European Battle At Heart of FINA War
Sep 27, 2008
Craig Lord

Comment: This weekend will see LEN, the European Swimming League, vote for change and plan for its future. LEN's future is FINA's future. It has long been the case. It was never more so, particularly in terms of the battle raging in the wings of aquatic politics. 

The real issue is not who and what steps up to the plate in Zurich this weekend as Europe decides its affairs, it is all about who will vote for Julio Maglione to be the next President of FINA, and who will vote for Mustapha Larfaoui, who believes that 20 years is not long enough at the helm of the international federation that changed its rules to keep the Algerian in power longer than the four-year term that went hand-in-hand with the top office for many a long year before the early 1990s.

At such a time of division - and those who would say that no division exists needed to have been a fly on the wall in Beijing, where the atmosphere in the corridors of power was described as "poisonous", "deeply uncomfortable", "unseemly", "disgusting" and "sad", among other terms, by a number of senior sources - opportunists circle and caution is required. 

Below the surface tension of President V Treasurer for the top job is a turbulent world of deal-making and pact-entering agreements, some of which were settled at secret meetings that some national federations (as institutions often funded by the public purse, as opposed to individuals acting on their own), have not been made aware of. One source told SwimNews: "It's been really bad ... like a pit of snakes sometimes".

So, what's at stake beyond the role of FINA head honcho? FINA Bureau positions; aspirations to replace the irreplaceable Cornel Marculescu as FINA Executive Director when the Romanian decides that working all the hours God sends is no longer for him; aspirations to be FINA President in 2013, after whoever wins the vote at Congress in Rome 2009. Caesar himself might well look down on the politics of sport with a knowing nod. 

Word has it that LEN will increase the size of its ruling Bureau to 17 members to be more geographically inclusive (something, of course, that has no regard for population size nor of significance in terms of success rates in the water) and will add three more Vice-Presidents to its roster of decision-makers to take the number of deputy leaders from two to five. The betting is on Italian former LEN President and FINA Vice-President Bartolo Consolo and Spain's Raphael Blanco bowing out. Tipped for elevation to the FINA Bureau are Christa Thiel and David Sparkes, respective heads of the federations of Germany and Great Britain.

Thiel's fondness for Larfaoui has been lost on few in recent times. But In the game of politics, the true positions of any in Zurich this weekend and Rome next year remain to be revealed. One thing is clear: in a two-horse race, positions will indeed have to be taken. One source said: "Europe is seeking to stir the FINA pot. We [Europe] feel that its sort of our turn to lead the international body" and that the body needs to be run by fresher minds with fresher outlooks". It is 24 years since a European held FINA's highest office. It will wait at least another four years before getting a chance to put up a candidate for Presidential status. 

That race, however, is well underway and when Maglione arrives in Zurich today, he will doubtless be well aware of entrenched positions that have far more to do with 2013 than 2009. Europe is divided. We will know the nature of this disagreement soon enough.

God may have rested on the Seventh Day. Not LEN: Congress and the vital vote fall on Sunday Morning. This is no time for short-termism. Europe needs to be thinking about a more professional future for FINA in which a paid CEO who can combine aquatics knowledge with proven large-scale sports and international business experience. None of the few European names (and the same may be said of some names beyond Europe) that have reached my ears so far in terms of apparent candidates in the category of "thirsting for power" raise hope in my heart. Indeed, there are key aspirants who, in my opinion, are wholly unsuited to the task of leading the international federation - on the basis of past decisions they have taken and their motivation for seeking the highest of offices in the governance of aquatic sports. 

A professional CEO-style governance needs to be overseen by a board, one that is not elected (self-elected, some might say) on geography and "my-turn-ism" but on merit and relevance to what is actually happening in the water. Success deserves to be recognised. When Europe talks of change, it should not only seek to change the names on the roster. It needs to work on replacing the gravy-train model of sports politics that has prevailed for too long. The challenges of today are not what they were. Tomorrow's challenges will be all the more demanding, on financial, competitive and technological fronts, to name but three aspects of sports management. 

I recently edited the FINA Centenary book - Aquatics 1908 -2008. I also penned the swimming and FINA history sections of the volume. Every age had its downside and its upside. It will be no different in future but the past is brimming with lessons for today and tomorrow. Men such as Harold Fern, who led FINA for 20 years through the difficult years of the Second World War, saw his role as that of servant to his sport. He wrote down his minutes of events, kept his own records, wrote his own missives and speeches and took an obvious interest in affairs of office and deck. It is inconceivable to think that he - at a time when he was forced by circumstance to be President, Treasurer and Hon Secretary - would have let a volume of history be penned and published without ever once having requested to speak to the team of writers and editors engaged in the work, either before, during or after the process. Pity that the same cannot be said of those who lead aquatic sports today and some who already hold positions of power and aspire to leading the entire show tomorrow. 

In Beijing, I attended the FINA Centenary Dinner for a short while. It was good to see many who work hard in the sport seated at the FINA table to celebrate 100 years of excellence in aquatic sports. It was terrible to note how few athletes had been invited. Whither Spitz, Meyer, Gould, Schollander, De Varona, Kolb, Matthes - and many others? The FINA Bureau missed a trick. Some were too busy playing politics to have noticed the things that count. A great shame. A great shame too on those delegates down the pecking order who are content to show up, stick their arm in the air at the moment that have been told to do so by the political masters who keep their ticket on the gravy train from expiring and then swagger along to a dinner at which they ask for two (and even three) free goody bags in order to take home two FINA watches, ties, leather brief case, glass sculpture, free copies of the centenary book. The free flights (often up the front of the house), meal tickets and five-star hotels are not enough, it seems. Change is much needed. 

There is much good work being done at national, continental and world levels by those who sit at a desk to govern what happens on the deck. Much of that is masked by the bad practice of others - bad pratice that is tolerated, and even encouraged, by those who seek a return on political favours. 

The time has come for aquatic blazers to turn back the clock in one key regard and take the Kennedy approach: ask not what FINA can do for you but what you can do for FINA. Some have lived their lives working to that mantra. Many have not. Europe has a chance to do the right thing and set a course for genuine, long-term, overdue improvement in the governance and structures of governance of aquatic sports. Unseemly politics is muddying the water. There are those at the table in Zurich this weekend who have good reason to hold their heads high. There are those who know that they have been dabbling in the darkness. The balance of forces will be telling.

Is Europe truly ready to seize the day and bring a little honour and respect back to the duty and privilege of governing a federation that now commands five Olympic sports? Zurich will provide a part of the answer.