As politicians exchange blows ahead of FINA Congress, athletes are finding their voices and a way of of having those heard and acted upon. A revolution is nigh and there is no going back, regardless of the vote in Budapest this month. But a word of warning to athletes: breakaway groups won’t get the job done, nor will bold claims that link 15 Olympic champions to a cause one day only to have some of those people say the next day ‘hold on – I only asked for information – I didn’t think I’d lent my name to this’. Swimming schism heads to Hungary.
Stick ’em up, say the swimmers. If delegates from the more than 200 nations that make up FINA raise their hands in the air this month at General Congress in Budapest in support of Julio Maglione and the status quo, they will be signing their own death warrant.
The top cry of athletes is “give us a seat at the top table”. Guess what: they’ve got one. He’s called Matt Dunn. He was an Australian medley international, a podium placer who fared particularly well in short-course waters but was up there, too, in long-course pools. To meet Matt is to know he’s a nice man.
He’s totally ineffective, too, when it comes to representing the interests of athletes at the top table of FINA, critics have opined. The more cynical might well add ‘that’s why they put him there’.
Let’s be clear: Dunn is not incompetent; he is not a man who does not know his sport; he is not a man who does not understand the issues at play; he is not cynically and deliberately working against the interests of athletes, it seems to me.
And yet athletes have a right to ask, as they have done in so many words, ‘what have you done for us’? The answer looks much too much like ‘not nearly enough, if anything at all’.
About a year ago as Star Wars raged in Rio and the debate and discussion on FINA’s failure to engage with its main stakeholders continued to flow (a subject this author has been writing about, with engagement of swimmers and coaches for almost 30 years – so no, Hosszu’s message is nothing new, but there are important novel aspects to it that cannot be ignored), I asked a senior figure in world swimming: what is Matt Dunn saying about all of this at the top table?
I was told: nothing – he is silent. So what does he speak up on? Nothing – he is silent. Where is his best work being done ast FINA, I asked. He organises the lists of people who hand out the medals and flowers. A very important function at FINA: making sure that people who would otherwise have no platform are granted their moment of swagger and sway in the light of supertroupers that flash past them en route to training focus where it belongs: on the folk Dunn is supposed to be there to represent – the athletes.
That view is one passed on to SwimVortex by people at the top table of FINA. If Matt Dunn feels it unfair and has a list of serious athlete-interest issues he raised at that top table, we would be delighted to hear from him and publish his works. If he can point to moments when he had to thump his fist on the table to get himself heard in the cacophony of politics and damaging diplomacy at FINA’s top table, do so – we would be more than happy to hear from him, as would the World Swimming Coaches Association and the Professional Swimmers’ Association that will come to represent athletes in a very different way in the not-too-distant future, with or without FINA.
Meanwhile, don’t be too harsh on Matt Dunn: he is a victim of the gravy train lifestyle that has long failed swimming and swimmers and left a sport heavy on professional work on deck and in the pool starving for professional leadership and governance.
A presidential battle looms in Budapest. The vote takes place on July 22. A vote for Julio Maglione is one that puts faith in all that was and can no longer be. A vote for the challenger, Paolo Barelli, the head of the European Swimming League (LEN), is one that would trigger instant talks between FINA’s leadership, athletes, coaches, sponsors and other key stakeholders.
The better option at this time of crisis would be for the General Congress to vote down the elections in their entirety in Budapest in a show of support for fundamental reform. Time to show that the show cannot go on as it is – and that an interim management should be installed to oversee an independent review with a view to reform of the international federation and how it represents a membership that has for too long been treated like a waiter at the party: essential to keep the high-end slop flowing, worth a toast and a pat on the back but not worthy of making the VIP list – and never to be invited to give its true opinion when it comes to organising the party.
Turkeys, Christmas, Votes: that review and reform option is not going to be triggered by the folk now wearing the feathers. So, we are left with Barelli Vs Maglione.
The choice is clear: no-one who has the interests of swimming, swimmers and the long-term health and development of elite aquatic sports at heart can justify backing an Octogenarian past his sell-by date in official IOC terms; hailing from a country with no world-class program to speak of after more than three decades of his rule; a man who came to the top seat promising one-term only and a two-term max for all future presidents, had the constitution changed and then the entire process reversed so he could play boss (or puppet to USA Swimming and others, depending on your point of view) until he’s 85; a man who backed a succession plan that would place Husain Al-Musallam at the helm of FINA even though Kuwait is suspended, even though Kuwait’s newly elected interim committee for swimming says ‘he’s not our man, we don’t grant him our approval and the rules are clear that we, not FINA, have the final say on which of our nationals should represent us’.
Barelli, as his critics and opponents point out, has worked his way to the FINA executive through the system that has been failing the sport; he is not baggage free; and, as a man who has served as an Italian senator, he is as effective a political player as any of them – and better than most. Critics also note the Roman in him: when he won the leadership of LEN last year, he follwed up by chopping the heads off all those who opposed him, the Netherlands and Switzerland among nations that have almost no representatives left on the committees that help hold the roof up.
Critics of the critics may also point out that Barelli was responding to an ugly campaign to oppose him that included interference from outside Europe, including meddling from Al-Musallam, the man now cited in U.S. Justice Department paperwork as a co-conspirator in a bribery case, the outcome of which is hugely relevant to FINA and the way it conducts business. And those critics of the critics may also point out that if they are keen to criticise Barelli, why would they not wish to be open in what would be justified criticism of Maglione and a current executive responsible for bringing FINA to the brink?
Against that backdrop – and in the absence of that interim independent management and independent review required – why should delegates vote Barelli not Maglione? Well, here are a few key reasons:
- Barelli is the only other choice and anything but the status quo is desirable
- Barelli is the one choice that offers a chance of FINA survival (no, that is not extreme – a tipping point has been reached and the international federation must grow up or die on its withering vine)
- Barelli is the one choice offering to open talks with major stakeholders the moment he takes the crown – and places in the decision-making process for swimmer and coaches; while Maglione is the man who has spent the past three years deliberately ignoring polite requests from world coaches to start a dialogue and open a process of review and reform
- Barelli is a man who presides over a domestic federation that spends more money on athletes every year than it leaves as assets in the bank – and he wants FINA to start behaving in the same way
- Barelli is the man who has done something no other FINA Bureau member has done for many a long decade (since the days of Max Ritter no less): he has dared to take on the status quo, to call for transparency, to take his complaints public and to point out the critical contradicitions in FINA rules and the poverty of approach to governance that is at the root of a crisis in swimming that needs to end.
It will end when stakeholders are not told “Matt Dunn represents you, now shut up and swim”; when coaches like Frank Busch actually listen to the wider worldwide community of coaches with a long list of valid complaints against FINA and then, after having raised those issues with FINA only to be met with no response, take the same course as Jacco Verhaeren did: resign, make the point and stop propping up a house of cards that needs to fall.
If coaches and swimmers have been ignored by FINA, then the view of coaches that ‘it will take a stand by athletes to force change’ is correct.
FINA’s status quo has much more to fear from Olympic champions and other world-class swimmers demanding a say. But caveat emptor: SwimVortex has learned overnight that some of those champions named yesterday as backing GAPS did not think they had done anything of the kind. What they actually believed they had done was ask for more information about what GAPS is and what it stands for.
Such groupings of athletes and their intentions are the smaller part of a wider revolution. Katinka Hosszu has made it her mission to get the message out – and good for her. That said, athletes will need to find a different swimmer to champion their cause in the long-term, if only because:
- the Hungarian did not raise the stakes when things were unfolding in her favour (she became a millionaire on the back of a bad world cup model that worked for almost no-one but herself and a multi-racing approach that the wider of sport of swimming has rejected in big measure)
- the Hungarian raised the stakes because FINA change one bad world cup model for another bad world cup model
- the Hungarian would need to add many other issues to her list of demands, including high throughput testing and fundamental changes to the way anti-doping processes are conducted, for wider acceptance of what she says she stands for (and yes, athletes, you must have the support of a wider group of stakeholders, including some already in positions of authority and doing a sound-to-excellent job)
Those listed by Hosszu yesterday have a couple of things in common: they are all current, active athletes; and most of them have been or are supported by Arena as sponsor.
The latter raises another fascinating aspect of the schism in swimming: what will the sponsors do – or rather, what will FINA’s partners do? There are the kit makers, there is the timekeeper, Omega, there is the lanemaker Malmsten and so on and so forth. Omega, like Arena, sponsors individual swimmers, while Malmsten hails from a country whose prime aquatic asset, Sarah Sjostrom to the fore, now say: enough is enough.
At some stage in the battle ahead, commercial outfits who make their living and livelihoods from swimming will have to decide – status quo or swimmers.
The GAPS initiative will be nothing if it does not join the wider body of athletes and coaches who have set up the Professional Swimmers’ Association on the sounder footing of official, legal registration and are working on a proper constitutional and rules of engagement. The Wild West of athlete voices on the wind make a good headline – but they won’t get the job done.
Any athlete representative body must include athletes past and present, must be professionally organised and must have leaders capable of being effective when it comes to taking that place at any top tabel; when it comes to truly representing what many athletes want beyond a proper process of consultation and consideration of issues.
The PSA is linked to the work of the World Swimming Association, the body established by the World Swimming Coaches Associastion and affiliates to take the fight to FINA.
Hosszu’s statement yesterday – including naming athletes who now say ‘hold on – I just wanted more information’ – has set herself up in opposition not only to FINA but to some extent the Professional Swimmers Association and its official registration. If that is not the case, then she and “GAPS” need to make that absolutely clear.
There was good reason by the World Swimming Coaches Association worked together with athletes quietly in the past year and more: just as it is with coaches and swimmers who aspire to the ultimate podiums, you better have a plan and a process and know what it takes to get to where you aim to get to.
Instant revolution is on the cards. The ‘opposition’ better have done its homework. GAPS, the PSA, the WSA and any other body keen to fight FINA, had better be clear: the international federation’s leadership will love to find you divided – for conquering you in that state will be all the more easily achieved.
Don’t let it happen. Together is how you will win this fight.
And together means working with many who are working in and worth FINA. Babies ought not to be thrown out with bath water and a rotten leadership steeped in self-serving ways does not mean that all the international federation has stood for, all its rules, all the good people who work in swimming year in, year out, must go with the bad. Far from it.
There are people who have worked on the World Cup since the days before FINA controlled it – and they have done stirling work and would continue to do so if asked to work on new models and competition calendars; there are people who serve and have served on committees and commissions who have a great deal to offer yet.
The latter, however, takes us back to the beginning of this editorial and the reason why Matt Dunn should step aside. The future of swimming cannot be one in which good people sit in silence and move like timid water in a stream of boulders and other obstacles to progress (the boulders including removal from committees and commissions of those who hold a different point of view and make a fuss when they don’t get answers to serious questions).
The torrent and flood of current feeling among swimmers and coaches (as well as many others) will be required to shift those boulders and make the course of swimming smoother.
The writing is on the end wall: FINA cannot now hold back fundamental reform, regardless of any votes for the status quo in Budapest that may give the impression of business as usual. The beginning of the end has been triggered – and there’s no going back.