Column: World championships tarnished by FINA scandals
BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — This should be one of swimming’s shining moments.
Yet here we are, in the midst of the world championships, distracted by a huge cloud hanging over the sport.
It’s got nothing to do with anyone wearing a swimsuit.
Just those wearing suits and ties.
On Saturday, the governing body for all aquatic disciplines, FINA, will hold a sham of a meeting amid its biggest meet after the Olympics to elect a new set of leaders (asterisk included) who likely will look very much like the old set of leaders (another asterisk included).
The current president, 81-year-old Julio Maglione of Uruguay, is running for a third term after the organization changed its rules to remove the age limit.
Running unopposed for another term as senior vice president — one step away from the top post — is Kuwait’s Husain Al-Musallam , who just happens to be linked to a bribery investigation in the United States and faced further claims this week in British and German media that he sought payoffs as part of Olympic-related sponsorship deals.
For FINA, Al-Musallam’s troubles are just the latest in a parade of serious charges against the sport’s ruling hierarchy.
The former head of Brazil’s aquatics confederation was arrested in April in a fraud probe dubbed “Clear Waters,” which looked into allegations of sports officials embezzling millions in public funds. Coaracy Nunes also had served on FINA’s ruling board.
In Kenya, the head of the country’s swimming federation, Ben Ekumbo , was dragged out from under a bed where he tried to hide when officers came to arrest him as part of an inquiry into millions in missing money and equipment following the Rio Olympics last summer. He, too, has served on FINA’s governing bureau.
But the organization carries on as if there’s nothing to see here.
Just business as usual.
“This is very bad for the image of FINA,” said Paolo Barelli, an Italian member of the governing bureau who has launched a longshot bid to unseat Maglione. “I’m very, very, very embarrassed.”
Barelli believes FINA needs to become more transparent and focused on the athletes, which would certainly be a very good start. He called for outside auditors to sort out the organization’s murky finances, as well as separate, independent bodies to deal with doping and disciplinary matters. The Italian also believes Al-Musallam should deal with all those serious allegations before he’s given a chance to resume his prominent role in FINA’s leadership.
“He has to stay in the corner to defend himself,” Barelli said in an interview with The Associated Press. “He can return when everything is clear.”
A change at the top might be a step in the right direction, but it’s going to take more than one person to flush out this cesspool.
The most prominent swimming nations, led by the United States and Australia, should demand a thorough cleansing. The top sponsors should do the same. For good measure, let’s hope the athletes step up to exert what could be their very considerable influence.
There are already rumblings on that front.
Hungarian star Katinka Hosszu has taken the first steps toward creating a professional swimmers’ union, signing up athletes such as American Katie Meili and Australia’s Bronte Campbell. While still in its formative stages, this is very promising development.
When asked about the state of affairs at FINA, Campbell said wryly, “There’s always room for improvement.” She went on to say: “It’s definitely something that we think about. It’s a sport that we love. We want to see it be the best that it can be.”
Hosszu was spurred to action when FINA changed the rules for its World Cup circuit, limiting the number of events a swimmer could enter at each meet and taking aim at the Iron Lady’s earning potential. Of course, the bigwigs did little to address the pathetic prize money, a mere $1,500 for first-place finishes.
Last month, in an open letter provided to SwimSwam, Hosszu spoke bluntly about FINA’s troubles.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that FINA is in chaos,” she wrote. “There is the lack of transparency in the financials, the constantly changing rules, and leaders with no vision. At first it may seem a bit scary, but this is the time for us, the swimmers, to do something about the future of our sport.”
She noted that other professional athletes already have fought many of these same battles.
“We wouldn’t need to be pioneers,” Hosszu said. “There are so many inspiring examples from other sports before us.”
Meili, who won two medals in Rio and is one of the captains of the powerhouse American team, quickly jumped on board.
“Katinka has been great,” Meili said. “Everyone knows how incredible she is in the pool. Now, she’s doing great things for the sport. It’s still very new, but it’s a new and exciting project. ... We’re all communicating about where we want the sport to go and how it should be for the people coming up behind us.”
One thing’s for sure.
Business as usual can’t go on.
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