In the second 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 how the USA is propping up the status quo and consider why that might be. In the first part yesterday we looked at Machiavelli and the silence of the leadership at FINA, plus the difference between professional sport and swimming, a sport of participation topped by an elite element that locks out many of the best in the world.
That the USA sets the agenda and steers strategy and change in world swimming is not to be denied, as this article will note. Yet, this month, the board of the United States Aquatic Sports, the umbrella body affiliated to FINA and in the chain of power that leads to the door of the United States Olympic Committee and, ultimately, the International Olympic Committee, refused the baton offered by coaches in their call for independent review of the international federation.
Instead, the sport was treated to a cheerleading on-message mantra from president Jim Sheehan in support of a FINA leadership set on the wrong course. His words reminded me of one of the chucklers among scenes in the real-folk movie version of the classic 101 Dalmations. Glenn Close, as fashion boss Cruella de Vil turns to her financial adviser in search of support for a switch from stripes to spots that season. Yes, it would cost to switch but spots were just the thing, he thought. “What kind of a sycophant are you?” demands Cruella. Replies the down at heel: “What kind of sycophant would you like me to be?”
Let’s be clear about what we mean by USA Swimming in this context. There are, in brief:
- the swimmers (and other athletes in parallel bodies in USAS), most of them unrepresented in terms of professional status and whose membership and entry fees to meets contribute to the pot that pays for it all alongside foundation work and other activities;
- the professional coaches and programs that account for the bulk of USA success in world waters and are included in the decision-making process but of late have had their views on FINA and poor governance rejected;
- the professional staff running the disciplines at separate organisations for swimming, diving, etc.;
- the blazers on the board listening to the advice given to them by two of the most influential players at the international federation, USA representatives for many a long year, Dale Neuburger and Carol Zaleski, staunch members of the ‘FINA family’ at the heart of a system that ticks more on grace and favour than professionalism in the eyes of many key figures in swimming.
It is to the blazers that we turn in this article. In their hands is the power to do the right thing. After Neuburger and Zaleski gave a presentation stacked with the obvious and including assertions wide open to question, backing for FINA was ‘unanimous’, SwimVortex was told.
E-mails to this author have since confirmed that ‘unanimous’ is a tool of bureaucratic convenience and not a reality. It is the case that among those in the room to hear the presentation and carrying the power of vote were leading figures who did not agree with the stance taken by Sheehan in his message and given the chance will turn the ship to what they see is a better course downstream.
Important to note, as we cast a critical eye on the USA’s uncomfortable position, that in many ways – including the transitory nature of its presidency and leadership – the American set-up is more democratic and more apt to come up with the right decision, via debate and struggle, than most if not all other federations in the world. Which makes the current and momentary mindset at USAS all the more obvious and painful.
The USA Board has this month opted to stick with and back an agenda of broken promises, risk-laden compromises and a world in which an 85-year-old ‘volunteer’ would be on more money in pocketable (income with no expense) per diems each year than the average living wage of a family in the USA ($50,000) or any leading economies of the world. And all for the sake of what it calls the ‘strategic initiatives’ of USA Swimming.
Those ‘strategic initiatives’ include a strong degree of oversight and to some extent control throughout the structures of FINA. Take the 20 committees and commissions comprised of experts, practitioners and political appointments of people with no relevant experience or skill in the areas of expertise to which they have been assigned.
The USA has the lion’s share of a system that allows only one representative from each nation on committees and commissions and the FINA Bureau:
Nations with world-class swim programs:
- USA: 20 people on 21 forums plus Bureau representation (2005: 11 in 14 forums)
- AUS: 13 (2005: 11 from 14 forums)
- CHN: 10
- JPN: 7
- RUS: 6
- FRA: 3
- Middle East nations (no world-class programs): 11 (2005: 2 from 14 forums, so an influence very much on the rise but without an accompanying shift to anything remotely like a world-class elite program of home swimmers, men and women, gender equality one of the pillars of the FINA Constitution)
- Total places for nations with no world-class programs (no medals, no finals on major occasions): 63 (just under 30%, as opposed to about 20% in 2005, another influence on the rise that is not in keeping with the geography of world-class swimming programs)
The USA has a lock on the most influential committee of them all: The Technical Swimming Committee, chaired by Carol Zaleski, with Dale Neuburger as the Bureau FINA liaison to the group. The TSC is the body that steers rules and is charged with keeping the sport up to date, from consideration of technical progression to presentation of events and whether a one-hand turn on breaststroke or 15 dolphin kicks underwater are acceptable or not, for example.
The folk in the group doesn’t always get their way, of course: video footage as a permanent fixture in the pool and available for use in referee judgments, disputes and appeal decisions has been blocked by the FINA leadership for all too long.
As one leading member of the FINA Bureau said to me recently when asked about the nature of Bureau meetings:
“Most of them are box-ticking exercises with no discussion, no debate, the decisions having already been taken before we enter the room.”
So much for ‘leadership’ and claims of a ‘broad church’ approach to decision-making.
Just why Zaleski and Neuburger wish to get on with the FINA leadership is about more than position in the ‘family’: among the minority of delegates from around the world who actually roll up their sleeves and take on a job when it comes to the live moment and the running of big meets, both Zaleski and Neuburger wish their influence and the will of the USA to prevail when it comes to substantive decisions.
Understandable. The question runs deeper, however: is the go-along-to-get-along approach really the right way to go about business if swimming is to pull itself out of the mire it is stuck in under current leadership?
The passing of time, the slow pace of change and the trend in geographical influence bolster my view: no, it is not the right approach, legion the examples of swimming being held back. And among those being held back by that process are American athletes who, with their coaches, strive every day to ensure that nothing holds them back when it comes to fulfilling their potential in the pool and, often, in life beyond. Governance is not keeping pace with such ambitions.
Worth noting, too, that USA Swimming has benefitted from its position in FINA world in ways that other federations do not get to benefit. For example, every four years USA Swimming asks FINA to look the other way so it can miss the entry deadline for the Olympic Games (the one set by FINA for the purpose of administration of entries). No other nation holds its trials so late, so the favour gets through without challenge from the wider world. A non-issue many might say, for who wants to hold back the best. And yet, removal of the pass is something the USA leadership fears, even though it has the power to press the issue and win the argument if it ever needed to.
The presentation that backed the status quo
USA Swimming’s board had the chance to do the right thing when it met this month. It could have sent a clear message that it backed calls for a review – nothing exacting, just the stuff of IOC Agenda 2020 plus independent overview (for without it the exercise would be pointless). A review that would bring FINA in line with what is common practice in many successful businesses, including sports organisations, the world over.
Here was the chance to press for structural change of the kind that would cut out the worst excesses of stupidity at the top table of FINA. Yes, I do mean stupidity: anything that draws athletes and coaches, parents, media and sponsors/partners into close quarter with world politics, conflict, international sanctions and a count of fatalities in sovereign territory is hugely irresponsible and against the very codes that the likes of the IOC and FINA insist that athletes keep.
The chance was passed over. Instead, the USA Board set aside the views of many of its leading coaches, the folk who help more than any other bar the athlete to produce USA results, in order to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Uruguay’s Julio Maglione, his ambitions to break his campaign and constitutional promise, a pledge that USA Swimming backed and signed up to in 2009 just as Americans helped to convince the world, rightly, that shiny suits were not suited to the sport.
Instead of sticking to that campaign ticket of two-terms only in the top seat and falling in line with IOC caps on age for those holding high office, Maglione, with the blessing of Neuburger, Zaleski and now the USA Board, is back on the campaign trail persuading all about him that the golden throne should be his until he is 85. And, as we considered in part 1, in the bargain, the chief ‘volunteer’ is apparently willing to have FINA pay for propaganda and a plan to discredit in order to get to where he wants to be.
Seen from one angle the JTA plan is one in which FINA’s leadership is paying for the campaign of one potential candidate for the presidency come 2017 even before the constitutional change that has to happen for Maglione to be able to stand again has been voted on. So much for democracy, transparency and ethics.
Precisely who’s interest would that serve? Has the USA been promised something in return for such weakness of resolve, for championing the u-turn? Does the USA simply want to lock Europe out of a shot at the top seat, Maglione the safe option with which to buy time? Or is the USA a supporter of the model at the heart of so much speculation among leaders in the world of swimming?
Could it be that the USA’s preference is to have the member of the IOC in the Americas’ camp take a third term for the very reason spelled out by Neuburger and Zaleski in their presentation to the Board – namely:
Maglione is a “Close ally and advisor to IOC President Thomas Bach and ANOC President Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, the two most influential leaders within the Olympic movement”.
Could it be that the USA favours the scenario many believe to be at the root of Maglione’s u-turn – namely:
Change the constitution this summer in readiness for 2017 voting and a return of Maglione so that Kuwait’s Bureau member Husain Al Musallam, friend of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, can step up as stand-in president of FINA when the Uruguayan decides, mid-third-term, that the pace of it all has finally got to him. The man from Kuwait might then find himself in a perfect position to press on for a permanent three-termer of his own. Of course, we’d be more than happy to hear from Husain Al Musallam if he has no ambition whatsoever in the direction of the scenario doing the rounds.
Pure speculation, you may hear from the politicians who know very well that that is the talk of the VIP stands. Even as a theory, this is what the thought extends to: FINA is looking at a period of 45 years in which its presidency is in the hands of men from nations with no world-class swimming programs to speak of. In the hands of folk from folk from Americas and friendly to the USA for 24 years. That’s politics. And in my view the kind of politics that will hold swimming development back.
Backing one questionable path in order to block another?
It is not the kind of model that will take the sport forward in the right direction nor at the pace that you might imagine could be the case if leadership were in entrepreneurial hands driven by the needs of athletes, guided by the expertise of coaches with a vote and a say and professionally run at board level.
Transparency? Give us a break
The reasons for the USA’s position boil down to ‘strategic initiatives’. One of those is backing for the USOC-supported IOC Agenda 2020 and transparency. Here’s what US swim president Jim Sheenan declared in his May message:
“We applaud FINA for saying it will be among the first international federations to implement this requirement.”
I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. Applauding people for going par way to doing what they were called on to do two decades and more ago by this journalist, among many other folk, is hardly going to get across the tone required for speedy progress on pressing matters.
And so we return to the presentation that persuaded the USA Board.
There were three main characters behind a 14-page presentation entitled “FINA: Its Role, Operations, and Intersection with US Aquatic Sports and USA Swimming”: Carol Zaleski and Dale Neuburger.
It is a season of challenge for Neuburger: the American delegate is heading for a showdown with fellow Bureau member Margo Mountjoy, of Canada, for the Americas Vice-Presidential spot at the top table of the international swim federation. “At UANA congress in Toronto is an election for the FINA Vice (sic) President for the Americas” and Neuburger is “seeking a fifth term”, Sheehan tells the troops. The presentation to Board was delivered, according to some of those present, with supportive comments from Rich Young, the USA Swimming lawyer who sits on FINA’s Legal Committee.
The first thing that struck me when I read the presentation was the hefty level of basic information: if the members of the USA Swimming Board did not already know much of this stuff, then, as my grandfather would have said, they bloody well ought to have done.
Observers to the presentation suggest that there was an underlying note of “what FINA might do to us” if we make things difficult for them. If that was indeed the case nothing could be more ridiculous. Without USA Swimming, FINA would crumble.
There is no if and but about it. Take USA athletes away from one world titles on a point of ‘FINA do the right thing’ and not only would others follow but FINA would as well.
Boycott, of the kind condoned and quietly supported by USA Swimming this year, is not what anyone would want but sometimes there is a pressing and overwhelming need to take action. In the case of Fran Crippen, USA Swimming was happy for its swimmers to take a stand, lead the way, make the headlines and field media questions. The domestic federation, invited by this website to have its say, refused to take a public stance in support of action when it came to expressing a similar level of disgust shown by its athletes over FINA’s decision to return open water to the United Arab Emirates just four years after Fran’s death sparked two inquiries, both deeply critical of FINA and its representatives, as well as the local organisation on a day of tragic outcome.
Those events did not pass Neuburger and Zaleski by in their presentation.
Among examples of successful efforts (my notes in brackets)
- Prize money at FINA World Championships (FINA is spending more on other things than prize money for athletes and lags professional sports by several decades)
- Re‐write of the FINA safety standards for open water swimming (it took the death of a USA swimmer)
- Athlete representation within the FINA Bureau (can anyone name one substantial decision that Matt Dunn pressed for that has raised the professional status of athletes? Did Matt Dunn have a say when it came to honouring Putin? Did Dunn have a say when it came to deciding that facilities rules designed to safeguard athlete health and safety are irrelevant when world records are set, even though the World Record application form calls for “All FINA Rules” to be observed … and on and on ? I would wager that Matt Dunn has not been invited to speak at all on some of the issues FINA is in trouble over. Very happy to hear from Matt, on behalf of the athletes he represents, if he’s tuning in)
- Profile and fabric changes to swimsuits (after a two-year campaign by this author at SwimNews, coaches and athletes, among others; FINA proactive and pressed, not reactive and ready to do the right thing in a way that would have saved athletes the woe of Rome 2009 and backwash that followed)
- Conduct of competitions and athlete/coach friendly environment (after more than 100 years of development and given standards in sport far and wide, that’s not much more than saying, well, we gave them water to swim in, what more do they want… come on Carol and Dale, really … and let’s not forget the woe of the tunnel at Rome 2009, all in your time on the watch of many still there leading the show/calling the shots)
- Creation of Coaches and Athletes Commissions (in a system in which the representatives are not chosen by their peers and a system that leaves many issues raised but left on the shelf with no response, let alone action, from the top table)
And then some examples of Unsuccessful Efforts (all of which I agree with):
- FINA appointment of a UAE representative to TOWSC and the 2015 UAE open water event
- Individuals vs. “slots” for Olympic qualification in open water swimming
- Caps and bibs with commercial identification at FINA events
- Coach position on the FINA Bureau (to be meaningful, this would have to be an independent appointment of a figure who represents coaches not hand-picked by the leadership of FINA and assimilated into the system)
- Change to Jury of Appeal structure within FINA competitions
Several other challenges on issues USA holds at heart are listed among targets over the coming years. Again, all worthy – and, in a better system, most of which would be relatively easy to deliver because there is widespread support for them among leading swim nations. It is only in the system of grace and favour being backed by USA Swimming’s Board that risk arises. The USA Board appears to be sold on the questionable notion that Maglione’s influence in the IOC (he won’t be there for much longer) will keep the current Olympic program as it is. That will soon be put to the test.
Among Final Thoughts from Neuburger and Zaleski to their Board is this gem of list (my notes in brackets):
- Not a single President or General Secretary of 209 National Federations worldwide has expressed support for the WSCA demands (really? gosh, well, there’s a shocker. Most of them won’t even have heard the news, so you can forget leaning on 209 nations, most of which can’t swim, so to speak; and those who are tuned in know only too well to say nothing unless they’re told to, the gravy train an experience beyond for the majority. Beyond that, I haven’t exactly heard a great yell of support for FINA’s leadership either, from a community of folk who didn’t get to have a say on Putin – did you have a say Dale – and if so, what was your contribution? Did you have a say in the JTA nonsense? If so, what was your contribution? And if you didn’t have a say … why not and what’s the point of you being there?)
- No mechanism within the IOC Charter for replacement of an International Federation – unlike the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act (there’s no mechanism in international law for allowing Putin’s troops to walk into Ukraine and take back former Soviet territory either but it happened … as the FINA honouree might tell you all, revolution doesn’t always come about by sticking to the rules of engagement)
- FINA has more than $100 million in the bank and scheduled/guaranteed revenues from Rio and Tokyo, plus scheduled Championships through 2019 (great, then it’ll be doubling all prize money overnight for Kazan? It could surely afford to do just that if the figures are correct – they’d have to treble it for a world swim champ to edge past a first-round loser at Wimbledon)
- USA Swimming has always operated in a strategic manner – and we have a proposed set of strategic initiatives that requires our continued leadership of the sport (Good to know that USA Swimming should think itself as having a leadership role in the sport, for with that comes responsibility for the appalling decisions taken by FINA’s leadership of late and tolerated and condoned by the USA Board through its overwhelmingly positive note of support in president Sheehan’s May message).
USA Swimming’s support for the status quo and broken promises also came down to this:
- the ear of Bach and Ahmed Al‐Fahad Al‐Ahmed Al‐Sabah;
- “Dr. Maglione has been a supporter of USA Swimming throughout his tenure and is an influential figure within the International Olympic Committee (IOC). USA Swimming continues to support Dr. Maglione, as it did previously in 2009 and 2013.”;
- “Speaking of the IOC, the Olympic governing body recently announced its IOC 2020 Agenda, a roadmap of 40 initiatives for the future of the Olympic movement. Within it are a series of recommendations pertaining to bidding for the Olympic Games, cost reduction, the launch of an Olympic TV channel and strengthening the principles of good governance and ethics.” ;
- “USA Swimming fully supports the IOC 2020 Agenda, including the requirement for good governance reviews. USA Swimming has had governance reviews performed over the past several decades and we think they serve a very beneficial purpose. We applaud FINA for saying it will be among the first international federations to implement this requirement.”
What USA Swimming did not come out and say
Given that its interests are American, USAS might be expected to back the views of those with their hands on the tiller of American success in the pool. But there were no words from the Board along these lines:
We back our coaches and their call for FINA to press ahead with review. It is long overdue and it needs to happen sooner, not later – and it needs to be conducted by an independent outfit, our experience of the difference between our inquiry report into the death of Fran Crippen and the one that emerged from FINA an example of why any process that is not independent would be a waste of time, money and opportunity.
In the conclusion to this three-parter: the meaning of transparency; how swimming has failed to harness the energy of many it should have nurtured down the years and why this author won’t be at the World Championships for the first time in 25 years – the end of an era