Alex Meyer knew this day would come. More than four years after his teammate and good friend died during an open water swimming race — a senseless, avoidable tragedy, in the view of Meyer and so many others — the sport is going back to the desert country where it occurred.
For Meyer, that is simply inexcusable.
Not now, he says defiantly.
Not until the world governing body owns up to its role in the death of Fran Crippen.
"I really think it's the wrong thing to do, for so many reasons," said Meyer, who competed at the London Olympics and hopes to make the U.S. team for the 2016 Rio Games. "I'm frustrated because I feel like FINA still has not taken responsibility for what happened."
Crippen perished during a 10-kilometre race in the United Arab Emirates in October 2010, disappearing on the course without anyone noticing. Meyer, who counted Crippen among his closest friends, was among the first to recognize that something was wrong, demanding a search that finally led to the discovery of Crippen's body two hours later. An autopsy found the 26-year-old from suburban Philadelphia died from drowning and heat exhaustion, though it didn't exclude other factors.
There was no question that safety procedures were woefully inadequate, and numerous swimmers claimed the event shouldn't have been held on such a sweltering day.
Over the next few years, through one Olympic cycle and into another, no open water races were scheduled in the U.A.E.
That's about to change.
FINA has approved a 10-k World Cup race for March 13 in Abu Dhabi, contingent on the organizers pulling off a February test event for local swimmers without any problems.
Meyer won't be there. No other Americans are expected, either, after USA Swimming objected to the event by saying it wouldn't send a team.
Speaking with The Associated Press from his training base in Knoxville, Tennessee, Meyer said he was offended when FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu said "we don't know why" Crippen died.
"Really? I know damn well how he died," Meyer said, his voice rising in anger. "It was way too hot, there was no supervision and no emergency response. Plain and simple. To say they don't know is just brazenly arrogant, in my opinion. They're going to get away with murder and continue to do the same thing."
Meyer said it was just a matter of time before FINA scheduled another race in the oil-rich nation, which is eager to boost its sporting profile by hosting major international events. He figures this is nothing more than a financial decision, a chance to cash in on a big payday while ignoring those who feel FINA's upgraded safety standards are still not enough — especially when it comes to maximum water temperatures.
"Believe me, that money doesn't trickle down to the athletes," Meyer grumbled. "It will be the same (explitive) prize money that it is for every World Cup. We travel halfway around the world and if we win, we get $2,500. Whoop-de-doo."
Emily Hanson, a former U.S. open water swimmer and good friend of Crippen's, told the AP on Saturday that it's "way too soon" to return to the U.A.E., especially when there's still debate over FINA allowing races to be held in waters as warm as 31 degrees Celsius (88 degrees Fahrenheit).
"We've not done enough research," said Hansen, who retired shortly after Crippen's death — partly because of that — and now serves on USA Swimming's open water steering committee. "Not enough regulations have been put into place to say, 'Yeah, we're ready."
Marculescu told the AP it would be unfair to prohibit the U.A.E. from ever hosting another event because of Crippen's death.
"You cannot banish a federation for life," he said, while shrugging off USA Swimming's decision to skip the event. "It's up to them. It's not mandatory."
Another American swimmer, Andrew Gemmell, said there's "no way" he'd compete in the U.A.E., where the average temperatures for March, while not as hot as they are in October when Crippen died, can still climb into the upper 80s. Like Meyer, he plans to fill the gap on his schedule with the March 28 Crippen Cup meet in Florida, named after the late swimmer.
"It's an absolute travesty they're going back (to Abu Dhabi) when there's so many other wonderful locations," Gemmell, a 2012 Olympian, told the AP. "We've got the whole world to pick from, and we're going back to a place that hasn't been prepared in the past and hasn't shown they're prepared now to host an open water race."
Meyer said he's especially troubled that FINA technical committee member Ayman Saad, who was in charge of the 2010 event, has reportedly been assigned to oversee the March race.
"I don't think he should get a second chance," Meyer said. "If a doctor goes into the operating room and is not prepared, it's his first time doing the procedure and he screws up, hurts somebody, injures somebody, even kills somebody, does he get a second chance? No way."
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