FINA is Doomed

Sep 21, 2015

The sport’s international governing body faces a reckoning and a rebellion… It may soon cease to exist at all. 

The instinct with institutions is that they’ll always be there. The inevitable monolith that will always lumber on in control, behind the scenes, no matter the level of failure or incompetency. Too big to fail, to implacable to replace. Except that’s never been true. Nations are born, corporations crumble, bureaucracies are buried.

That’s where FINA now finds itself. Like its more famous, dastardly cousin FIFA, the organization that reputes to represent swimming has long been about as competent and transparent as soccer’s filthy world governing body. Finally, leaders on pool decks across the world are declaring that they’ve had it. It’s time FINA went the way of Sepp Blatter.

Last week at the American Swimming Coaches Association conference, bold moves were made. Enough is enough, said the collection of coaches. Whether it’s about drugs or negligence in competitions or just plain good governance, no one can trust the folks who claim to lead this sport from its summit in Lausanne, Switzerland. So, at the ASCA conference in Cleveland, the decision was made, to quote Swimming World’s Brent Rutemiller, that “they were not going to try to reform FINA, they were going to replace FINA. That was made very clear here.”

This is a bit like the country’s college football and basketball coaches all getting together and saying, ‘You know what NCAA? You’re a joke. You don’t treat our athletes right, we’re getting rid of you and creating something else.’ (Of course, if you’re a top NCAA coach in football or basketball, it’s in your best interest in keeping the skewed status quo right where it is… But that’s another story.)

That’s not the case for swim coaches and their relationship to the world’s national governing body. In world swimming, both coaches and athletes have continued to confront an organization that seems not to care about its two most essential constituents.

To be clear, FINA is a collective of national federations, represented at the top by a group of commissions and bureaucrats. Meaning that every country is complicit, and that for change to happen it will take an awful lot of international cooperation. The lobby of American swimming coaches – no matter how powerful, or how right – won’t be enough to push through real change. FINA like FIFA operates a bit like a parody of democracy. Every country gets a vote with equal weight, no matter how small or large. Therefore, the aquatic opinions of the U.S., Australia, and Great Britain (arguably the current ‘big three’ of the sport) carry the same weight as the nations of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and American Samoa (combined population around 110,000).

In the same manner that Sepp Blatter managed to wield and consolidate his power in soccer, despite running a shameless criminal enterprise, so it’s been with FINA. There are currently 208 member swimming federations in the world. If you can lock up the voting blocks across tiny South Pacific nations; stretches of Africa; swathes of the Middle East, you’ll be just fine. Never mind the almost total absence of actual, um, top swimmers from these countries. It’s not hard to see how such a structure is not only ripe for corruption, but also almost impervious to change.

Ever since FINA first opened its permanent offices in Lausanne back in 1987, the organization has been run by Executive Director Cornel Marculescu, a Romanian Olympic water polo player from Bucharest, who represented his country at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, where his polo team placed 5th. I’m in no way comparing Mr. Marculescu to the odious Sepp Blatter, aside from the fact that he too sits atop a national governing body with little interest in change or transparency. The entire structure of FINA seems built to withstand any dissent, insulating itself from even the most flagrant instances of mismanagement – like say, promoting the UAE’s Ayman Saad, the man deemed most responsible for the death of Fran Crippen in 2010.

No one in the world has covered the mess that is FINA more than Craig Lord, over at Swim Vortex. His exhaustive commentary on this topic is unsurpassed. Last week, Brent Rutemiller sat down with him at the ASCA conference and Lord shared his expansive views. In Cleveland, Rutemiller also sat down with Bill Sweetenham, who Swimming World called “the most respected Olympic swim coach in the world.” A bold statement perhaps, but Sweetenham’s experience leading both Australia and Great Britain in the pool make him an elder statesman of the sport. In his interview with Rutemiller, Sweetenham comes across downright Churchillian, stressing the need for cooperation and olive branches and the avoidance of outright rebellion.

The idea, as put forth by ASCA and the World Swimming Coaches Association (all told, about 28,000 members), is to create a parallel system to FINA’s. A parallel, better run World Championships; a parallel circuit of World Cup-esque meets; better communication between athletes, coaches, and administrators. Take the dollars out of FINA’s hands. Get the athletes behind this new system, and leave FINA no more than an empty shell of impotent offices in Switzerland. Really, it’s to create a new organization that we all wish FINA actually was. Then, ideally, FINA would recognize the epic errors of its ways and capitulate. They would be forced to adopt this new model, forced to clean house, and fold in this new way ahead for the sake of its own continued existence.

Hearing this battle plan, my instinct was to ask – why bother to keep FINA alive at all? If we’re cutting the cord, why not go all the way and let it die in a puddle of its own sin? Clearly, I lack the diplomacy of Mr. Sweetenham and other, cooler heads. The reason is pretty simple – the IOC. Swimming, no matter how far we’ve come, remains an Olympic sport. It’s tethered to the rings forever. The IOC would need to recognize any new organization for it to carry any real weight on the international stage. And no matter how successful this rebellion, it remains unlikely to gain official acceptance from the International Olympic Committee.

It might. It would take years, and perhaps that’s what it will take. But the saner path remains some far-off coercion and cooperation with FINA, that will lead to lasting change from within. They haven’t listened so far, not for decades, but now the swimming coaches of the world appear ready to go all-in.

Now it’s time for FINA to show its cards – or fold.