The recent death of Fran Crippen, a champion swimmer who died at the age of 26 in a 10-kilometer open-water race, serves as a sobering reminder of the inherent danger of sports.
Intense competition puts tremendous energy demands on the human body. The cardiovascular system must provide adequate blood supply to vital organs including the brain, heart, lungs and kidneys while meeting the increasing vascular needs of large muscles.
There is also a thermoregulatory component to be considered. Exercising in extreme environments of heat or cold puts added stress on human organ systems. The physiological mechanisms involved in human function work best at a stable temperature. Any variance requires added energy to provide adequate cooling or warming.
Safety considerations often include making certain the venue is safe for competition. Medical support, adequate nutrition, hydration and properly functioning equipment must be available and supervised by officials.
Athletes typically envision themselves as indestructible. While that belief may serve as a driving force, it may also lead to trouble.
In the case of Crippen, there is evidence that he recognized this event and others may be unsafe. Inadequate medical support and dangerous conditions were reported but not changed.
Crippen suffered extreme physical exhaustion and eventual cardiopulmonary failure. The most likely cause was exertional heat stroke given that the water temperature was in the high 80s.
This incident provides a reminder that all athletes, spectators and officials have an obligation to safety.