In the last part of a three-part feature and editorial on the latest moves by the FINA leadership to convince the world that it is on the right path, we look at transparency, at influence and media waning and waxing, at pythons, paper tigers and the new foundations that must be built in a sport where the madness of blazers even comes in Stars and Stripes these days.
Part 1: Of Machiavelli, Money Pools & A Measure Of ‘Professionalism’ In Swimming
Part 2: Why Would The USA Board Back Broken Promises & The Status Quo At FINA?
Part 3: In our second part of this mini-series, we considered the latest move by members of the Board that steers USA Swimming, a federation oft viewed as one of the “good guys” of governance, sound reasons aplenty to back up that view and particularly when it comes to the professional approach to performance and providing the environment in which swimmers, coaches and programs can thrive.
Yes, we are aware of the sex abuse scandals and the tardy handling of matters that has been at the heart of sorrow and scorn when it comes to the victims of events that ought never to have been a part of the sports realm and a place of learning for children but right here we are dealing with matters beyond the realms of criminality and the particular complexities therein.
In the context of this discussion, American blazers have long been seen as a critical backbone of support for the system that produces such soaring excellence team after team, generation after generation after generation. This month, there has been a shift, seismic in my view when it comes to the USA’s power to do great good or back things with the potential to damage the sport of swimming.
From where I stand – including being the subject of a plan by FINA leaders to discredit my work and, far more significantly, that of US coaches – Jim Sheehan will go down as the USA aquatics president who bucked the trend. His May message had him swimming against the tide when it comes to supporting a clean up in sports governance.
All such things serve to highlight the overwhelming need for independent review of process, management, culture and books so that the top table of swimming can be held up as model of progress and pride not as one that is constantly viewed as purveyors of poor to bad decisions that hold the sport back from where many aspire to it getting, athletes included.
Sheehan and team have let the side down, their cheerleading for the unacceptable standing in stark contrast to the excellence of Michael Phelps, Bob Bowman, Gregg Troy, Ryan Lochte, Eddie Reese, the Texas Trio and all the crest-of-wave stuff that those names stand for as the spray of their time in an ocean of achievement.
As we discussed yesterday, the US Board was sold on its course by a presentation from the FINA Bureau member Dale Neuburger and the head of the international federation’s Technical Swimming Committee, Carol Zaleski. We pick up where we left off, with Two Sides to Transparency:
- IOC (FINA etc to follow) will publish its per diem rates for volunteers. For FINA Bureau members that means $400 a day when attending FINA events. You’re looking at $8,000 plus for the duration of the world titles, about 3 weeks, this summer for ‘volunteers’ who get all expenses paid on top of that (travel, hotel, food, local transport). In other words the money is to compensate those people for loss of earnings while away from other work beyond the world of FINA.
- Many of those who will receive that money will suffer no loss of earnings elsewhere; some of those in Kazan will actually be in the very realm in which they make their money in a world ‘beyond’ but very closely connected to FINA.
My view: FINA has the money to pay for professional work and should do so on a fixed scale of incomes, while reducing per diems to those who actually incur costs during FINA events, those costs to be receipted and accounted for – common practice in business and places far and wide where folk submit a tax return and account for what goes in and what goes out.
If the IOC, FINA and others are truly committee to transparency, then they would have to be looking at the kind of system that a great many others have to abide by in their normal working lives. Per diems are declarable income and need to be set against invoices to show precisely why you got the money and what you spent it on. What is required is a public register of interests and a public register of per diem payments, all above board, no issue: easy to achieve – if only the will was there.
Proposals such as IOC Agenda 2020 do not stretch that far, as far as I can see. It should, in my view, be possible for all members of Oceania swimming, Swimming Australia included, for example, to see precisely what Dennis Miller, of Fiji, is up to on their behalf: how many days a year is he on FINA duty, what does that entail, what per diems that translates to and what everyone is getting for their money from a man who has a job to do back home when it comes to developing world-class swimmers?
I mention Miller because he was a supporter of a junior journalists’ training course that has made its way into FINA world of late when it really ought to have found no place in the world of elite swimming, not least of all because the international swim federation has precisely no skills nor any part to play in the training of journalists and independent reporting.
Miller recommended the scheme to FINA based on his experience at Oceania Championships (junior/development). As a member of the FINA Press Commission at the time, I responded with a note to say that while I could well see why such things had merit in an environment with no media to speak of covering development swimming, such things had no place on a media stand at the likes of a World Championships as professionals went about their jobs in a live environment on deadline.
More than eight months later, gestation of thought was done: it leaked out via a question nor through direct communication with the press commission that FINA had cancelled a media forum that was supposed to have taken place in Doha to coincide with the World Short-Course Championships last December and … yes, you guessed it, we would all be called on to help train a group of trainee reporters.
It was an example of the ridiculous lack of understanding of professions that FINA leaders do not understand but wish to control. The swimming equivalent would be for the USA Swimming Board to ask each of the USA team staff coaches in Kazan to take along an aspiring coach to track and trace their every move as Ledecky to Lochte step up; the swimmers’ equivalent would be to ask Ledecky and Lochte to take a winner from a local junior meet with them to the blocks as they step up for the final of the 800 free and 200IM.
No self-respecting journalist on deadline at a world titles has time to have a cub reporter in tow, quite apart from the fact that such positions ought to be earned, as in train, impress, get better, get the job, get the place on the team, earn your spot, deliver on the big occasion. Same process whatever your role may be at the excellence level of things. Except for blazers, it seems.
Miller is an example of someone with influence and vote at the top table representing a part of the world that includes one of the great swimming nations (not his own) but whose take on what FINA ought to focus its energies on should be subjected to scrutiny. Miller is a member of the FINA executive alongside Dale Neuburger, both of them vice-presidents. They will both surely have known about the JTA proposal to discredit folk and all sold on the basis of using Michael Phelps as a poster boy (as if). Had they not known, then the lack of transparency in FINA would be an even darker place than we imagined it to be.
Understanding of what constitutes transparency and necessary declaration of interests differs the world over. Dale Neuburger, for example, is a TSE Consulting Partner. He steps out of votes when TSE is bidding for work with FINA, the conflict of interest obvious to him and everyone else. TSE clients beyond FINA include the Dubai Sports Council, UAE Swimming Federation in Dubai, Saudi Arabian Swimming Federation, the Bahrain Ministry of Youth and Sport, the Qatar Women’s Sport Committee, the Qatar Olympic Committee, the Turkish Swimming Federation, Brazilian National Olympic Committee, the Danish Swimming Federation, the City of Manchester, the Mexican Smimming Federation, Guadalajara. Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) and Olympic Solidarity (IOC).
That list includes a vast network of people directly involved in bidding for FINA events, connections in the Middle East, a region to which FINA has turned to often of late in search of hosts, funding and support, a region whose presence in the system of committees and commissions has grown significantly in the past several decade.
While the FINA Constitution allows for Neuburger’s status and position and the man steps out when he sees a conflict of interest looming, as responsibility demands, the international federation does not tolerate membership of the Bureau by working professionals leading swim federations.
Why? Because their national interest might override that of FINA’s. Several leading figures in swimming have indicated to SwimVortex that they find that balance uncomfortable. The system was put to the test when the Chief Executive Officer of British Swimming, David Sparkes, wanted to stand for a place on the Bureau via his position in LEN, the European Swimming League. Sparkes was told that if he joined the Bureau, FINA would expect him to stand down from his professional job in Britain.
The difference between the positions of Neuburger and Sparkes – both with obvious domestic interests and one with clear business interests – is one of myriad issues that independent review ought to consider so that a sensible decision can be arrived at. There is likely to be a better way than the fuzziness of current constitution and rules from a book that the FINA leadership leans on and ignores in high measure on both scales when it suits.
The trouble with the USA Board’s position is clear: it is tolerating an awful lot that it ought not to tolerate in the interests of getting its way on some issues which, in my opinion, it would win the day on anyway if the system was better built for purpose.
What we have is a status quo in which it is hard to find FINA leaders or committee members prepared to take a stand. That is the case even when, with a nod to the stance of Neuburger, Zaleski and their presentation, USA swimmers are among those most wounded by events.
Here’s an example: USA Swimming, through the documentary mentioned in this article on troubled waters, will remind us all next year that 40 years have passed since Kornelia Ender and GDR teammates thumped the USA’s women into submission with the aid of what would be the ‘assisted means’ of State Plan 14:25: Oral Turinabol (and some other health-threatening stuff that made victims of young women – and men in some cases – on both sides of the Cold War of sport).
Question: did Dale Neuburger or any other USA delegate to FINA ever press the case for GDR officials with criminal records to have their FINA Pins (a service honour) withdrawn? Did they press for victims on both sides to be recognised? And what came of it?
I ask because when that USA Swimming memory emerges in the world next year, the rest of planet water, not to mention the likes of Shirley Babashoff, have the right to ask what all those American people and their ‘strategic initiatives’ at the heart of FINA did to fight for justice and reconciliation down the years? How many of them pressed for the right thing to happen? Or have they followed a damp mantra of “go along to get along”.
Right now, this less than merry month of May the USA Board’s position may well be perceived as this:
Thumbs up for Julio and folk who want days of plenty to carry on until they’re 85; a Fanfare for FINA; Shut Up Shirley; Coaches, Get Back In Your Box, we won’t be asking FINA or Dale Neuburger if our international masters really have spent $150,000 on a farce that includes misrepresenting the good name of our key aquatic asset – Michael Phelps – and discrediting our leading coaches, John Leonard cited but far from being alone.
That may not have been the intention of the USA Board, a body that will have many fine folk in its midst. Even so, that is how much of Sheehan’s message can be read at this troubling juncture in swimming history, the blindness of the blazer and remoteness from the ‘FINA family’ contributing to a culture in which:
- an Olympic champion such as Amanda Beard is reduced to tears as she walks out to her blocks because she’s being threatened for objecting to wearing a sponsor in direct rivalry with the company that backs her way through a swimming life;
- in which USA swimming leaders do not raise a flag when its leading coaches are cited at the heart of a $150,000 strategy that spells out FINA’s wish to cosy up to USA Swimming, use its good name at the same time as discrediting US coaches and misrepresenting Michael Phelps
- in which perfectly reasonable questions on doping and other issues that directly affect USA swimmers go ignored and unanswered for weeks, months and forever because FINA leaders, hiding behind staff at HQ, have no answers that would be acceptable to the wider membership of world swimming.
- the man at the helm on the day Fran Crippen died is promoted within the FINA ‘family’
USA Swimming and all associated blazers: you can do much, much better than that.
As you nestle in to the comfort of status quo, I take the opportunity to remind you of the words of Andy Warhol:
“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself”
Pythons and Paper Tigers
FINA is both them and it is all of you out there: athletes, coaches, the parents paying for entry fees and much more, clubs, a vast army of volunteers who get no FINA-style per diem and without whom none of any of this would happen.
So, why, would you wish to be silent any longer? Fear, I’ve been told. Of what? The FINA leadership is a paper tiger. To prove it would require the likes of the USA Swimming Board, Swimming Australia and a few others, to find the conviction to test it.
Note, it is not courage you need – just belief that what you stand for is the truth and the right, as in:
“Let them say about me, that I lived in nature’s fair light, and that I stood, for the truth and the right”- Bob Dylan, “Cross the Green Mountain”, a refrain lamenting a slain soldier of the American Civil War
I take us back to some who have tested the paper tiger, the truth and the right on their side, and moments when the way of the Python (Monty) was a good way to deal with darkness.
Shane Gould, Perth 1998 world titles: the first day of finals for the event was promoted by one local radio DJ with a call to spectators heading to the pool to “raise your flask in the air and show ’em ya care!”.
He was referring to the 13 vials (flasks) of Human Growth Hormone found in the kit bag of Yuan Yuan, a teenage victim of abuse at the mercy of rogue doctors, coaches, politicians and others privy to the crime unfolding as she made her way to a World Championships soaked in the scandal of doping and a China Crisis of GDR plus positive tests in the making.
When a group of journalists dashed across to get reaction from FINA director Cornel Marculescu on the news of seizure and arrest at Sydney airport as the China team went through transit on its way to Perth, the director’s response was: “This is a balloon … you will bring down your own house.”
It was no balloon nor was the house of FINA anything to do with journalists covering the sport. At Perth airport, we witnessed painful scenes: swimmers under police escort, a vast scrum of media, cameras whirring, writers screaming and scribbling as they moved as one across a waiting lounge, bystanders, including young children, trampled underfoot. All a balloon, apparently. In fact, it was a crisis FINA could and should have seen coming, should and could have prevented.
Meanwhile, Gould’s approach to what she and many others saw as softness on China and doping back in 1998 was to get a great many folk to wear yellow t-shirts bearing logos in support of clean sport. Matching balloons were handed out. And then, Gould held a press conference to get her message across in a side hall at the championship venue. Asked one FINA official:
“What is she doing? She has no platform here, no right…”
I interrupted him to say: “If Shane Gould has no platform on world swimming – and in Australia at that – and no right to talk about a clean and healthy environment, then we must all be silent forever.”
The suggestion took hold in FINA culture, apparently. For these days, silence is the order of the day if the question is the ‘wrong’ one.
It has long been like that. I wrote the story above on the day and at those championships and on every day in Perth the paper boy brought more from the dark side of the sport. One evening as the press centre clattered to the sound of deadline just after the last final was done, someone noticed that a press release had been quietly popped into one of dozens of pigeon holes among the results and quotes and stats of the day. Four more Chinese swimmers had tested positive, pouring further fuel on fire. A sizeable group of journalists went in search of anyone from FINA who could supply us with more information on the latest cases. No blazers to be found. We tracked them down to a hotel in town and disturbed their gala dinner in search of answers.
As one Australian colleague put it at the time: Fina was to be found tucking into a “ute load of prawns” as swimming sank further into the mire. I turned to Nero and Rome burning for metaphor in my notes from the moment, unaware that a decade on, we’d get even closer to the geography of history and circumstance during the shiny suits circus. It took Cornel Marculescu more than two years to say a civil good morning to me after Perth 1998. I was glad that he and the leadership of FINA had been embarrassed, pressed, pushed and questioned into action, by athletes, coaches and media.
It was the only way to get a federation always reactive never proactive to do the right thing.
And here we are again, back in the same place – and with many of the same people wearing the blazers. If that is how swimming wants it, then it needs me no more.
Should I stay or should I go?
Kazan had been penned in to many diaries this August but I will not be there. Like Michael Phelps, James Magnussen and many of you for a variety of reasons, I will watch the second-biggest showcase in swimming after the Olympics from afar – and that for the first time in a quarter of a century.
The reason: a decision forced and another chosen. Neither of the two newspapers I work for in Britain, The Times and Sunday Times, feel that swimming still merits spending money on to cover live – and that in a season of Adam Peaty on the rise. The truth is that swimming is simply not big enough to make the bigger budget required for live coverage, as opposed to remote observation.
What plays into such decisions? Well, this from a leading decision maker in the media when it comes to sporting choices: “… they gave Putin their highest honour!? Really? And the championships are in Russia, right?”. And then, beyond Golden Thrones and more nonsense since condoned by the board of USA Swimming, there was the attempt to discredit folk, including a Times journalist who has written more articles and features promoting the Arte Natandi than I care to recall this past quarter of a century.
The warning signs of waning interest in swimming have been there for a long time and they continue to be there across a great many leading media platforms. Go back to the 1990s and we find newspapers such as those I work for sending its correspondent on Mare Nostrum Tour, to any event where the best might gather on the way to the Olympics; we find Reuters and other big agencies covering short-course championships continental and world. No longer: all of that fell away as the frequency of events tilted to quantity over quality, calendar chaos over well-structure seasons meaningful to the wider sports audience in keeping with the regulars on the trail of sporting magnets, the Wimbledons, Grand Slams and Open Golfs of the world included.
And as swimming’s draw waned in eye of editors at a time of shrinking media budgets, events such as those in Perth 1998 may well have contributed to the notion in the minds of blazers that the way to resolve tension with the world of scribes was to make its house a more comfortable place for the media. I’m talking about a different kind of cushion.
In 2015, the media stands will include a fair few who are there because a federation, domestic or international, from FINA to IOC level, has either paid for them to be there or contributed heftily to making sure they are there. Others are supported by sponsors who want the media there when their charge gets that gold, sets that record but knows that it isn’t nearly as easy to guarantee the presence of reporters and coverage as it is in other realms, such as Wimbledon and the like. There is competition within competition.
In Barcelona in 2013, setting aside the handful of agency reporters for a moment, there were between ‘0’ staff journalists from mainstream print media there to cover the world championships from the United States, Britain, Canada, among several other top 20 swim nations. From Australia: 4. Where increase in numbers could be found was in the realms of journalists and so-called journalists funded wholly or in part by official bodies and sponsors.
USA Swimming’s Board will doubtless be interested to know the final count for Kazan in those stands overlooking the pool (assuming FINA doesn’t build the media stand behind the finishing line for the majority of writers as it did in Barcelona two years ago). It is only my estimate but I would guess that, Associated Press and niche websites apart, there will be no staff journalists from any mainstream US publications in Kazan. Not a single one. Australia will have a handful. Great news. And I hope that the likes of Karen Crouse makes it and FINA faces the questions that need to be put to them in a live forum where silence is simply no option.
The independent journalist is needed now more than ever in swimming as the media stands are heavy on folk there by virtue of the backing of a sponsor linked to the event. Don’t be fooled by statements boasting of hundreds of reporters for those are a little like counting all the teams in the stands as part of the paying public.
That US media picture will be repeated for Britain and several others key nations, too, while the bulk of FINA member nations will have no reporters in town at all. To some extent, the response of federations noticing the lack of media tuning in has been to increase their media services. All good – until that spills over to sponsored reporting, subsidised coverage of the cheerleading kind, the presence of one type of ‘journalist’ dependent on the very people the independent journalist ought to be keeping an eye on.
Given recent events, given a lack of will to do something about it out there among you in the swimming ranks, it is not hard to see why those who neither do nor need care about swimming in the way I have done would rather wash their hands of it. The world is so full of popular stuff of other realms, the choices really do fit the no-brainer’ box for those who make media decisions.
There have been similar challenges to loss of coverage at live events and coverage all all in the past. Each time I’ve fought the corner of continued coverage and more often than not managed to persuade editors to stick with it. Not this time.
In the void, there is work to be done – and new avenues to explore. I shall, of course, miss the athletes, the action, the coaches and personalities and those excellent colleagues on the media stand I’ve had the pleasure to work alongside; I shall miss bringing you the small details, nuances and finer points that can only be seen up close when swords are flying and the battle raging; I shall miss helping my colleagues with the stats and ranks, the memories that contribute to fine coverage; and, if you allow me a momentary lapse in standards of neutrality that I believe to be an important part of coverage, I shall miss Mr. Peaty’s shot at becoming the first Brit to win a world 100m breaststroke title.
In spirit, I shall be there – and SwimVortex will be well served, from beyond and in Kazan, by my side John Lohn and Liz Byrnes and the digital team that makes sure we’re here, and the great eye of Patrick B. Kraemer, too.
Gateway To A New World
Before Nick Thierry passed away in 2012, he predicted in an email exchange with me that USA Swimming would “continue to get closer to FINA” and Maglione “… at the expense of many of its friends”. I replied ‘surely not’. And from that emerged a deal. Right now, the balance of events, with USA Swimming Board opting to keep the sport shackled to an unacceptable status quo, suggests that Nick had read the runes perfectly (as he often did). I hope never to have to fulfil my promise to Nick – though I will if I have to.
There is hope and it rests with the wisdom of age and experience and the spirit and energy of youth. Coaches and athletes have begun to lay the foundations of a new world should the old one continue to fail them, should those, like USA Swimming chose to hide its light under a bushel of bureaucratic diplomacy doomed to end in woe of the kind that tends to shadow those who couple themselves to people, connections and events they have not fully understood. If the athletes and their sponsors leave FINA for waters new, there will be no FINA. Very simple.
A terrible moment for swimming when folk who hold high office at the helm of excellence not of their making stay silent when bad things happen but instead feel it wise to speak out in favour of those with their hand on the wheel of woeful outcomes. While silence is not what is called for right now, it might have been wiser of USA Swimming blazers who could not bring themselves to back their coaches to heed the advice of Abraham Lincoln:
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”.
Meantime, my energy will no longer be sapped by public efforts to persuade FINA to do the right thing. They are a lost cause, the leadership unfit to govern, those about them unable and unwilling to call them to account.
Time for a different approach for a while. There will be a little of Frank Ocean in the mix – “Work hard in silence, let your success be your noise …” but I urge each and every one of you in swimming, including all of you sitting on boards and committees and commissions, all of you sponsors and partners – who, presumably, want swimming to be more than niche – to consider that you may just be getting what you deserve. Which side of the divide are you on? In the words of Edmund Burke:
“All tyranny [arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power] needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”