Janet Evans, the triple Olympic champion of 1988 and legendary American distance-freestyle ace whose 400, 800 and 1500m world records spanned three decades, is set to throw her name into the hat in the race to be America’s representative on the ruling FINA Bureau from 2021.
Success for the 400, 800m freestyle and 400IM Olympic champion of 1988 and timewarp pace pioneer of the pool would leave her among candidates to assume the presidency of the international swimming federation – and that at a time when Katie Ledecky may be either entering the pantheon or yet thrilling us in the race.
Such an outcome would catch two big waves on a changing tide in sport’s governance: genuine athlete representation and the gaping gender gap that runs through almost every strata of FINA governance 110 years after its foundation in a man’s world of 1908.
Senior sources tell SwimVortex that Evans, now 46, is ready to join a race that starts with USA Swimming nominating the replacement at the regional America’s body UANA for Dale Neuburger, the FINA vice-president who has indicated his wish to step down at the close of 2020.
Neuburger was USA Swimming president at the time Evans swam and had been a board member of the federation throughout all the years between a set of Safe Sport recommendations being made in 1991 through to the eventual adoption of some of those principles in 2010-12 beyond the revelation of sex-scandals galore and the publication of a long list of the ‘permanently banned’ on grounds of sex-related misdemeanours.
The time is just right for the diminutive but mighty Evans: on issues that count for a great deal on the wind of cultural change sweeping society at large, she stands head and shoulders above the likely male candidates whose names are doing the rounds of pool talk.
Age is on her side, the position likely to be one that could leave her in power for a decade or two, if the terms of Neuburger and others are anything to go by; knowledge and experience is on her side for obvious reasons; and so is gender and the need for FINA to address that issue on instruction from its boss, the International Olympic Committee.
Of the 38 members of the FINA Bureau, including an all-male group of ten honorary members, there are 35 men and 3 women. Until the past Olympic cycle, the Bureau had only ever included one woman, while the FINA executive of seven remains exclusively male.
On athlete representation, South African Penny Heyns, the double Olympic breaststroke champion of 1996, is one of three women on the current Bureau but answers provided to SwimVortex of late as part of our Safe Sport series indicate that representation that places the athlete as the clear priority over ‘the FINA family’ and membership of and loyalty to the federation is not yet a part of the sport of swimming.
The coming week will see the first round of battle for the USA swimming nomination at a time when the domestic federation is under enormous pressure at home – against the backdrop of the Ariana Kukors case, the USA Gym scandal and Senate hearings to come into the running of the United States Olympic Committee – to do the right thing. Gender and how it treats that subject is set to come under even greater scrutiny if Evans’ name makes the ballot.
Asked why the nominations as important beyond the domestic issue, a senior source close to the USA Swimming leadership told SwimVortex:
“Because this person represents the strongest and most influential swimming nation on earth: arguably, USA Swimming is the only federation that could impose changes on FINA. That’s a matter of choice – and the world is waiting and watching for true leadership. FINA cannot possibly afford to have non-cooperation with the USA as the strongest team in its sales package to television and related media.”
FINA’s leadership likes to promote roles such as that of Neuburger as “the man who represents FINA in the USA”. In fact, the opposite should be just as true if “membership” is to be properly observed and understood under the rules and constitution of FINA that ripple out to domestic obligations.
A quick trawl through the qualities required by the UANA representative to FINA, as listed in communication to SwimVortex from several senior figures, includes the following “musts” at the end of Neuburger’s tenure:
- Free of conflicting interests from their gainful employment.
- Financially secure enough to resist the FINA system (of grace and favour gravy train lifestyles)
- Corruption free, “both perceptually and in reality”.
- Intent on change and intent not to get sucked into the ”go along to get along” malaise and assimilation at the heart of FINA culture
- Knowledgeable about international sport politics.
- Supported by their employee for travel, time away from work because the position is ‘voluntary’;
- Widely known and respected within the sport and by the media, globally.
- Willing to press for an ‘athlete first’ culture
- Willing to move FINA into this century by placing financial priority on the athlete not the administration (the annual budget for which is often greater than the total amount of prize money spent on athletes)
- Willing to shift FINA into a role of cooperation with its major stakeholders, athletes at the helm and coaches, too
An accomplished public speaker, Janet Evans ticks a great many boxes.
Asked for his view, John Leonard, Executive Director of the American Swimming Coaches Association and a leading figure in the World Swimming Association‘s drive to set up a Pro Tour committed to spending more than half of its entire revenue on athletes, backed that list of aims and added: “This position is critical because any effective work in international sport requires multiple decades of work and commitment. The person we nominate will likely be there for two decades. We need to chose wisely.
“Age is a consideration as they will need to serve for a considerable period of time to be effective. It would also be effective to consider diversity in gender considering the dearth of ladies in the room with FINA’s mostly male leaders.
“Ignoring gender at this point in time, will place us on the wrong side of history. We need great leadership from both genders in all of our human activities.”