FINA Future or Future without FINA?


Editorial by Editor Craig Lord.

FINA, the international swimming federation, is in crisis.FINA has been offered an olive branch. It should take it – and be grateful for the chance to avoid a conflict with its membership that, ultimately, it cannot win.

The idea of a review held by any group of skilled independent professionals that the federation has no control over is not one that will occur instantly as an inviting prospect to many of those at the helm of the international federation.

After all, some in those key positions feel somewhat safe as they move in numbers within a system that has served them – but not athletes and coaches and swimming’s reputation – well for many years.

They have lived, one might easily conclude, in a comfort blanket of their own stitching. Sharing a little warmth through prize money held up like some sacred cow to ease the crowd’s temper is simply not cutting the mustard, neither in terms of FINA’s ability to attract even a majority of the best to any of its world cup events for all too many years nor when we consider what might be possible if the international federation cut its cloth with water not wine in mind.

As Bill Sweetenham rightly points out: not all in the world of FINA is wrong. A great deal of good work has gone in to ensure that events such as the World Championships, the long-course showcase set to unfold this July and August, run like clockwork and serve the athlete well. Much excellent energy has been spent down the years laying down rules that standardise facilities, race conditions, parameters for record-setting, lines forbidding doping and much else that speaks to safety, fairness and a world-class environment parents would willingly place their children in.

And yet, as we look back at the record of those who run FINA, we cannot help but be deeply troubled: those rules, those parameters, those health and safety issues settled on by experts in their field have been ignored, overlooked and disrespected by people in leadership positions as and when (and all too often) politics and personal ambitions weighed more heavily than the very Constitution of the body of people they were there to serve.

The system is failing – at least that is the conclusion of vast shoals of folk for whom swimming is a daily habit, a way of life, even, perhaps, a religion. The conclusion that the system is moving down a different track to the will of the wider constituency in swimming has become ever easier to reach in the past few years. The past 12 months alone have delivered a series of decisions not only deeply questionable and unpopular but made by people who have broken or failed to enforce their own rules and upheld and tolerated by others who have turned a blind eye to the FINA Constitution and many a clear line in the governing and guiding handbook – and thus the will of Congress, the highest authority in the sport. Read all about it, as they say, via the links at the foot of this editorial.

If the system challenges the sport, it has gone unchallenged by far too many for far too long. Bill Sweetenham’s words sum up the feelings of many key people who believe FINA has reached a tipping point but they go further: a lifeline has been thrown.

Independent review of system and procedure, the goal a better way, a brighter outcome, a result that allows the term “swimming family” to be used without the connotation and caricature of Machiavelli and mafia.

As the Australian suggests, review, the kind of spring clean that resists sweeping dirt under carpets, is what any sensible organisation must do if it is to keep up with the times and even, dare we dream it, get ahead of the curve, become more pioneer and pathfinder than erratic follower of fashions that speak to the status and shilling of the men in suits best cleaned dry.

Sweetemham’s approach is pragmatic. The days ahead will reveal what level of support there is for his suggestions – from coaches and swimmers, foremost, but also from national federations. The instinct of the latter will be to keep heads below the parapet, to close ranks. Yet now is the time that they must be asked by their membership of coaches, swimmers, parents, those who foot most of the bill most of the time, to show their cards and tell us all what kind of future they envisage for swimming at a time when FINA is letting the side down on a regular basis.

With respect to the vast number of 200-plus federations that make up FINA but have no elite swimming programs whatsoever and no swimming programs full stop to speak about in a lot of cases, the national authorities that need to provide an answer are those 20 or so that place swimmers in the top 100 and on international podiums on a regular basis.

Time for Omertà to be sunk like a shiny suit on January 1, 2010. The deep-rooted family sense of a code of silence, a complete avoidance of aggravation with authorities has landed swimming in a quagmire of mediocrity and acceptance of the unacceptable.

In the days ahead, questions will arise over what kind of body, which kind of people would fit the bill of independent review; whether FINA will grasp the nettle, work with its wider community or sink deeper into a shell of self-protection that has more cracks in it than is safe for its own survival; the terms of reference, timing and scope of any review, including consideration of the case for having swimming governed apart from its current aquatic mates in a stable of very different creatures.

Few want to see FINA as an entity sunk after 107 years of existence but the history of those years belongs to an association of world swimming largely locked out of decision-making processes. Time for those blocking the way to step aside, let the light in and be judged by independent process. Only that will decide if the ridicule they and their actions have attracted is fair or foul.

FINA is now in the spotlight, its next move critical to how it will be perceived by its membership, critical, perhaps, to its very survival. Failure to respond, failure to engage with coaches, athletes and others keen to work on the betterment of swimming governance and what that could deliver for the sport will result in a deepening of schism already trench-like in dimension.

As you read Sweetenham’s words, it is hard to disagree with his overview of where FINA and the sport of swimming stand right now.

Tipping Point

The notion of review fits the moment perfectly. The old guard has a chance to state its case for maintaining a status quo many are deeply unhappy with. Sweetenham asks “use by date?” Certainly, the time is up for a system of grace and favour in which questions are unwelcome; in which committee recommendations and calls for action are entirely ignored to the point of not a single word of feedback from the top table; in which doping cases come with serious doubts about the commitment of FINA bosses to clean sport and the Constitution; in which there is scant or no challenge whatsoever to the executive even when rules are ignored so that Putin can be honoured [long ago at a time of Dr Kipke and mates FINA surely learned that it should not honour systems and political leaders – the clause that allows it to still do so should be burnt at the stake as swiftly as possible]; so that events can return to waters in which an athlete died just a few years ago and more rules can be ignored in an attempt to buy the backing of athletes; so that world records set in pools that do not comply with minimum standards may stand; so that shiny suits can be poured into the pool at the say of a handful of folk whose decisions and the suits are ultimately sunk not through sensible decision of the executive but by the force and weight of wishes at Congress; and on and on.

The issues are one thing but what the review needs to consider is how the system of governance and controls, the very structures in place at FINA contribute to a dictatorial-style of leadership that has led to a vast gulf of difference between what FINA bosses decide and what the wider membership wants – or in many cases does not want.

Sweetenham notes the good work within FINA. He is right to do so and that work and what works must be recognised by the review, too. Many of you will have experienced it: get a new app, bit of software, hardware, computer, phone, TV and you wow at the new features before that sinking feeling kicks in and you ask ‘but what did they do with features X, Y and Z… they’re not there … No!!!!”

What any review must avoid is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The distinction of what works and what does not in FINA World is fairly clear: one side of the coin we find over-blown blazers playing politics (proposing changes to the Constitution to get the old president back in for a third ten even though he came in on a ticket of ‘two terms only’, for example) and making blunder after blunder while silent peers sit on the benches beside them simply keeping the cushions warm for the sake of their own backsides; while on the other side of the coin we find those who actually sit and deliberate over how to run meets, how to make the show work, how to get it right in rules and on race day. There are a few who live in both those worlds but it is the role of the latter that FINA needs to keep, the former that it needs to ditch if it is to have a future.

Many have already come to the view that replacement is the only way forward, FINA too ingrained in its ways and comforts to change.

Do we, at SwimVortex, vote for replacement or repair? That now depends on FINA’s response to Sweetenham’s olive branch. If those in charge in Lausanne and at the top table see no need to speak to their wider membership, then their fate is sealed. It will be a matter of time before swimming takes a different turn, one led by leading coaches, swimmers, among others – and even sponsors, the FINA fatigue I hear from partners of the international federation louder than ever, albeit privately expressed.

Truce is what is on offer. FINA should stand back, take in the seascape, understand how the water is moving in relation to the wind and weather around it.

The mood music is all about if FINA bosses choose to hear: swimming back in the UAE where Fran Crippen died but the same country stripped of two international endurance events by the International Equestrian Federation in order to protect horse (not human) welfare; as FINA fails to enforce the WADA Code and impose a second penalty on Sun Yang’s doctor and penalises the Chinese Swimming Association, we hear news today that former cycling bosses stand accused by the current UCI’s report of having colluded with Lance Armstrong; as FINA prepares to smile and shake hands with all and sundry in Kazan at a time when Russia has the worst doping record in sport and Putin’s name can be found on a decree calling for all anti-doping samples to be opened at the Russian border before leaving the country in what would represent monstrous flouting of the WADA Code.

The FINA Executive Director Cornel Marculescu has been quoted as saying he had not seen the ARD documentaries alleging systematic doping in Russian sport – with a link to swimming. Links to the whole series landed in the director’s inbox some while ago and he would be wise to have caught up – same for the whole FINA Bureau – at a time when WADA has commissioned an inquiry led by Dick Pound.

After taking in that landscape, FINA should take the plunge. Accept review and repair, reject replacement – or be replaced.

Voting, Christmas & Turkeys

The record shows us that welcoming Review through the door would not come naturally to FINA. Indeed, even benign offers of assistance are often ignored if they are not perceived to be high enough on the ranking of political or commercial imperative.

Well over a decade ago, the kind folk at the Wimbledon press operation in London at the All England Tennis Club, granted me a day pass so that I could visit the press facilities and pass on what I’d seen to the world of swimming. I not only did that but passed on, too, an invitation for FINA press services to visit Wimbledon away from the heat of the Wimbledon tournament and pick up tips for how swimming could make things better. Things like full printed (and now digital) press conference transcripts in pigeon holes (and now email boxes) within 20 minutes or so of the end of each of those press conferences with athletes, coaches and others.

It is only in the past Olympic cycle that such a service exists in swimming: USA Swimming used it at Olympic trials in 2012 – and it was terrific for the working media there. It has yet to make the world of FINA and not through any lack of budget – simply because they’ve shown no interest, just as they never took up the offer of a visit to the Wimbledon press service, which involves more people than the entire staff of FINA in Lausanne.

And just as they haven’t listened down the years to some of the most basic media requirements at world championships: in 2013, large numbers of media were placed behind the finish line of the pool, unable to see bits of races because their few was obstructed by kit and canopy and unable to see the end of races (somewhat essential when the editor paying several thousand dollars to have you there calls to ask about the controversial finish in the headlines and hears ‘no, sorry, I couldn’t see it’.

The above are niche examples among myriad in many fields I and others can point to when we say ‘you can stay in the system all you like, but if the change you seek is not convenient to the incumbents, you can count on it being left on a shelf’. Indeed, you can count on it that some issues, supposedly conveyed to the ruling Bureau by Bureau liaison members, from ‘expert’ committees will never see the light of day. In January 2014, seven issues raised at the Media Committee meeting in Lausanne for Bureau consideration, failed to attract an answer to committee members by the time I resigned from the group in October 2014.

One of those issues was for the Bureau to consider honouring those athletes affected by almost two decades of the GDR’s systematic doping State Plan 14:25 in a way that recognised that the winners from the GDR were also victims and should no be made victims a second time round through removal of medals. I was an attempt by the likes of SwimVortex, Swimming World and the many who support the notion as we approach the 40th anniversary of 1976 Olympic Games at which GDR’s steroid-assisted women swept the board on the way to consequences including serious medical problems, the birth of disabled children and more.

The answer of the FINA Bureau? Silence. Why? As one insider explained “best let sleeping dogs lie”. Especially when some of those in charge now were in charge then and were in charge in the late 1990s when the likes of Dr Lothar Kipke, a former member of the FINA Medical Commission and a member of the Hitler Youth earlier in his life, were handed criminal sentences in German courts for their role in abusing young athletes. During all of those years, nothing was done beyond an acknowledgment from the likes of Gunnar Werner, the Swedish judge who was once a prominent member of the FINA Bureau and often tried (sometimes failing to provide clarity of thought when it came to FINA’s responsibly and ) to answer tricky questions, that the GDR used doping. There was never an acknowledgement that FINA could and should have played a part in preventing what amounted to monstrous abuse all round and on many levels.

I have heard some in FINA shrug and say ‘it has nothing to do with us’ when it comes to such substantial parts of its own history. They feel, somehow, detached. But they need only look at USA Swimming to understand how that can never be the case when you ‘run’ a sport. It was not USA Swimming’s fault that rogue coaches abused their charges for many years without being called to account but, by God, it is USA Swimming that must work and work and work yet harder for Safe Sport and do all it can to redress a past in which it could have done more to help victims and clear the sport of rogues, say victims. That much we now know and it is one of the prime reasons why Chuck Wielgus, CEO of USA Swimming, eventually said “sorry”: not sorry for the crimes he could not possibly take responsibility for but for the tardiness of response, for remaining silent for far too long, according to some of those abused and those representing them.

FINA has not only been tardy in its response on many issues that do not hold the promise of a fat return on the financial and political fronts but has been all too fast on the trigger when dollar signs are what they’re dreaming of: from doping through to underwater cameras and much else, no action; shiny suits poured in to the pool without any proper testing or consideration beyond what many in the sport call the apocryphal “three men and a bucket of water in Cornel’s office” saga because that’s the way suits were approved in the years before the bodysuit bomb.

No, sorry, yon colleague who visited swimming from the IOC and said when I resigned from the media committee that he preferred to stay and try and change things: I, among many others, have tried that for more than 25 years- and the heart of the beast thuds at the same pace and intent, quickening only when someone dangles a dollar sign and the drooling pays plaudits to Pavlov.

The reason why you and others often stay, yon colleague, is because passage is funded by those who you are trying to change. In FINA, a call for change results in you being locked out, as Steven Munatones has noted here at SwimVortex, even when the issues are a matter of life and death. We can expect more with similar experiences to come forward as time goes by.

Mediocrity The Medal

Uber-control and a rejection of challenge is holding swimming back. Many of you will have seen those TV shows in which celebrities jump off diving boards or worse still purport to take on fit and sporty members of the public in sporting challenges for points. It is all presented as though it might rival the Olympics one day. Of course, it is largely mediocrity minus and a million miles from the daily dedication, determination and discipline and honing of supreme, natural talent that leads to the Olympic podium in he pool. Truly different realms but the window dressing suggests otherwise in the name of entertainment.

The World Cup in swimming is well beyond those TV shows of mediocrity dressed as excellence but it, too, falls somewhere along the fault line of falling shy. FINA bosses seem to care less about the quality of the world they govern than the quantity, understand little about why long-course matters more than short-course and choose to look the other way when it is glaringly obvious that more than half of the world’s very best simply bypass the so-called ‘world cup’ entirely, year after year after year.

Sweetenham makes the point in his own words. Using my own words, I describe it as a form of dumbing down and bad choices the further swimming goes down the road of money first, athlete second. That manifests itself in myriad ways in FINA, from its failure to speak out loud and clear in opposition to NBC’s night-swimming Games in Rio to its failure to see that the presence of a Russian sponsor for a world cup event or a Chinese sponsor for a diving event, a Red Bull can in return for a handful of folk chucking themselves off cliffs, makes no more for world-class sport and entertainment than one swallow does a summer.

The commercial imperative is not wrong – but the choices made within that realm have taken swimming down the wrong lane when it comes to events, hosting of events, choice of hosts and venues and even the handing out of prizes, honorary and otherwise, stretching even to the choices made by FINA for its ‘swimmers of the year’ (no criteria in place because that would lessen the power of shenanigan).

In this article headed “Beware the gravitational pull of mediocrity” in The Guardian last week, comes this:

  • “Survival of the fittest” isn’t a progression towards greatness; it just means the survival of the sufficiently non-terrible.
  • And mediocrity is cunning: it can disguise itself as achievement. The cliche of a “mediocre” worker is a Dilbert-esque manager with little to do. But as Greg McKeown notes, in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less, the busyness of the go-getter can lead to mediocrity, too. Throw yourself at every opportunity and you’ll end up doing unimportant stuff – and badly. You can’t fight this with motivational tricks or cheesy mission statements: you need a discipline, a rule you apply daily, to counter the pull of the sub-par.”

Quite so. Within FINA, you will find both of the above at play:

  • The Dilbert-esque manager: in the words of one Bureau member at a world championships ‘I just love coming to FINA events – after a couple of meetings, I have nothing to do but enjoy this beautiful weather and place’ – the person in question was, at the time, facing the sun inland, his back to the open water action spilling on the waves of a choppy day behind him
  • The Poor Self-Serving Choices: in an ocean of choices on that theme we recall Rome 2009 as athletes queued in a tunnel in temperatures of more than 40C to get hold of a used suit to wear, FINA grandees could be found being entertained to another fine lunch, a dinner here another one there, a VIP lounge on the way, all in air-conditioned comfort at that, too, and most of those folk wearing suits and ties and belt and shoes and caps and carrying bags and even laptops supplied as gifts to those who are welcome to stay on the train as long as they don’t kick up a fuss when told ‘this is what we’ve decided – all happy, good, next item’.

The rot has to stop

FINA has had over a century to say what it wants and where it is taking swimming. For most of that period the good outweighed the bad, though the ugly was never far away, whether that was doping, the treatment of “non-amateurs”; the Olympic champion who borrowed a flag and got slapped with a ban beyond the wildest nightmares of Sun Yang, Dr Ba, Yuliya Efimova and many others; whole systems that cheated with steroids for the best part of two decades but were rewarded with FINA honours still in place to this day, even when it comes to folk with criminal records.

Review is the best offer FINA could ever get. It should grab its chance.

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