World Coaches: We Need Global Safe Sport Regime But USA Fear Of FINA Stands In Way

Impact - by Patrick B. Kraemer

The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series

  • Last week, we sent questions to coaches, athletes and organisations as part of our Safe Sport series. Today, we start to bring you the answers. 

The head of the World Swimming Coaches Association is urging his global membership to back proposals to have a universal ban imposed on coaches having sexual and romantic relationships with minors in their swim squads.

At the height of a United States crisis in Olympic sport in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal in gymnastics and abuse, proved and alleged, in other Olympic Sports, swimming and the case of Ariana Kukors vs Sean Hutchison included – and increasing pressure on the United States Olympic Committee and the governance structures that link it to the IOC one way and USA Swimming et al the other – , George Block, president of WSCA, backs calls such as that from safe-sport advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar, for a bar on coach-swimmer relationships would like to see a “clear, bright line” that bars all coach-swimmer relationships of a romantic nature but notes two clear barriers to that happening:

  • a. “Sexual mores vary widely from culture to culture, even in Europe”
  • b. “The age of swimmers has gotten older and coaches … younger; in many places they are essentially peers”

Block urges parents to be more active and vigilant when it comes to reporting to the police any relationship involving a minor and, in cases where no law has been breached but “you family’s moral code” has been broken, removing a swimmer from the problem program.

When it comes to believing any such measures in guidelines or codes will be adopted by FINA, Block is pessimistic, because, he asserts, the international federation, with the support of USA Swimming, fails consistently to enforce its own rules, including those designed to ensure athlete safety and welfare. Says Block, president of the WSCA:

“When whistles are blown, it does not respond.  In each of these cases, whistles were going off all over the world.  FINA responded either with deafening silence or by promoting the offender.”

FINA world – the only option swimmers are allowed – Patrick B. Kraemer

SwimVortex put a series of questions to FINA early last week and has yet to receive a reply. World coaches have been waiting for a reply to their request for a review of governance structure since 2014.

That such an introduction to the SwimVortex interview with Block that follows can even be written in February 2018 speaks volumes about a gaping hole in FINA rules and responsibilities: the international aquatic sports federation has no specific Safe Sport guideline nor Code designed to protect athletes; it keeps no list of banned individuals; it imposes its governance structure and rules on a membership that includes hundreds of thousands of young athletes as well as legions of coaches and others without those individuals ever having been asked to actively sign up to any membership.

Block makes three key assertions in determining whether safety measures such as banning coaches from having sexual relationships with their swimmers would be effective:

  • the IOC ‘brand’ is more important to the International Olympic Committee than the safety of athletes
  • the FINA ‘brand’ is more important to FINA than the safety of athletes
  • both organisations have proven that they overlook their own rules, including those designed to protect athletes on a number of levels, as and when it suits political agendas and the preservation of the status quo.

In other words, for any such Safe Sport rules to be effective, you would have to change the entire structure of governance. That, Block notes, is what the World Swimming Association, is seeking to do by planning an alternative world to that of FINA for the global governance of swimming in a breakaway move from other aquatic sports who, he says, should go their own way.

On a domestic level, Block says that USA Swimming is now the world leader in safety of athletes but lets its members down on ‘welfare’; has done ‘little to nothing to support real change in international anti-doping efforts’; and has failed to ensure “Fair compensation” for its athletes.

On the American federation, Block, an American coach, concludes with these damning words:

“On Fair Sport and Fair Compensation, even the international calendar, USA Swimming operates in fear of FINA”

That takes on heightened significance when fed into how the global sport of swimming is run in the hands of a FINA leadership that has the backing of USA Swimming even though it consistently fails to impose rules designed to protect athletes. Block’s damning picture of the governance of swimming includes:

  • FINA commissions, committees and panels designed to provide checks and balances have no “actual power”, many of their most serious recommendations never having seen the light of day
  • FINA doesn’t enforce its own rules
  • FINA doesn’t enforce its own water depth rules
  • FINA doesn’t enforce its own open water rules
  • FINA doesn’t enforce its own doping rules
  • FINA would “rather have a world record from a shallow pool than to have protected a young girl from paralysis”
  • FINA has “the death of Fran Crippen on their hands forever”.
  • FINA’s “history of protecting athlete safety is sordid, but it is especially sordid in protecting young girls”
  • “The entire DNA of FINA is designed to support and foster corruption … be it envelopes stuffed with cash or [a reliance on] paper entries [to competitions]” (Block explains how that plays out in the sport when it comes to universality and its impact on some of the best swimmers from countries that end up selecting for international representation swimmers who are not the best but have the better social and political connections)

The interview with George Block in full can be read below. 

The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series – so far:

Questions sent out this week to pertinent parties:

“USA Swimming Operates In Fear Of FINA”

George Block, president of WSCA

SwimVortex Interview with George Block, President of the World Swimming Coaches Association

SwV: You, on behalf of coaches worldwide, have been raising issues of governance that have affected the welfare and safety of athletes on a regular basis for many a long year. Your messages have been targeted at those who run the Olympics Games, including national Olympic Committees, and FINA. How would you rate the following on a rate of 1 to 10, with 10/10 perfect – and why do you think that’s a fair rating?

a.  your success in getting your message across?

  • GB: 8. Explanation:  FINA is watching every move we make and responding with tiny steps of their own.  All the major NFs are completely aware of what we are doing as are most of the top coaches and athletes in the world.

SwV: b. Your ability to engage with FINA and be heard?

GB: 4. Explanation:  We have to get a 0 on “engage with,” but probably an 8 on being heard.  FINA hears us and watches us, but doesn’t not engage with us.  We write letters.  Cornel has my email and phone number from those letters and emails.  The funny part is that when those emails were published in Europe, lawyers, coaches and athletes from other sports reached out to us.  It seemed like every organization except FINA contacted us.

Lane lines – photo by Patrick B. Kraemer

SwV: c. The effectiveness of the FINA Coaches Commission?

  • GB: 4. Explanation: There are three things that keep the coaches commission from being effective or at least as effective as it could be:
  • i. COMPOSITION: As long as the composition of the Coaches Commission is multi-sport, its impact will be both shallow and diluted;
  • ii. BUREAU LIAISON: The effectiveness of the Commission is completely dependent on the commitment and effectiveness of the Liaison.  As we all know, there have been some years when the Bureau Liaison did not even attend the meetings.  The Commission has no, direct link to decision makers, it is all indirect and through the Bureau Liaison;
  • iii. FINA STRUCTURE: FINA is structured to move VERY slowly and to resist change.  In today’s “speed of the internet” world, working inside an organization that is built to resist change is very dangerous.  Change-resistant organizations can become obsolete very quickly.

SwV: d. Your success at getting your messages about FINA, including the safety of and welfare of athletes (doping included), though to decision-makers and the leadership of USA Swimming?

  • GB: USA Swimming may be the best in the business concerning the safety of their own athletes.  They built an incredibly robust Safe Sport program [since 2010] that focuses on sexual abuse and bullying.  They strictly enforce facility standards, especially those involving water depth and the safe instruction of starts.  They constantly monitor and educate their athletes to keep them in compliance with anti-doping rules, even including supplements.  USA Swimming is superb on safety.  Where they may be lacking is on welfare.
  • USA Swimming has done little to nothing to support real change in international anti-doping efforts.  It didn’t even support USADA’s efforts last summer at the height of the Russian crisis.  In some ways, USA Swimming is like FINA.  Change has to work its way through the committee process and that can take years.  Recently, USA Swimming heard a brilliant presentation rom Bill Bock, the General Counsel of USADA.  Mr. Bock spent two hours telling them that this was not the time to be timid or make incremental change.  In response, USA Swimming proposed no changes.
  • Although USA Swimming takes good financial care of its National Team, it has done nothing to ensure Fair Compensation at the international level.  Far too small a percentage of FINAs earnings are returned to the athletes.  FINA still claims the rights to athletes’ bodies without compensation.  FINA still restricts athletes from participating in competitions put on by other organizations.   On the commercial side, FINA maintains a monopolistic position and USA Swimming has not disavowed that position.

Dale Neuburger, USA Swimming’s ltop man at FINA, where he is a vice-president

On Fair Sport and Fair Compensation, even the international calendar, USA Swimming operates in fear of FINA.

SwV: e. The effectiveness of committees and commissions at FINA in delivering the checks and balances required to ensure good governance, complete with making the athletes and their safety and welfare, including clean sport but much more, the No1 priority?

  • GB: FINA is too big.  The first step should be to break up FINA into IFs for each discipline.  The Fair Sport and Fair Compensation issues in Artistic Swimming and Diving are completely different from those in Swimming.  So are the technical rules.  So are the budgets.  As long as the committees are comprised of a mixture of representatives from each discipline, and those committees have to report through a Bureau Liaison, they can not be effective.
  • Further, those committees were not developed to serve as a “check and balance.”  If they did, the committees would have actual power.  In a “checks and balance” system, each branch of governance has specific powers.  The committees have none.  All they can do is recommend.

SwV: f. Do you think the rules of FINA provide adequate athlete safety provision and independent whistleblowing and complaints procedures?

GB: We have seen that FINA doesn’t enforce its own rules.  It doesn’t enforce its own water depth rules.  It doesn’t enforce its own open water rules.  It doesn’t enforce its own doping rules.  When whistles are blown, it does not respond.  In each of these cases, whistles were going off all over the world.  FINA responded either with deafening silence or by promoting the offender.

SwV: g. Do you think FINA takes enough responsibility for athlete safety issues?

  • GB: One of the greatest dangers in sport today is that in doping, the offenders are also victims.  In state-run doping programs like East Germany, Russia and now China, the young children, especially girls, had no real choice in taking the drugs.  When a 14-year old swimmer in Russia tests positive for some sophisticated PEDs, do you think she got them on her middle school playground?  Go back to where this started in East Germany.  FINA has not corrected any of the records or honors from that corrupt system, even after seeing the horrible damage to the reproductive systems of those women.  They continue to honor those who developed the system but have not apologized to the women who were harmed – and there were women who were harmed on both sides of that equation.  The same thing is going on today.

FINA doesn’t enforce its own pool depth rules.  They would rather have a world record from a shallow pool than to have protected an young girl from paralysis.  Nor does FiNA enforce its own Open Water rules.  They have the death of Fran Crippen on their hands forever.  They don’t even enforce safety and courtesy in the warm-up pool at their own World Championships.  It was perfectly fine for a male star to physically intimidate a young female swimmer [SwV: a complaint against Sun Yang* did not lead to any sanction; indeed, FINA gave him a special award in 2017 despite a doping positive and despite several incidents that highlighted issues of aggression and poor behaviour].  FINA’s history of protecting athlete safety is sordid, but it is especially sordid in protecting young girls.

SwV: h. Do you think the FINA ethics panel is independent and adequate in current form to make sure swimming is a clean, healthy, safe sport for all who work in it?

GB: No, but in fairness, I don’t think that it was ever designed to do that.  The entire DNA of FINA is designed to support and foster corruption, both at the IF and the NF levels.  Whether it is envelopes stuffed with cash or relying on paper entries, weeks in advance of Olympics and World Championships, all those structures stimulate and perpetuate corruption.  As bad as the voting system is at FINA with the envelopes of cash, the entry situation is worse.  There is nothing that FINA can do for “sport development” that can overshadow the damage that its entry system does to undermine sports development.

  • The most frustrating thing that I have seen and heard from other coaches doing clinics around the world comes from incredibly passionate coaches and athletes who are training in the most difficult possible conditions.  They ask us ‘Why should I coach better?’ or ‘Why should I train harder? … I still won’t be selected.  I’m already the national champion, but the 6th place swimmer got selected, because she is the niece of the Federation President or because her father paid the President the required bribe and my family couldn’t afford it’.  Situations like that are rampant around the world in the “Third World Swimming Nations,” but that is what is keeping those countries “Third World.”  Their coaches and athletes are passionate and work incredibly hard in situations that would make almost any American or European swimmer quit.
  • The technology exists now (and is used by the NCAA) for a meet host to say that they want the top X number of swimmers with Y number in each event and the computer spits out the meet program.  There is no reason for paper entries from nations any longer.  In the “Universality” nations, it is very easy to pick the top-ranked (by FINA points) swimmers.  It would be much better for the developing swimming nations to get rid of Universality and add that many more B time swimmers in to the meet.  They would nearly all come from developing countries and if the coaches and swimmers all over the world knew that the system would be fair, they would have incentive to coach better and train harder and they would make those B times.  Those are terrific coaches and swimmers who are being completely demotivated by the current system.  The only reason it exists is to permit and encourage corruption at the grass roots levels.

FINA in focus: Julio Maglione, top right, is the latest in a line of federation presidents going back to George Hearn in 1908

SwV: 2. Is the very governance structure that runs from national federations through to FINA and on to the IOC a part of the problem when it comes to ensuring good governance and the welfare and interests of athletes are at the top of the list of important aims?

  • GB: Obviously.

SwV: a. If so, what needs changing?

  • GB: The IOC has to create simple ways to replace an IF.  The IFs must create a similarly simple way to replace NFs.
  • As I said earlier, the first step has to be to break up FINA.  Swimming needs its own IF.  FiNA may be perfectly good for the smaller sports.  I have my own opinion on that, but it is none of my business.  I should have zero say in the governance of water polo.  The WSCA and WSA have two completely different models of governance, but they are both smaller, electronic and closer to their memberships.

It is interesting that FINA can ban an athlete or coach, but neither that coach nor that athlete ever joined FINA.  There is no voluntary membership in FINA.  Their argument is that by participating in one of their events, you become a member.  That is a bit like saying that by shopping in a department store, you suddenly become a stock holder of that company.

SwV: 3. Should there be an international list of banned coaches?

  • GB: That is a very difficult question, because in some totalitarian countries, coaches can be banned politically and even have criminal charges leveled against them – and get convictions – politically.  At the WSCA Board level we have discussed this a number of times and the consensus has been that the best, current solution would be to have agreements among NFs that share similar values and legal systems on sharing their lists to a central database.

SwV: a (If so) … should there be an international standard when it comes to what merits such a ban?

GB: We can’t even get FINA to enforce its own bans now.  Zhou Ming has been banned for life, but he has never stopped coaching.  There are pictures of him in the bleachers and on deck at meets and training camps all over China and much of the world.  It would be nice if we could, but I am not sure that it is possible.

  • Doping is a clear, rule book issue now.  That is fairly black and white, but clearly determining a coach’s culpability when one of his or her swimmers dopes is harder to define.  In some cases, the simple volume of swimmers involved is damning.  In others, East Germany for instance, clear, detailed records were found after the fact.

The Russian situation was clearly state-sponsored.  I can define the minors as victims, but I have a harder time with the adults, but the coaches were clearly under enormous pressure to go along with the system.  They don’t just get to say No Thank You and go coach in Southern California.  They go to Southern Siberia.

SwV: b. Should FINA be asked to become a signatory to such arrangements, in the same way that it is a signatory to the WADA Code?

  • GB: That would be nice, but so what?  FINA doesn’t enforce it’s own doping bans.  What did the signature mean?  Has WADA taken any action against FINA?  Can WADA take away FiNA’s hold on the IF status with the IOC?  The buck stops with the IOC in all of this right now.

SwV: c. Who/which organisation should organise and administer such a system?

  • GB: That is almost a cruel joke in light of what the IOC is trying to do to WADA with the ITA.  It is not the least bit “independent,” nor is it an authority.  Half of its board members are also IOC board members.  I would think that on the doping side, WADA should be the ultimate authority, but in order to do that, they need both independence and authority.  Independence comes from a signifiant, committed funding stream and authority comes from other organizations willingly ceding theirs.  I am skeptical on both counts.

Susan Woessner, inset, by USA Swimming, has resigned as head of Safe Sport

SwV: 4. Is there a professional code or rule that applies to coaches worldwide and addresses conflict of interest, including sexual relationships between teacher/coach and pupil?

  • GB: Not that I know of.  Perhaps the UN agencies have some standards for themselves.  In the US, and probably most ‘British Common Law-based’ countries, the rules are based on power differences.  Teachers have more power than students, for example, but even that is not always the case.  In my home state of Texas, it is legal for an attorney to have sexual relations with their clients.

I think we might be able to get some agreement, internationally on minor swimmers and adult coaches.  I say “might,” because I have been in countries where that is accepted and common.  From what I could tell it was still horrible coaching, because it changed objectivity, caused jealousies and changed the perception of the coach in the eyes of the non-selected swimmers.

  • All codes eventually come down to enforcement.  FINA could prohibit banned coaches from coaching at FINA meets, but as Zhou Ming demonstrates, they have little sway in domestic competitions.  Probably the sexual relations with minors issues are best dealt with at the NF level, because they can ban a coach domestically.  FINA could require that every NF have a rule about this.  They do have GR-4, which is their monopoly rule.  They require member federations to enforce the FINA monopoly, but that’s just FINA caring more about money than about kids.

SwV: 5. There is a strong body of opinion that says such relationships between adults should not be allowed in a professional teacher/pupil relationship. Do you agree or disagree – and on what grounds?

  • GB: I personally strongly agree.  We put that in the ASCA Code decades ago and I fought to get it in the USA Swimming code years ago, but I don’t think I have universal, international support.  Especially as the age of swimmers has gotten older and coaches has gotten younger, in many places they are essentially peers, and with the professional swimmers, they often have more power that their coaches, so the power argument doesn’t hold up. On a personal and professional level, I would like to see a clear, bright line, but sexual mores vary widely from culture to culture, even in Europe.

I think the best place to “regulate” the coach/athlete relationship is with the parent of that child.  If what is going on is illegal, report it to the police.  If it is not illegal, but it violates your family’s moral code, take your child to another team and let your child know why. I have 3 kids.  After providing for my children, my next most important job was protecting them.

The Rings – by Patrick B. Kraemer

SwV: 6. Is the Olympic brand more important than the safety of an individual athlete?

GB: To the IOC that is clearly the case.  To FINA, the FINA brand is more important.  The IOC formed the ITA (Independent Testing Authority) so it could get back in control of doping.  Every doping scandal tarnished the IOC’s brand, but the scandals persist because they don’t enforce their own rules.  It was more important to have Russia in South Korea than it was to draw a clear line about what they did to destroy the integrity of the Olympic Games in their own country.  With the ITA, the IOC can control drug testing, sanctions, transparency, etc.  The ITA wasn’t designed to protect athletes.  It was designed to protect the IOC.

The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series – after sending questions to coaches, athletes and organisations as part of our Safe Sport series, we start to bring you the answers. Today, the head of the World Swimming Coaches Association urges his global membership to back proposals to have a universal ban imposed on coaches having sexual and romantic relationships with minors in their swim squads. He also backs ‘no relationships’ at any age but recognises the difficulty of imposing such measures globally, while noting, in deep criticism of both FINA and USA Swimming, that governance structures are a fundamental barrier to the enforcement of athlete protection and safe sport measures, even those already covered by the rule book


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