Why Change The FINA Bureau? The Case for Change


Additional Information Regarding the Proposal to Change the Composition of the FINA Bureau.

The Proposal: Create an “athlete centered” FINA organization by changing the composition of its ruling Bureau to: 5 Elected Continental Presidents, 5 elite athletes (one per sport discipline) elected by their peers at the World Championships. 5 elite coaches (one per sport discipline) elected by their peers at the World Championships. The President to be elected from within the members of the Bureau, by the Bureau. Any other executive committee members deemed necessary to be similarly elected by the Bureau Members. (the roles of Secretary and Treasurer are effectively done by the office.)

This radical evolution of the FINA Bureau is challenging on both a philosophical and practical level. It is also necessary to end the current culture of FINA decision making that is clearly NOT athlete centered, and clearly has evolved into an all-powerful Executive Director and a nearly impotent Bureau.

I will divide the organization of my comments into three areas:

  1. The need for change. What is the evidence that the current FINA model is failing our needs?
  2. The rationale of the current proposal. Why will this work better?
  3. The chance for success. Can this be done?

As I work through those three areas, I will address some concerns I have been given to date about the current proposal.

First, the Need for Change.

FINA, as presently constituted, is a historical concept left over from the days of sham amateurism, when sport was “run by gentlemen” and professional athletes were banned as were professional coaches. The world has now changed and we have very professional athletes and very professional coaches. FINA has not kept pace with any of those changes.

We are still fighting for the simple inclusion of ONE athlete and ONE coach to be “elected,” as opposed to ” selected by” the Bureau (read, “office”) to the Bureau.

History shows that where the FINA Bureau/Executive “selects” individuals for positions, those candidates come to office with a “debt owed” to those in charge and rarely if ever will speak in opposition to anything proposed by the FINA Executive. And IF they do, as has occasionally happened on the FINA Athletes Commission, they are ignored without risk, since the individuals were appointed and therefore can be dismissed.

On every major issue in swimming for the past twenty-five years (Anti-Doping, the Competition Calendar, the attempt to freeze out Federations from making change to the FINA Constitution, video evidence of races, swim meet and open water meet conditions, and swimsuits to name just some major ones), the FINA Bureau has either caused the problem by ignorance of the current state of the sport “on the pool deck” or been led by information from only one primary source. It’s staff. Later, the same Bureau has changed course only when forced to accept change by outside groups such as coaches and athletes. The existing Bureau structure has caused problems and not been pro-active to solve them. Even today, the rules established by the FINA Congress by a vote of 186-6 regarding swimsuits, are being thwarted by the FINA office to consternation of athletes and coaches, without the Bureau directing the office to fix the mess.

FINA athletes commission and FINA coaches commission have been repeatedly denounced by the American and Australian Members for the decade of their existence as completely without purpose, functional ability to act, and as a “sham.” The Executive Director of FINA has attempted to tell each Commission what things they are allowed to discuss and has even told this writer directly (when he was a member of the FINA Coaches Commission and asked if the ED would like to hear from the coaches with regard to the swimsuit issues.) “No, that is not your concern!” Actually, as I went on to tell him and prove to him, it WAS our concern. Similar stories abound from the Athletes Commission.

The comment has been made, “FINA has improved.” Yes, undoubtedly. They now conduct swimming meets in a manner suitable to this century, which is entirely the work of Mrs. Carol Zaleski and her colleagues on the technical committee, who had to drag FINA, kicking and screaming, into the modern era of swim meet management. And even today have to do continual battle about using underwater cameras to provide fair competition and judging. The worst officiating in the world is at the World and Olympic level where FINA repays friends with the ability to officiate on the largest stages, without experience in working at that level of competition.

Yes, we now have a coaches and athletes commission and we have the proposal for a “nominated” athlete to serve in the future on the FINA Bureau. The current proposal from the FINA Bureau insists that even that athlete is selected not elected. FINA does not even trust it’s athletes and coaches to elect their own representatives (to the Bureau or to the Commission.) Has FINA changed for the better? Yes, to some small degree. (selection rather than election simply results in compliant individuals serving. History has already proven that within FINA. )

But in no significant way has FINA become interested in being an “athlete centered organization.” It is still stuck back in the days when “gentlemen” ran the sport for their own benefit and interests. The culture of FINA is represented by the following near universal traits:

  1. Going Along to Get Along. Don’t question the decisions of the office, or the office will not grace you with favors ranging from thick envelopes of cash for expenses, to first class airplane seats, to plum assignments to attend swim competitions as “representatives” to complement the hosts. Many Bureau members and others get to go to locations via FINA “as representatives” that they could never afford to attend as private individuals and this is VERY important to those people. The Office runs the Bureau, the Bureau does not run the office.
  2. Fear of Retribution – even on the IRC telephone call of Monday, Nov. 15, many of the comments revolved around “what will happen if we propose something radical and we thus fall out of favor?” That is exactly what is wrong with the culture of FINA. Any idea not originated in the office of the FINA Executive Director is a bad idea and may well be “punished” with withdrawal of favor.
  3. The Athlete is the next to last FINA consideration after administrators and the money to run their needs, the Bureau and it’s needs, and the host cities for events, that lead to the money that is the primary motivator of every FINA decision. And precious little of that money is making its way to athletes. Coaches, by the way, are the LAST consideration, not much more than bath attendants, as our profession started in the early years of the 20th century.

Why are world championships being hosted in locations where there is virtually NO interest in the sport of swimming and NO spectator interest to inspire and motivate the athletes? CASH. Barrels and Barrels of cash paid to FINA for the right to host the events. (This is typical of international sport in many sports and not unique to FINA.)

Why does the USA NOT bid on World Championship events? (and most of the western democracies along with the USA?) Because putting 30 Million dollars (plus) into FINA’s coffers is an impossibility to recoup for a non-governmental organization. So we go to locations that most of the world would not chose to go to….all because of CASH to FINA.

“Papering the house” is the term used by meet hosts to give free tickets to people to come sit in the stands to fill them. FINA doesn’t care if the local host nations LIKE swimming, or will support it, as long as the cash flows to FINA.

Swimming around the world does need development. FINA is not developing swimming by putting World Championships in places where swimming is not yet important. FINA is just putting cash in their pocket.

And how much of that cash if filtering through to athletes? Precious little.

This culture recently directly contributed to the tragic death of young athlete Fran Crippen. The FINA office decides upon and sends representatives of the FINA Open Water Committee to its Open Water Events. That representative (s) clearly did not exercise any oversight responsibility to ensure the simplest of safety measures for a race that multiple athletes told the organizers was a dangerous race to conduct under the heat conditions and lack of safety precautions. All that was necessary to save Fran Crippen’s life was the well-accepted principle in Open Water Swimming of “eyes on every swimmer for every yard of the distance swum.” Yet the organizer failed to provide this. FINA Open Water Representatives failed to insist on it. Why? Because FINA representatives are sent out to shake hands and say nice things about the host of FINA events. Not to ensure the safety of the athletes. This is intolerable. And it is true in each and every facet of FINA operation and sport. And the organizational meeting of the competition was dismissed when athletes questioned the safety of the event.

“Go Along to Get Along” cost a young athlete his life. Never again.

The Fran Crippen tragedy does not solely define the need for an organizational change at FINA, but it is the most horrifying example of FINA failure that has yet occurred. Examples (provided above) of multiple other failures of lesser magnitude than a loss of life, show that FINA as presently constituted cannot be trusted any further with our sport.

Has FINA gotten better? Certainly. And they are so far sub-standard for an organization that our sport can be proud of, that their minor “improvements” are irrelevant to the needs at issue.

Will other proposed improvement also contribute positive change? Yes. Lipstick on a Pig.

Great individuals like Carol ZaleskI and Dale Neuburger have done valiant work to continually “dress up the pig” and make it better. There are many other wonderful people volunteering for FINA, and some working in it’s office. But it’s still a pig…..a bloated, self-indulgent ,self-satisfied imperial dynasty with an tyrant as a dictator who directs rather than is directed by, the supposed ruling Bureau. Every discussion the IRC has had in the last 15 years on ways to improve our sport internationally comes to a DEAD Stop as soon as one asks “what will the FINA Executive Director think of this?” If he doesn’t think he thought of it first…the idea dies.

It’s time to CHANGE the pig, into a great organization where the efforts of people like Dale and Carol (who exist worldwide) can be properly applied and result in athlete centered sport.

Second, the Rationale for the Current Proposal.

The only logical way to have athlete centered sport in a professional sport, is to include significant athletes at the elite level in the highest administrative and governing body of the sport.

The long term members of the sport are the coaches, who typically are “in it for life.” They are also professionals, with expertise on how the sport is conducted, developed, coached and organized.

Both must be included in any modern organizational framework. It is not coincidence that the two leading swim nations of the world, the USA and Australia, have models of organization where both athletes and coaches have significant roles at the highest governing level, and all are elected, not selected to those positions.

Similarly, elected sport politicians representing each of the five continental associations should be included.

In the under-developed parts of the world, (speaking of swimming) the solutions to development are unique and require specialized and differentiated solutions. Strong and highly competent leadership at the Continental level can not only improve the governance and sport performance in those areas of the world, but will bring the very best sport politicians to the FINA Bureau.

Fewer sport politicians, adding athlete and coaches, will form a FINA Bureau that has sport expertise, a developmental thrust, and “on-the-deck-reality” to the operation of FINA Events. Because each member is elected from a very specific constituency that is vital to the good operation of the sport, accountability will rise.

Significantly, with this new constitution of the FINA Bureau, the Executive Director will no longer be the sole repository and distributor of real world information about the sport to the Bureau. Imagine if we transport this new Bureau formulation back in time…to when doping ruled the sport….could the Bureau ever have “turned a blind eye” to the reality of doping for 25 years? (FINA still maintains honors for convicted dopers in its official awards and history! Incredible!) Yet in those days and for two decades, the FINA Bureau denied that doping existed in swimming…and for 8 years, had the lead architect of the East German Doping organization as its Committee Chair of Sports Medicine. Total Sport Ignorance. They had to be forced to face reality by Coaches in Perth.

No, this new Bureau will know what is going on in the sport. And they can direct the FINA office staff on what needs to be done, rather than take direction from the office staff. Many FINA problems over the years derive from the single source of information that is the person of the Executive Director. The Executive Director confuses cash in FINA’s bank account with “the growing importance of the sport.” Money is only one way to measure “the importance” of a sport, and the health of the sport is better measured by the degree to which it is “athlete centerED.”

A recent candidate for President in a FINA Federation has said “If FINA could do away with the athletes…eliminate them…and still have an organization, they’d do so in a heartbeat…they view athletes as an annoyance they have to live with.

Meanwhile the Executive Director is a superb political operative and does a fine job of taking care of the existing Bureau and all those who support his regime.

On the recent IRC call, several people speaking in opposition to this proposal apparently mistakenly think this idea is a new one, and not been discussed by others. Nothing could be further from the truth. This idea has been discussed since the doping issues in the early 1990’s and this specific idea of athletes, coaches and continental sport politicians sharing the Bureau has been widely spoken of and approved by many in the past.

Athletes, coaches and others involved in each sport discipline in FINA have discussed the concepts expressed in this proposal. It is definitely NOT a new idea. Certainly FINA loyalists will oppose it, because they are vested in the current system.

But the old days of “gentleman’s sport” ruled by the “non-professionals” must come to an end.

Is 5-5-5 (Athletes-Coaches-Sport Politicians) the best formula? I don’t know. I know it is a formula that will change the emphasis of the organization from guys in blazers to athletes, and create an athlete centered organization. Are the suits or the athletes our focus?

Third, the Chance for Success, Can This Be Done?

The short answer is. I don’t know.

It will be difficult. But it’s the right thing to do. It will produce athlete centered sport in FINA. It will produce a Bureau that knows each of its sports. It will light a fire that will not go out, it will ring a bell that cannot be “un-rung.” If we don’t win this time, we will win in the future. This is unstoppable.

Some ask, “why are you doing this, John?”

I am doing this because I can. I work for a wonderful group of people on the ASCA Board of Directors who want nothing more than to do good in the world of swimming. That’s been my charge from them for twenty-five years. I want nothing from FINA but good governance. Governance that is athlete centered. Governance that we can be proud of. Governance that protects our athletes, advances their careers, provides heroes for future generations and is ethically, morally and philosophically correct for sport. We have none of that in the existing FINA. And everyone who is familiar with FINA and can bring themselves to speak it, will tell you that. And those who don’t are scared to do so.

Scared. Because they will “lose favor.” That should tell you all you need to know. Scared. In a sport. What nonsense. Scared of the FINA Office and the FINA Bureau. Doesn’t FINA work for us? For the Sport? Clearly not. If you work for someone, you don’t threaten them, directly or indirectly. You serve them. The FINA office has lost that concept.

To finish the “personal interests” answer, I’ll accept no role in the new organization. And I can speak freely on this matter as few in the world can, because I am employed by and supported by, the American Swimming Coaches Association Board of Directors. (and I am so grateful from that Board.) I can’t “go along to get along” any further and it’s very difficult to watch good people serve a bad organization in the futile hopes and against all history to try and make it better.

Counting Votes. On the IRC call, one of my colleague said that the swimsuit issue was “different” because it affected everyone and “everyone knew we had a chance to win.” As someone who was at the very heart of the swimsuit debate in Rome and for many months before it, I can assure that individual and all others, that if they knew “we could win,” they were the only one in the room who did. I was afraid that Jim Wood’s courage in allowing the USA to fight for the right in the suits would come to naught. As I asked people in the room for votes, I wasn’t certain we were making progress. I was sitting next to Chuck Wielgus as the vote was taken, and he, Mike Unger and I were all pleasantly shocked. (Thanks to Coach Schubert for being our FINA Congress vote – that mattered – the greatest coach in Olympic History speaking for the athletes and coaches.)

So if anyone thinks the swimsuits were “different,” I’ll respectfully disagree. Not five people in the world thought we could win the swimsuit issue in 2009. But we did. Because the cause was right.

And now, the makeup of the Bureau affects every single one of us who is ruled by FINA. This one “affects everyone” as well.

The United States of America, the greatest swimming nation in history, had the courage to fight the Bureau, fight the FINA Executive Director and President, do what was right and allow the rest of the world the privilege of voting for the suit solution they wanted.

And if WE (THE USA) had not led, we’d be wearing plastic suits today.

Who doesn’t know that FINA needs radical change to an organization that is Athlete Centered? I believe that the vast majority of FINA Federations know that.

Next summer, at the FINA Constitutional Congress, we’ll have a chance to change the game, move in the right direction and stand up for the right thing. There is everything to be proud of in that effort. And eventually, we will win and have athlete centered sport.

Let’s give the world the chance to join us in a vote to re-make the Bureau. Let’s fight for it. Let’s change the game for the world’s athletes.

After all, that’s why we work in this sport everyday. Shouldn’t athlete centered sport be what the sport is all about?

It needs to start at the top. Change needs to start with the FINA Bureau.


John Leonard

Sent to the USA Swimming Board of Directors, USA Swimming International Relations Committee on December 13th, 2010 by John Leonard

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