The World Masters Championships are well underway in Budapest and on Lake Balaton, with more medals being handed out to a community of feisty and fit 25 to 90-odd year-olds than you could fit into several elite world championships.
Great venues, terrific competitions and many a friendship forged among those travelling to one place from many with common interests. A much bigger money spinner for organisers, too, than the massively subsidised elite event, what with all those professional folk and pensioners spending their own dollar in far larger numbers than the elite community does.
Elite swimmers are not only fewer in number but they don’t go out eating and shopping during the championships either, whereas masters … well, they do. It’s supposed to be fun and leisure, too, not just business.
The same applies to the elite swim world but for those putting in world-class performances, we’re talking about the kind of fun to be had from personal bests, places in finals, podiums, gold medals and world records.
There is also a sizeable sector racing in the elite world that does indeed put rather less emphasis on performance in the pool than the effort that goes into shopping, eating out and the like.
Take Senegal. In Budapest at the FINA World Championships last month, the West African nation had four pool swimmers entered: two men, two women, all on development-fund budgets paid for by FINA as part of its model of universality, a model that works particularly well when maintaining the status quo at FINA General Congress, at which every nation (all 200-plus of them) gets two votes each, the USA 2, Senegal, 2, and so on.
Those four Senegalese swimmers due to be in Budapest were entered in eight events, all of them 50 and 100m races, no-one capable of covering more than 100m in reasonable time, it seems.
Of the eight entries, five resulted in a no-show.
There was Adama Niane in the men’s 50 and 100m free. He didn’t show for the 100m free; a bit too far a stretch of water, perhaps, but did manage a 23.92 in the 50m free won in 21.15. The women’s race was won in 23.69.
There there was Adam Ndir. He was entered in the 50m backstroke and 100m breaststroke. He didn’t show up for either event. At 27 years of age and well past the ‘development’ stage of his career, one might imagine, he was perhaps a touch too tired to race.
Among women, Jeanne Boutbien, in her 18th year, was the only one of the four entries to show up for both her races – she clocked 28.25 and 1:01.30 in the 50 and 100m free respectively, her two-lap pace good enough to have won the 1956 crown ahead of Dawn Fraser’s first of three but no longer good enough for a medal by 1964 and no longer good for a final after 1968. Boutbien’s time would not have made any 100m free world-totle final in history, back to 1973.
Then there was Fatou Bintou Diagne, 21, who was entered in the 50m backstroke and 50m butterfly but was a no show for both events. We don’t know why she and others didn’t show; we just know that they didn’t show.
The Senegalese were not alone in the club of ‘developers’ who simply didn’t show up for racing: look at the foot of every 50 and 100m race in Budapest and there you will find one to a handful and more ‘DNS’ outcomes. A technical meeting is held on the eve of racing: all delegations have the chance and responsibility to withdraw the names of folk who did not show/could not make it/fell ill and never travelled and so forth. Most DNSs in Budapest were actually in town.
I mention this in the context of masters because the FINA Bureau liaison for the masters group on the new commissions and committees supposedly flooding the federation’s leadership with the knowledge they lack for themselves is Mohammed Diop, a doctor from Senegal who is based not at home but in France and is president of the Senegalese swimming federation.
Diop raced at two Olympic Games: 1988 and 1992. He was 24 when he was disqualified in the heats of the 50m freestyle at Seoul 1988 and clocked 54.93 for 59th place in the 100m freestyle. His time placed him outside the best 400 men in the world that year but would have medalled at the Games of 1960. By 1968, he wouldn’t have made the final.
Four years on, Diop was back. Now 28, his form on the wane: 24.69 in the first heat of the 50m free and 55.82 in the 100m freestyle for 69th place in a time 0.88sec slower than 14-year-old Franzi Van Almsick as she sped to bronze for Germany at her first Games – but also 0.07sec ahead of Le Jingyi, though the Chinese debutante would go on thrash the living daylights out of Diop’s best pace as a member of the Golden Flowers squad surrounded by teammates who would, as things turned out, prove to have had a touch too much testosterone in the pipework than nature intended.
Diop is one of four Senegalese selections for FINA commissions and committees. That translates to this:
- Senegal has as much sway in the running of world swimming as Great Britain (second on the medals table in Budapest, but just 4 folk on the myriad bodies that form the brain of the blazers);
- Senegal has as much sway in the running of world swimming as Germany, France and several other top 20 swimming nations in the world.
- Senegal has way more sway in the running of world swimming than Sweden, the land of performer of the year among women, Sarah Sjostrom (1 rep, all committees)
- Senegal is not quite as mighty as Russia and The Netherlands, both with 8 slots apiece on FINA’s lists, their importance to the FINA leadership having grown not only as hosts of events but because their top federation men opposed Paolo Barelli in his challenge to the status quo.
- Senegal is mightier than Italy. FINA kept a handful of Italians on committees but they have been withdrawn (in protest over FINA’s obvious political choices that fail to deliver the best people to the right roles in governance) by Barelli, head of the Italian and European federations and the FINA vice-president who challenged Julio Maglione for the top seat. Barelli also opposed and objected to Husain Al-Musallam even being allowed to stand for the first VP (heir-apparent) position, on several grounds, including the facts that he hails from a nation currently suspended by FINA and is not backed by his own nation; and he is named in U.S. Justice Department document as one of the “co-conspirator”s said to have transferred almost $1m in payments to Richard Lai, a Guam soccer official and U.S. citizen, between 2009 and 2014 from accounts controlled by Al-Musallam and his boss at the Olympic Council for Asia, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, also named by the U.S. Justice department as a co-conspirator. They deny any wrongdoing. The allegations have yet to be tested in a court of law.
In the same vein, consider those counts of 1 to 4 reps for nations that make a towering contribution to world-class sport, the budgets, a great deal of it from public funds including voluntary donation through such vehicles as lotteries aimed specifically at making sure performance sport is a priority, in the context of the weight given to Middle Eastern countries in FINA governance: 19 places. No world-class elite swimming programs.
Four of those slots go to Kuwait, a nation supposedly suspended by the IOC and FINA, nations whose athletes must compete under international flags and nations that do not back the people who hold down positions in FINA, most specifically not Al-Musallam.
There’s one committee that carries a “one ring to rule them all” feel about it: the one that handles relations between all national federation/members of FINA. It is supposed to have “up to 5 members”. The provisional FINA list names 7 – of which three hail from the Middle East.
USA Swimming appears not to mind any of that. After all, it’s doing fine. It has its people in key positions and a count of 23 slots on those provisional (some say sealed) lists form the 2017-2021 period, including the vice-chair of the Masters Committee, Mel Goldstein, who will be reporting to Diop, so that Diop can get the masters message to the top table of FINA.
Masters themselves, of course, have no say in Diop’s appointment, no say in … well… anything, really. That’s not how FINA works.
The folk who swimmers do not get to vote for include representatives from the following nations with no world-class programs to speak of and not a world-class finalist in sight: Mauritius, Angola, Samoa, Peru, Pakistan, Lebanon and Haiti. There’s Egypt and Bahamas, too, among nations that have know the odd elite swimmer based in the United States but are very much a part of the class of ‘developing nations’ in the pool.
Together, they make up the bulk of the Masters committee of FINA. And they report to a man from Senegal.
It is a model of universality that has been a roaring success when it comes to maintaining the status quo. A model that has been a miserable failure when it has come to developing swimming programs in the so-called developing world, where so many programs and federations are run by those who have shown themselves to care far more about FINA’s gravy train and the treats to be had on it than the actual development of aquatic sports.
Diop seems genuine enough when he speaks of his love of swimming and masters swimming and all the benefits that can flow from it. He speaks of wanting Africa to get to a place where it might host an African masters championships. For that, of course, you would need some former swimmers who actually got to at least his level. Take out the obvious of South Africa and the obvious individuals from Kenya and Zimbabwe, and there aren’t many left.
In an interview for ‘FINA in-house’ a couple of years ago, Diop pointed to the lack of facilities as one of the issues.
I have news for him: some of the current leadership of FINA has been there since not long after my own father travelled to Africa in the late 1970 with FINA’s ‘development program’, met some splendid and keen folk in places like Tanzania and elsewhere and helped teach them about water treatment and running basic teaching and coaching programs. Not much progress has been made on facilities since those days in Africa, according to a whole raft of coaches and others, including some leading lights from South Africa.
The work of development was simply never backed up, never followed through to a place that would allow ‘developers’ to catch up on the conveyor belt. The likes of Senegal and others are just as far away from the target now as they ever were, probably further away in fact.
‘Development’ money from FINA, including the costs of having people on committees, travel and so on (recompense/expense/per diem) in more recent years has far too often ended up in the hands of people who cipher it off (as reported confidentially by coaches and others too frightened to go public with their experiences, some actually having had to move overseas for fear off reprisal because they asked ‘where did the money go’).
As such, little wonder that many programs and places in Africa are no further forward today than they were when my father was helping out.
Look at the results sheet of the World Championships from last month and it is very clear that “development” means showing up for a one-lap race, possibly two. Look at the 200m, the 400m and the 800 and 1500m races: those are the events in which proper development programs would include as a fundamental part of ‘progress’ in the pool. And yet, FINA simply rewards with travel and shopping tour, those who can get down (and not very fast for the most part) one length of the pool.
Time for change. That change will not come under the direction of FINA because the side of the coin that suits the leadership lands on the sunny side every time if you control that model of universality. If you keep a tight rein on a system that has helped to maintain the status quo through thick and thin, scandal and doping crisis galore and more – and all of it on the watch of USA Swimming and others of that status.
Meanwhile, Diop and the rest with similar top-table status in FINA has access to per diems of $350, some $500 and more, some, with all things taken into account, $750. A day, for each and every day they’re on the road for FINA. Spouses and partners are welcome, though they have to fund some of their passage themselves. Hardly a burden, though, when the man in the mix (and at Bureau level it is almost wall-to-wall male) is bringing home those hundreds of dollars a day for … well, for nothing, to be honest, because all business travel, 5-star hotels, food etc is covered before the per diem kicks in.
While masters are forking out hundreds of dollars a day win Budapest, some are forking it in.
Dale Neuburger, the VP and USA Swimming’s top man at FINA, has noted that he and others are due recompense for time taken away from work (he also gives a part of what he takes in from FINA to charity, a good move and a good tax move, too). His description raises a whole raft of other questions but even if we take his word unchallenged, the question remains: how does such a fee constitute a “per diem”
Here’s what the latin phrase means:
“daily allowance … a specific amount of money an organisation gives an individual, often an employee, student, athlete (usually for away matches), per day to cover living expenses when traveling for work.”
Expenses – definition: “… offset (an item of expenditure) as an expense against taxable income”.
So how does that work in my world? Probably like it does in your’s. I get sent to cover a championships and I eat and pay for a hotel and travel around. I then submit my receipts to my newspaper and they reimburse me for those costs. My work is paid for and that is taxable in the standard way.
FINA could do away with per diems tomorrow and replace them with fees and a standard, published rate for all to see. That would speak to the transparency promised for the past nine years by FINA president and former Hon.Treasurer Julio Maglione but not yet delivered.
It would also speak to the truth: there are some taking home six-figure sums without that ever being called a ‘wage’. They call themselves ‘executive volunteers’, while common sense tells you that those who can spend 50, 100 and more days a year on FINAS business, do not have standard jobs to leave back home. The FINA road is their way to work and pay.
A move to a fee-based system, one that would ultimately lead to a paid board of directors accountable to the membership and stakeholders in aquatic sports, with fixed terms of office, would not be difficult.
It would be a move towards professionalisation of a body that receives professional income, while refusing to call it that, at a time when its governance is far from what could be called ‘professional’, secretive deals and decisions that fall shy of best practice – and in some cases break FINA’s rules and constitutional obligations – a part of the picture.
A move to a transparent fee-payments system could quite easily be handled by FINA’s accounts department in conjunction with tax authorities who would have access to the relevant information on their citizens when it came to the payment of fees. All above board; no cash in hand. Simple, direct-to-bank transfers complete with International accounting standards dovetailed to (inter)national tax regimes.
A standard chart showing who gets what, when and a total fees paid to all FINA folk (surely unproblematic in the world of voluntary work), could be posted on the FINA website.
A great start to that new era of transparency pledged by Maglione and Co in Budapest.
How long before we see it? Best not hold your breath.
Meanwhile, leadership of swimming should be in the hands of those who have shown that their leadership has contributed to and helped to run world-class performance programs.
What has the Middle East and vast tracks of Africa brought to world-class swimming? On the one hand money to host events, much of it spent on blazers and golden thrones not athletes, who raced in largely empty swimming venues void of knowledgable crowds; on the other … nothing, in fact.
Nothing wrong with learning, of course. And learning roles should go to those with much to learn. The Olympic model is a one-way street to the death of the autonomy of sport.