The Court of Arbitration for Sport is set to adjudicate in a row at the heart of the FINA leadership – between three vice-presidents and a fourth member of the ruling Bureau no less – that exposes bitter political infighting.
In FINA Vs Paolo Barelli, CAS, which rejected the international federation’s initial challenge that suggested the court had no jurisdiction in the matter, is being asked to decide if FINA stuck to its rules when it refused to refer a dispute to the Ethics Panel of the international federation.
At the heart of a matter that could reshape international swimming governance are: conflicts of interests; the FINA leadership’s refusal to allow the federation’s Ethics Panel to consider the dispute; and alleged American and Kuwaiti interference in European elections against the constitution and rules of the international swimming federation.
Sources in the United States and Lausanne have revealed to SwimVortex that Paolo Barelli, the president of the European Swimming League (LEN) and Italian federation (FIN), tried to deal with the dispute internally through the FINA Ethics Panel but when he and any consideration of the matter by the Panel were blocked by the FINA executive, the former Italian senator turned to Lausanne-based CAS.
In what is the first challenge of its kind in swimming, Barelli alleges that Dale Neuburger, the USA’s delegate at the top table of FINA, is linked through a directorship of TSE Consulting to the “orchestration” of the outcome of elections for the presidency of LEN when the rules of swimming specifically forbid any such cross-continental and cross-member interferennce.
Neuburger, who has never shied from the issue of potential conflicts of interest, denies involvement and states that he has broken no rules.
Further, sources tell SwimVortex, the Kuwaiti delegate Husain Al Musallam, stands accused by several European nations of contacting them to campaign against what would turn out to be Barelli’s successful candidancy for the LEN President in 2016 in favour of a Dutch challenger. In one example seen by SwimVortex, a European federation is reminded that it receives ‘support’ from Kuwait and in return it might like to think about supporting the Dutch candidate opposing Barelli.
Al Musallam is a controversial presence at the FINA top table: he was voted into the new role of “FINA First Vice-President” – a title that suggests ‘heir apparent’ to Uruguayan Julio Maglione, the octogenarian president of FINA who in 2015 broke his 2009 election campaign promise to stay for “two terms only” and will seek re-election once more this July in Budapest. Under IOC rule on age limits, Maglione will cease to be an IOC member from November. Whoever succeeds him as president of FINA will gain automatic access to the IOC and be available for voting with other IOC members within that realm.
The trouble with Al Musallam’s presence stretches beyond the fact that Kuwait has no swimmers to speak of: Kuwait is suspended by the International Olympic Committee, FINA and four other international sports federations over alleged political interference in the sport.
Al Musallam is a close associate and friend of the top Kuwaiti IOC power-player Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah. Despite the suspension of Kuwait, its high-rankings officials continue to play a role in high office of international sports governance.
Sheikh Ahmad’s image was shaken following a spectacular falling-out within Kuwait’s ruling family after a corruption case backfired. The president of both the Association of National Committees and the Olympic Council of Asia, Al-Sabah also heads the richly influential Olympic Solidarity Commission of the IOC.
However, in 2015 he was forced to make a televised apology to his uncle the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. The Kuwait prosecutor’s office had thrown out damning accusations by Sheikh Ahmad against a former prime minister and a speaker of parliament. He had claimed that ex-PM Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and former speaker Jassem Mohammad Abdul-Mohsem Al-Karafi had plotted to topple the government and had conspired over money laundering and misuse of public funds.
The evidence provided by Sheikh Ahmad was said to have been based on computerised documents and film records which were dismissed by the court as fabrications. After the court ruling, Sheikh Ahmad made a public apology not only to the two accused but to his uncle the Emir and to the Crown Prince.
His influence remains strong in sports circles. Swimming sources speak of a Kuwaiti succession plan in which Maglione may step down half-way through his next four-year term in the top chair at FINA, thuse making way for an unchallenged elevation of the new “first vice-president”, Al Musallam.
And that despite the Kuwaiti suspension. SwimVortex understands that rules designed to protect innocent athletes from politics and allow swimmers to swim under international representation, such as the IOC’s five rings in Olympic competition, are being used by the FINA executive to argue that Al-Musallam and other politicians can also skirt rules governing the suspension of nations.
Last Monday, FINA was given 20 days in which to respond to the allegations put before the CAS in Lausanne. The timing is critical: April 22 is the deadline by which all those wishing to put their names forward for roles in FINA must be submitted ahead of the General Congress, the “ultimate authority” of FINA under the constitution, set for July in Budapest.
That the Kuwaiti riser in the FINA ranks has sought to be a power-player in swimming lies at the heart of Barelli’s case. That includes the testimony of heads of domestic swimming federations in Europe who were contacted by Al Musallam to pursuade them to back the Dutch candidate and FINA Bureau member Erik Van Heijningen in his challenge to Barelli, among FINA vice-presidents who is thought strong enough to scupper the Kuwaiti succession plan.
The two cases against FINA vice-presidents are linked at the hip of geography and power in sport: Neuburger is employed by by Middle East operation of TSE Consulting, an outfit with different continental divisions handling bid campaigns for the Olympic Games and swimming World Championships and has been granted contract work by FINA to organise such things as the world water-polo convention.
Neuburger’s roles with TSE and FINA comes under scrutiny because of social media posts and a media report in which TSE is cited as having been “appointed to orchestrate” the campaign of Dutchman Erik Van Heijningen to stand against Barelli for the LEN presidency.
According to sources close to the case, Neuburger himself advertised TSE’s role in Van Heijningen’s campaign on a social media platform, linking those connected to him to an article on a niche website that noted his roles as FINA vice-president and a director of TSE.
In the past, Neuburger has noted that when TSE bids for FINA business and when TSE comes up in discussions at the top table, he steps out of the room. He has no role in the European division of TSE.
When contacted by SwimVortex to comment on the challenge at CAS, Neuburger said:
“I regret very much the dispute. However, it is simply one without substance. I am sad that Mr Barelli would try to escalate it into an issue, when there is simply no foundation for this. I hope that the matter will soon be put to rest.”
His statement in full can be found at the foot of this article in italics.
Conflicts of interest are a hot potato at FINA and across the broader scope of Olympic sports. The case of Hungary’s Tamas Gyarfas, a vice-president of FINA, has also been highlighted by critics of the international federation: he runs a media enterprise at home and secured the lucrative contract to run the magazine publications, print and digital, of both FINA and LEN.
The rules of FINA forbid interference of process between continents and just as Barelli is the head of European swimming, Neuburger is a member of UANA, the Americas federation, and Al Musallam is a member of the Olympic Council of Asia. They are among career sports politicians and members of a family of executives who called themselves ‘volunteers’, per diems of $500 a day for upwards of 150 days a year amounting to large incomes that are further supplemented by $150 meal allowances beyond the $500 those who would rather not eat in their five-star hotel but do claim money to eat out instead. The regime includes top-notch hotels, chauffeurs, flights and incidentals, the cost of which is covered before the per diems kick in.
At a fractious presentation to USA Swimming made by Neuburger in defence of FINA in the last Olympic quad, the American delegate noted that he gives a hefty proportion of what he receives from FINA to charity.
The U.S. influence in FINA is strong, representation present across almost the entire spectrum of commissions, committees and aquatic sports. In relation to the latest crisis at the international swimming federation, American sources tell SwimVortex that FINA executives discussed a letter from USA Swimming’s CEO Chuck Wielgus in which the American informs FINA’s leadership of a conversation he had had with Barelli. According to FINA documents, Wielgus claims that the discussion included some members of the international federation’s executive being referred to in “derogatory” terms. Those criticised are said to have included Maglione. The letter from Wielgus places the USA Swimming boss at the centre of FINA politics.
That includes Neuburger’s support for the FINA leadership in the face of stringent criticism from the World, American, Canadian, British, Australian and other coaching associations around the world. Neuburger’s position in favour of FINA is strongly opposed by the American Swimming Coaches Association, which has backed plans to have the international federation’s governance role in swimming replaced by the World Swimming Association.
Meanwhile, Van Heijningen was roundly defeated in the European poll last year. Once elected, Barelli responded by cutting the heads off many of those who had supported the Dutchman, the Netherlands among countries that have almost no representatives left in the governance of European aquatic sports.
The Italian then turned his attention to the off-continent influences who he believed had sought to manipulate the European election.
Barelli took his complaint to the FINA Executive, a group of nine (from the 24 full members of the Bureau) that includes Maglione, Al Musallam and Neuburger. The FINA executive decided to give the matter “no further consideration”, according to sources in the USA and Lausanne. Worse still was the decision “not to forward it to the FINA Ethics Panel”.
Barelli did it for them: he sent the case to the Ethics Panel in November last year and on December 4, during the world short-course championships in Windsor, Canada, three members of the Ethics Panenl, including Kuwait representative Abdulla Al Hayyan, Swedish chairman Gunnar Werner, and New Zealand’s Ian Hunt, noted that the matter had ‘Not been transferred” by the FINA executive in accordance with ethics rules.
That states that any case to be considered by the Ethics Panel must be transferred to the Panel by the FINA Bureau’s leadership group.
The three members of the Ethics panel who met in Windsor decided that, while the rule required the case to be referred to them by the FINA executive, the matter should be sent back to the FINA Executive “for review and consideration”.
Meaning: you cannot simply brush this under the carpet if the matter at hand is uncomfortable and/or inconvenient.
The FINA leadership may well argue that the executive’s role in deciding whether the Ethics Panel should or should not consider complaints is there to prevent appeals that have political or personal motivation. However, just as that accusation may be levelled at Barelli, it could be levelled at others in the FINA Executive with an agenda of their own. In short, the question is: should those who might be the subject of complaint have the final say in whether a case makes it to the table of the Ethics Panel?
Critics of FINA’s leadership are likely to howl from the rooftops when the evidence in the vice-president Vs vice-presidents case comes to light: it appears that FINA’s leadership not only gate-keeps what its Ethics Panel can and cannot consider but actually seeks to rewrite the minutes of the Ethics Panel after the event.
When the FINA Executive met in Lausanne in January this year, it considered the minutes of the December 2016 meeting of the Ethics Panel and concluded that “the minutes of this meeting does (sic) not reflect the written direction which was given to the Panel”.
In that sentence is the key to complaint about how the FINA leadership works: an ethics panel that cannot act in the absence of “written direction” of the very people against whom a complaint is being filed.
The FINA executive is, however, keen to note that Al Musallam made a request to have his case heard by the Ethics Panel even though the leadership group would not allow it.
Sources cited a note in which Barelli “vigorously opposed” the FINA leadership’s version of events. The row is said to have “brought the meeting to an abrupt and angry end”.
The FINA deadline, of April 22, for nominating officers for ‘voluntary’ positions for the period 2017 to 2021, looms. Sources suggest that a challenge for the FINA presidency from Barelli cannot now be ruled out and that opponents of the Kuwaiti succession plan are keen to see Al Musallam halted. The new batch of candidates for the FINA Bureau includes the likes of David Sparkes, the head of British Swimming who is about to retire from his paid role at home in order to make himself eligible for election to the FINA Bureau.
In 2013, Sparkes stepped away from standing for a Bureau place when he was told that rules did not allow paid officers from one country to take on a voluntary role at FINA. The term voluntary is very relative in a realm where membership of the club comes with per diems that stretch to $100,000 and more (much more in some cases) a year.
SwimVortex contacted all main parties to the case gone to CAS. A representative of Barelli said that there would be and could be no comment until CAS had adjudicated. We await a response from Al Musallam, while (all italics are the specific words of the Neuburger):
- My company, Sports Strategy, Inc., performs work in North America through an agency agreement with TSE Consulting SA, based in Lausanne (SUI). As my work representing TSE Consulting in North America in an agency relationship through my company, this creates absolutely no conflict with my volunteer work with FINA.
- I have no controlling position in TSE Consulting and have had no involvement in the activities of TSE outside North American operations (except one isolated circumstance several years ago where support for high performance planning was provided to a National Federation in Europe).
- I have openly disclosed my involvement with TSE, and there was a thorough review by the FINA Ethics Panel of all candidates proposed for election in 2013, including me, in advance of my election. I was deemed by the FINA Ethics Panel to have no conflicts of interest. I also confirm that I always abstain in any matter in which a conflict situation could possibly arise.
- As matter of fact, I have never been involved in any proposal for professional services to FINA by TSE Consulting, nor in the decision of FINA to appoint TSE as consultant (as these decisions are not made at FINA Bureau level) nor any involvement in the conduct of the work to be performed by TSE on behalf of FINA.
- I am not involved in European operations of TSE Consulting, or decisions related to work in Europe. I am not consulted by TSE regarding European consulting projects, nor do I have any influence or power in this respect
I have not been involved, nor consulted in any respect, at any time or in any way, in the LEN election of 2016.
- A link was established to me related to the appointment of TSE to provide professional services to the Royal Dutch Swimming Federation, through an online news source. It has no other basis than the fact that I am indeed mentioned on the TSE website. There is no other linkage of any kind.
- I note that the TSE mission of communication and public relations was performed as a normal support to a campaign, and Mr. Barelli was not in any way attacked in an improper way. Mr. Barelli brilliantly won the election.
- After a web-based article caused Mr Barelli to complain to me, I wrote to him and explained clearly the situation to him.
- I regret very much the dispute. However, it is simply one without substance. I am sad that Mr Barelli would try to escalate it into an issue, when there is simply no foundation for this. I hope that the matter will soon be put to rest.
The issues transcend Neuburger’s role and stretch to the very root of FINA and its system of governance.
Schism has spilled from athletes and coaches Vs FINA leadership to blazers Vs blazers. Omerta, so long the lifeblood at root and branch of FINA, is about to be shattered.
A case that comes down to vice-president VS vice-presidents exposes a fault line that will test the validity of rules and regulations governing international swimming. The fallout from the case may even bring the current FINA leadership to its knees.
SwimVortex will bring you developments, the devil in the detail of the case and comment on the matter in the week ahead.