Olympic Notes

Swimmer’s death leaves open questions

By John Powers
October 31, 2010

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Might Fran Crippen still be alive if the organizers of last weekend’s World Cup 10-kilometer open swim in Dubai had paid more attention to safety?

Although the US swimmer dropped out of sight barely 400 meters from the finish line, it took two hours to find him because the required pursuit boat apparently wasn’t there and officials didn’t notice he’d gone missing.

“It was unacceptable that swimmers were searching for another swimmer,’’ said German race winner Thomas Lurz, an Olympic medalist and nine-time world champion. “That is horrible. This can’t be.’’

The 6-mile race, which was added to the Olympic program in 2008, is a rough-and-tumble event in which competitors routinely bang each other around.

Asked if he’d ever try the event, US swimmer Michael Phelps said, “Not a chance, no way. I won’t do open water.’’

What made things worse was that the water temperature may have been as high as 86 degrees (“amazingly hot,’’ said Lurz) and the swimmers struggled mightily, with several of them hospitalized.

The 26-year-old Crippen, who was buried yesterday in Pennsylvania, was no neophyte. He won a bronze medal at last year’s World Championships and likely would have made the team for the 2012 London Games. But he was concerned enough about what he deemed a lack of doctors and support staff that he’d written race organizers several times.

While it’s possible that Crippen died of overexertion in extreme conditions — which is what international swimming federation president Julio Maglione suggested — the fact is that his disappearance went unnoticed until it was too late.

“There were not enough lifeguards and there were not enough boats,’’ said Lurz’s teammate, Angela Maurer.

“I never saw a rescue boat. I saw nothing.’’

While a United Arab Emirates federation official said that Crippen likely died in “one second’’ because he was found still wearing his goggles, the autopsy report has not yet been released.

The international federation announced that a five-member panel of experts, two of them chosen by USA Swimming, will investigate the circumstances surrounding the death, and the American federation will conduct its own probe.

Tumbling nice
Besides Alicia Sacramone’s golden comeback, the biggest story at the Gymnastics World Championships in Rotterdam was the resurgence of the Russian women, who hadn’t won the team title since 1991, before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Led by 16-year-old Aliya Mustafina, who won the all-around plus three silvers, the Russians dethroned the Americans as global champs.

Still it was a successful meet for the US females, who won five medals, including Sacramone’s gold on vault, which gave her four on the apparatus and nine in her career.

Alexandra Raisman, the Needham teenager who qualified for the all-around, won a team silver and missed a bronze on floor by .05 points.

While the men managed only one medal — an all-around bronze from Jonathan Horton — it was their first in the event since Paul Hamm’s gold in 2003.

Age-old problem
The Chinese have nothing on their North Korean neighbors when it comes to age falsification in women’s gymnastics. Hong Su Jong, who finished ahead of Sacramone in the 2007 vault final, turned up at the Worlds using her third birth date.

At the 2004 Olympics and 2006 global meet, Hong’s entry said she was born in 1985. In 2007, it was 1986. This time, it was 1989.

Both Hong and the PRK were kicked out of the competition.

Eight minus two
While the US women’s eight will be gunning for its fourth straight title at the World Rowing Championships that begin today in New Zealand, the boat will be without Erin Cafaro and Susan Francia, who will focus on defending their pairs title. All three US medals in the Olympic events at last year’s regatta were won by women, including silver in the quadruple sculls. The men, who finished ninth in the eight last time after winning the Beijing bronze, have made the four their priority boat. Three Massachusetts natives are in the men’s quad: Elliot Hovey (Manchester-by-the-Sea), Wes Piermarini (West Brookfield), and Will Miller (Duxbury) . . . Had the day been cooler (it was 80-plus), Joan Benoit Samuelson might well have qualified for the 2012 Olympic marathon trials with her recent effort in Chicago, where she needed to run 2 hours 46 minutes. Still, her 2:47:50 clocking shattered the age-group mark (50-54) of 2:49:08 that Samuelson set at the 2008 trials in Boston and got her named USATF Athlete of the Week . . . The US fencers, who dropped from six medals at Olympus to one last year, are hoping for an upgrade at this week’s World Championships in Paris. They’ll have three Beijing medalists on the piste: sabre champion Mariel Zagunis, who won gold last year, plus Brandeis grad Tim Morehouse and James Williams, who won silver with the sabre team at the Games . . . The results of last weekend’s World Cup short-track speedskating opener in Montreal should come with an asterisk since the South Koreans, who own the sport, weren’t there. That made for a medal-fest for the Canadians and Americans, who won 21 between them. The US team took four golds, with Katherine Reutter winning two and Lana Gehring and Jeff Simon one apiece.

John Powers can be reached at Material from Olympic committees, sports federations, interviews, and wire services was used in this report.