will stage a 1-mile race, clinics and other activities around the national championships in the same location in late April.