Australian head coach Jacco Verhaeren has resigned from the coaches commission of FINA, the International Swimming Federation, in protest at what he describes as a failure to take expert advice as well as a lack of leadership and backing for clean sport.
Verhaeren tells Nicole Jeffery, in an exclusive at The Australian today, that when coaches asked FINA to send out a clear signal in support of the findings in the McLaren reports commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the reply was ‘no need – swimming not involved’.
That response is typical of the leadership stance at FINA and its all-too-often one-way interaction with commissions and committees that it holds up as providing expert advise while often refusing to take that advice and act upon it.
- Verhaeren’s departure is the latest in a series of such moves, including the resignation of three of the most senior anti-doping experts from the FINA Doping Review Board over the same Russian doping issues and lack of appropriate response last year.
The pattern is well-established. When SwimVortex and The Times noted a year ago that Russian had two EPO positives on its hands that were never reported to FINA nor WADA, executive director of the federation Cornel Marculescu sent a note not to this former member of the press commission he has known for three decades – and knows has the lines of enquiry that would be most helpful – but to the sports editor of The Times asking for help with its enquiries.
In copy on this website, we noted that the man who could help FINA with its enquiries was none other that Vladimir Salnikov, the president of the Russian swimming federation at the time of the EPO positives and a member of the ruling FINA Bureau.
The number of unanswered questions sent to FINA by this reporter now tops 30 (easily – truth is, I’ve lost count), while the international federation has yet to report on any inquiry into Russian doping even though the questions remain, such as:
- why did Russia fail to report two EPO positives among young swimmers in 2009?
- why have those cases yet to come to light?
- where is the detail and transparency of process in FINA’s ‘inquiry’ into those cases?
- has FINA interviewed Salnikov over those cases – and if so, what was the answer he gave to the presence of two EPO positives never reported?
- what role did Dr Sergei Portugalov, cited in the WADA Russian doping reports and a former member of the LEN Medical Commission, play in swimming?
- did FINA make any inquiries when two of the key whistleblowers helping to expose the doping crisis in Russia reported seeing swimmers and swimming coaches from the national team of Russia waiting for a consultation with Portugalov?
- what precisely happened with Sun Yang* and why did you accept a retrospective three-month ban never served when you could have set the example and shown your member nation, China, and others, that obfuscation and failing to comply with the WADA Code will not be tolerated?
- what precisely have you told China in relation to six positive tests only reported last year because The Times and SwimVortex reported them first?
- why is it that suspensions on some of those cases have been largely served before the news of a positive test even makes the public domain?
- how did Vladimir Putin end up with the award you gave him when the majority of the FINA Bureau did not get a say nor vote on the matter despite a constitution and rule book that being a member of the Bureau member means a duty of voting on all awards?
- when Bill Sweetenham and then the World Swimming Coaches Association and related bodies American, Australia, British, Canadian and beyond asked FINA to submit to independent review of process and finance, common practice far and wide from time to time, why was it that none of those stakeholders in swimming were even shown the courtesy of a polite reply?
- when the world record application form states that “all rules” must be complied with for approval to be given after a pioneering swim, which part of the Facilities Rules, designed for the sake of athlete safety but broken in one case with a FINA thumbs up, were deemed to not be a part of the rule book – and who decided that?
And on and on and on. Given the lack of answers and the backdrop to FINA’s long-term handling of anti-doping and doping issues, Verhaeren’s disgust is as unsurprising as it is welcome among those who have long criticised the international federation for its poor, or lack of, leadership.
Verhaeren joined the coaches body – as a Netherlands representative (and retains that same affiliation on the commission) – in 2010 believing, as Jeffery put it “that he could better effect change from inside the organisation”. Those were some of the words expressed by Julio Maglione, the Uruguayan president of FINA, when he extended a personal invitation to this reporter to join the FINA press commission and “help us reach the right decisions” in the wake of the shiny suits saga in 2009. Since then, Maglione has broken his election-campaign promise of staying for only two terms and this summer will seek reelection that required consititutional change to uphold his broken promise.
In October 2014, I resigned from the press commission in light of the fact that FINA’s leadership had just found time to grant Vladimir Putin its highest honour, while having found no time to reply to questions and requests made by the press commission in January 2014, including a unanimous view that FINA seek to acknowledge and then enter a reconciliation process with the victims of doping during two decades of dominance by East German women swimmers fuelled by the systematic doping inherent in State Pan 14:25.
The FINA leadership gave no reply to that nor three other issues the press commission had raised, issues that this reporter would classify as pressing, with a nod to the brief of ‘media’.
Now, Verhaeren has joined the ranks of those who can no longer sit by and watch the FINA leadership hold up commissions as the place they receive intelligence from while failing to respond at all and/or appropriately when provided with intelligence designed to improve the way FINA goes about its business of governing international swimming. As Jeffery puts it:
“… his recent experience has convinced him that the coaches committee has no influence on FINA’s decision-making and is being used to give the illusion that coaches are having input into the governance of the sport when they are not”.
Verhaeren tells The Australian, with a nod to the McLaren Report, that FINA’s lack of response was the straw that broke the camel’s back, much as the award to Putin had been for me in 2014:
“At the last coaches meeting (at the world short course championships in December) I challenged FINA to produce a strong statement for clean sport after what had happened in Rio (at the Olympics) with allowing Russia back in. As a world federation you need to step up in leadership, but I haven’t seen any of that from FINA. They keep talking about how much drug-testing they are doing but that’s not the problem. It is the lack of a statement and vision and true leadership to say this is what we stand for. There is a lack of courage.
He adds: “When the second part of the McLaren Report came out (in December), that was deeply concerning with the number of athletes mentioned there (up to 1000). But the feedback from FINA was that they were happy because there was no mention of swimming. There’s no doubt that in those hundreds of athletes there are swimmers involved as well. FINA’s response does not reflect the concern of the community of swimming. We walked out of that meeting saying: What are we doing here?’
Verhaeren noted that doping was not the only area of concern. In his note to Marculsecu, he cites the following as other reasons for his resignation:
“I do believe that overall swimming is a clean sport but it doesn’t mean we are not in danger of having the same problems as other sports in some countries and with some individuals. But FINA will not stand up for clean sport and condemn doping and speak to our deepest concerns about the McLaren Report. That is not the way a world federation should act or behave. We deserve a federation that stands up and protects our sport.’’
- the addition of new events to the world championships program (mixed relays) without consultation
- the rejection of the coaches’ recommendations on changes to the failing World Cup format
- FINA’s failure to oppose the Rio Olympic schedule which had swimmers racing after midnight to suit the American broadcasters
- the provision of one six-lane warm up pool for 1000 swimmers competing at the world short course titles
In a depressing conclusion, Verhaeren tells Jeffery:
“I don’t think me leaving will make any difference but at least I am giving a signal to the world swimming community that this needs to improve.”
Snap. Good for him. Now, over to you Matt Dunn, Athlete’s rep on the FINA Bureau, and many more who know that what Verhaeren says is the truth of it, including Frank Busch, the outgoing performance head of USA Swimming, who sits on the coaches commission.
Verhaeren’s decision is not the act of a petulant man. Indeed, six years and more sticking with FINA’s nonsense deserves a prize of its own. It reflects patience in a man who in 2008 was among coaches leading a protest against shiny suits on the deck at the European short-course championships at the helm of his native Netherlands. The Dutchman has now run out of patience.
So, Mssrs Dunn, Busch and Co, when will that moment ring for you in a sport that has never faced the truth of the 1970s, 80, 90s – has never dealt with issues that have left a trail of victims in their woe and wash?
What, Matt Dunn, did you have to say to the FINA leadership over Mack Horton’s courage at Rio 2016 and that hug from Marculescu for Sun Yang* on the burning deck of an Olympic Games?
What are you and others doing in that zone between two conflicting positions? Which athletes do you represent – and how are you representing them?
Holding quiet talks that come to nothing – if indeed any serious words have been exchanged at all – and political-balancing acts that leave you sitting on one hand while covering youth mouth with the other won’t help. When do you suppose you might conclude that the gravy train has left the tracks on substantial issues and you ought to either press for serious change or join the Dutchman and others in making the point that a federation refusing to listen to its stakeholders is not one worth supporting?
There is a view that you can better change things from within. That is insulting to all those who tried long and hard to do just that. Where FINA is concerned, the evidence to the contrary – that you cannot change it from within – would fill many Olympic pools. Time for change – and the only form likely to succeed and change swimming for the better is regime change.