FINA is bidding to have the International Olympic Committee extend the swimming program for the Games to nine days so that it can shoe-horn an extra 10 events in and make the ultimate showcase for the sport mirror a bloated world-titles schedule.
The logic of those running FINA is clear: more is more and more creates more stars. The logic of critics is just as clear: more is less and will dilute the offer, while leaving swimming open to further attack from those who say the sport already has too many events.
While those who know swimming understand just how rare and amazing it was for Katie Ledecky to be able to win the 200, 400 and 800m freestyle, and take gold in the 4x200m free with USA teammates in the bargain, critics, particularly from track and field, simply note how much ‘easier” it is for swimmers to win multiple medals.
From the perspective of aquatics, the argument has strengths and weaknesses.
One the one hand, the multi-medal counts of Michael Phelps, Ledecky and a few others are uncommon, the bulk of Olympic swimmers among the elite of the elite if they boast one medal in treasuries often stocked with far greater numbers of world and continental/regional honours. The truth is, there is nothing like the Olympics – and anyone who emerges from the pool in that realm with several medals round their neck, history shows us, belongs to one of two clubs: the truly extraordinary (one Phelps in a lifetime is the most we might expect) and the sadly enhanced who got away with it and robbed others of their rightful place.
On the other hand, track and field has 47 events at the Olympics (including 24 events that are exclusively track), gymnastics has 14 events at the Olympics. Aquatics, if FINA persuaded the IOC to agree to its demands, would have 62 events, including 44 events in the pool. FINA’s bid for more includes high diving, a sport that pales by comparison with the likes of swimming and athletics when it comes to participation. Chalk and cheese, in fact.
FINA’s bid include 50m stroke events, the men’s 800m free and women’s 1500m free and mixed relays freestyle and medley, the joining of genders in the competitive field a favourite with the IOC this season, it seems.
It is the balance of events – numbers and nature – across sport that is at the heart of and Olympic power play: the scrap for shares in broadcast funds that flow from the IOC.
Track and field took the lion’s share for many a long cycle but in recent times, swimming and gymnastics have been move up to the ‘A’ team of beneficiaries with athletics.
While NBC, the current lead Olympic rights broadcaster, may not be opposed to extending the swimming program to nine nights given the dominance of the USA in world-class waters (NB: it can forget holding dawn finals to suit American TV advertisers and audiences if Paris wins the 2024 race), the IOC as a whole is conscious of the need to control the size and scope of the show on more than one financial level.
Those levels are Olympic and national: if the costs of hosting a Games have reached crippling levels (examples of legacy gone wrong outweighing the lagcies that have gone well in the round), then the cost for nations who send teams in 20 and more sports across the world for the best part of a month is, in relative terms, astonomical.
In looking at the crumbling ruins of Rio’s Olympic venues and related issues this week, USA Today noted:
“The tab starts at more than $10 billion and often winds up being much, much higher. The predominant legacy is white elephants. The infrastructure improvements often wind up looking better on paper than in reality. No wonder the Olympics are fast becoming an undertaking only an autocrat can love.”
That sums up how, alongside ‘great show’, the Olympics is widely perceived today. Adding a huge number of events to the aquatics program may well go down well with fans but that is a relative limited audience when it comes to considering the communities who have something to say, at least in the deocratic world (and even then the notion is challengeable), when it comes to deciding ‘does the nation really want to host a $10bn show – and what’s in it for us’?
A scathing report from a federal prosecutor in Brazil this year said the country’s bid to host the 2016 Games was made with “no planning”. The implication in that statement is clear: with no thought for the consequence of such things on the part of the IOC, a largely autonomous organisation that takes the big money, gets its show but, in the eyes of man, takes no responsibility for any negative aftermath.
“This will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the International Olympic Committee and its never-ending search for the best party. The IOC has happily signed off on grandiose plans that have no chance of coming to fruition and budgets that would better qualify as works of fiction, knowing it won’t be sticking around for the cleanup. So long as there are five-star hotels, dedicated traffic lanes and Michelin-worthy food in the Olympic family lounges, what does the IOC care that the Games often result in a crushing financial burden for the host cities?”
The answer lies in the realm of the IOC’s ambitions to survive. If the Games turn to the likes of Pyongyang, Qatar and others place steeped in accusations that stretch from human rights abuses, human slavery and all the way to hosting the ultimate sporting occasion in pl;aces that have done little or nothing to build world-class sports programs and much less still for promoting the rights of women to play an equal role in sport.
The Winter Olympics is a case in point: Oslo, Stockholm. Great places for winter sport – and wealthy nations, too. Both said no thanks. It went to Beijing.
It gets ever harder for the Olympic movement to find a home, Paris and Los Angeles asked to consider a ‘win-win’ scenarion of the 2024 loser becoming the automatic 2028 winner. Neither of the 2024 bidders left in a race from which Boston, Hamburg, Budapest and Rome all withdrew, the citizens of at least two of those citiues giving the possibility of them hosting the Olympics a big thumbs down.
Switzerland and Spain are among nations to have declared their Olympic hosting dream less pressing than it might once have been. The cost and benefit has fallen out of balance.
It is against that backdrop that FINA is calling for more, just as it has for the past 20 years, during which the rate of what some would call ‘pay’ but blazers call ‘per diems’ even though they never use the money for genuine costs, have stretched to a current $500 and more every day that a ruling official is on ‘FINA business’ as a ‘volunteer’. The club of those ‘on duty’ for more than 150 days a year accounts for a significant part of the overall budget of the international federation that has around $350 million in the bank but will spend less than 1% of that sum on athlete prizes at then World Championships in Budapest from July 23-30.
A Twist of Dickens ahead for all concerned.