What Went Wrong at the 2010 FINA World Cup?

The recent and untimely death of 26-year-old long distance swimmer Fran Crippen during the FINA Open Water 10-kilometer World Cup at Fujairah, east of Dubai, has raised a lot of discussion in the swimming world. Of course, many people are questioning what could have been done to prevent his death.

As of the writing of this column, the official cause of his death has not been released. While the exact medical cause of his death has not been released, speculation of contributing factors include inadequate safety precautions by race organizers, the influence of extreme heat, overexertion by the athlete and cardiac arrest.

Safety Precautions and Extreme Heat

FINA (Federation Internationale de Natation) is the international organizing body for swimming events. The FINA website rules list a minimum temperature of 16 degrees Celsius (60.8 degrees Fahrenheit) for open water swim competitions, but no maximum temperature is listed. In other words, the competition can be canceled or delayed due to water temperatures below the minimum standard; but there are no guidelines for what is considered to be a maximum allowable temperature for that distance of racing.

Results from the 2010 FINA 10km MSWC Cancun race show that men's race times are between 2:07:53 for the winner (Fran Crippen, USA) to 2:46:46 (Ariel Rodriguez, Mexico). Women's times ranged from 2:17:29 (Ana Marcela Cunha, Brazil) to 2:48:45 (Marcela Marroquin Tamez, Mexico).

If FINA has decided that temperatures below 60.8 degrees Fahrenheit are too dangerous for participants to be swimming for two to three hours, it seems reasonable that upper limits should be set as well. But what should the limits be?

Recall from the two-part column on Acclimating to Heat and Humidity, that it is a combination of temperature and relative humidity that create cooling issues for the body. Reports on the water and air temperatures at the race in Dubai have been variable. Some officials have reported a water temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit, while athletes have reported temperatures between 87 and 90 degrees.

Though the heat index chart in the heat and humidity column was designed for the relative humidity of air conditions, a reasonable approximation can be made for water conditions by using a relative humidity of 100 percent. At 100 percent humidity, the heat index associated with a water temperature of 84 degrees is 103 degrees and at a 90-degree water temperature, the index soars to 132 degrees Fahrenheit.

Compounding the problem, the air temperature on race day was reported to be at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

With those environmental conditions present, it was extremely difficult for the athletes to cool their bodies and dissipate heat.

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