Nick Butler

Last night’s International Swimming Federation (FINA) World Aquatics Gala took place in the iconic Vigadó Concert Hall here in Budapest. Built in 1859 on the eastern bank of the Danube, the grand old building - the city's second-largest concert venue - required 36 years of renovation following the destruction of World War Two, but is now fully restored and filled once again with elegant arches and beautiful paintings.

A traditional remnant to a golden age which lingers on today despite the picturesque Hungarian capital also seeking to showcase a modern slant to boost its bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

This contrast between old and new is rather similar to the delicate balancing act taking place within FINA and other sporting governing bodies today. How to evolve and innovate but to do so without imploding in the mire of scandal engulfing both FIFA and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)?

Rightly or wrongly, FINA has been identified by many as another International Federation in which secrets may be buried, in which the powers-that-be are maybe more interested in protecting the status quo than in bringing about any real change.

The FINA Aquatics Gala took place at the elegant and historic Vigadó Concert Hall ©Wikipedia
The FINA Aquatics Gala took place at the elegant and historic Vigadó Concert Hall ©Wikipedia

I was fascinated to get my first chance to experience the so called “FINA Family” over the weekend.

As in many other sporting bodies, transparency has traditionally been thin on the ground. Any sort of annual financial report, for instance, has still not been published. A genuine commitment to tackling doping has also been questioned, with criticism particularly fierce after the decision to hand China’s double London 2012 Olympic champion Sun Yang  a “secret” three month ban in 2014 when he tested positive for trimetazidine.

There are those who also insist the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) independent Commission should extend its remit to Russian swimming as well as athletics and, in this context, the awarding of Vladimir Putin with a FINA Order in 2014 was perhaps unwise.

FINA, arguably unlike the IAAF ahead of last year’s revelations, has at least made some proactive gestures in attempting to deal with these concerns.

Several press releases have been sent out documenting the supposedly “zero tolerance” nature of doping provisions in Kazan at last year's World Championships. Swiss lawyer François Carrard, the former IOC director general credited with spearheading their recovery from the Salt Lake City corruption scandal of 1999, has been hired to undertake a full review of corporate governance. FINA have also followed the likes of the World Taekwondo Federation and International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) by appointing British consultancy firm Jon Tibbs Associates (JTA) as communications advisors.

These are just gestures, critics claim. FIFA performed similar “reforming” drives, all followed by the obligatory gushing press release, and we all know now what was really going on there. Carrard, who also heads the FIFA Reform Committee and will act through his firm, Carrard Consulting SA, is considered unlikely to ruffle too many feathers. He is, after all, a blazer and tie wearing member of the sporting community rather than someone completely impartial, and a cynic would say that his review will stall rather than speed-up the reforming process.

FIFA Reform Committee chair François Carrard will spearhead a review of FINA's corporate governance ©Getty Images
FIFA Reform Committee chair François Carrard will spearhead a review of FINA's corporate governance ©Getty Images

Some even believe that the best solution would be for FINA to be abolished and a new body installed in its place.

There appears no chance of this happening as it stands, and the trouble with outsiders coming-in to supposedly clean-up an organisation, of course, is that they do not have the network of contacts and sporting political nous to force any changes through.

It was hard to get a true picture on a flying two-day visit, but a lot seemed typical of how international Federations are, and have always been. The old age of the - mostly male - officials, for example, and the frequent references to protecting, and working for the benefit of, a “FINA Family” which conjured mental images of some kind of lifelong mafia organisation rather than a sporting electorate.

But there were also plenty of far younger Lausanne-based FINA employees, happy to patiently explain the aims and structure of the body and respond to the above criticisms while showing their support for the longstanding executive director, and their boss, Cornel Marculescu. Such loyalty, particularly when talking to a journalist, is unsurprising and doesn’t necessarily mean all is well, of course. But on the other hand, it was rumblings of discontent from these sorts of people from where many of the FIFA and IAAF scandals originated. Many of their defences were articulate and seemed genuinely sincere.

With the IAAF, the trouble appeared to be the monopoly of power surrounding former President Lamine Diack, who was surrounded by a small cabal - including at least two of his sons - carrying out shady activities when most others remained in the dark.

My immediate impression was that FINA President Julio Maglione does not exercise the same level of power. The Uruguayan octogenarian, who graduated from IOC member to IOC honorary member last month after passing his 80th birthday, simply has too much else going on to be too closely involved. He is currently President of the Pan American Sports Organization and the Uruguayan Olympic Committee, as well as a vice-president of the Association of National Olympic Committees.

Julio Maglione does not appear as hands on as some other sporting Presidents ©Getty Images
Julio Maglione does not appear as hands on as some other sporting Presidents ©Getty Images

This leaves Marculescu, the Romanian water polo player who has spent decades in the role, and has formed the focus for much of FINA’s criticism. I was told that he can have “good days” and “bad days” before I interviewed him, but, despite it coming at the end of a long day of Bureau meetings, he was friendly and happy to answer any question, carrying on speaking long after I had switched off my tape. He clearly knows the sport very well and is the key decision-maker on a day-to-day basis.

He told me that he hoped the 2025 edition of the World Championships could be awarded in the following morning’s meeting as well as the publicised 2021 and 2023 events; the idea was ultimately rejected in “the interest of transparency” to allow other bidders a chance to come forward.

This suggests that, while less involved in many areas, the Bureau members do exercise considerable power, perhaps more so than the IAAF Council did, and that Marculescu does not have complete control of all decisions. Another key figure is Husain Al-Musallam, the Kuwaiti first vice-president and Olympic Council of Asia director general touted as a potential successor for Maglione. He seems to play a significant role in all the major decisions if not so much for the day-to-day work.

The decision to award Fukuoka in Japan and Doha in Qatar the 2021 and 2023 World Championships has raised eyebrows, particularly because Gwangju in South Korea will host in 2019 and Nanjing in China could still do so in 2025.

“This is another great moment for Asian sport,” a delighted Al-Musallam told me afterwards.

St Lucia’s IOC member Richard Peterkin was less sure: “What happened to cities from powerhouses Australia and the USA?” he posted on Facebook. “Good to spread around the world, but not that much geographical diversity over the next 10 years.”

The United States has never hosted the flagship Aquatics World Championships despite topping the medals table in all but four of the 16 editions, having hosted the World Short-Course Swimming Championships once, in Indianapolis in 2004. Australia has hosted three World Aquatics Championships, most recently in Melbourne in 2007.

It bears mentioning, however, that there have been plenty of recent European hosts: Rome in 2009, Barcelona in 2013, Kazan in 2015, and Budapest to come in 2017 (the Hungarian capital stepped in after Mexico withdrew last year, with the Mexican Swimming Federation having now been temporarily suspended from FINA as a consequence of breaking its contract).

It is therefore hard to tell whether this is some sort of geographical anomaly or a genuine sign of apathy from the rest of the world, as we have seen with various Olympic bids, but my instinct is more towards the former at this stage.

Something else that struck me was how low-profile athletes and the sport itself appeared to be. Obviously, if I had attended the World Championships, I’m sure it would have been very different, but - like with many other Federations - the hotel lobbies were littered with conversations about elections and politics, but not with who is going to win the 100 metres freestyle at Rio 2016…

Award winners like Hungary's Katinka Hosszú were unable to attend the awards ceremony ©Getty Images
Award winners like Hungary's Katinka Hosszú were unable to attend the awards ceremony ©Getty Images

It was disappointing that no swimmers could attend the awards last night due to the rigours of training, with only divers, high divers, open water and synchronised swimmers present to be honoured in person. Organisers had attempted to hold the event in December to make it easier for the swimmers, I was told, but it had proved impossible.

Other than that, however, the ceremony was rather good. It could have been better promoted on social media, perhaps, where FINA is lagging behind the most savvy federations like the FIVB and World Rugby, although the FINA communications team were not helped last night by that most typical Gala Dinner problem - albeit of today rather than in 1859 - of unusable  wifi.

FINA have also innovated in other areas, adding the new and genuinely exciting disciplines of mixed duet synchronised swimming and high-diving, which they hope will feature on the banks of the Danube at both the 2017 World Championships and, perhaps, the Budapest 2024 Olympics.

I am therefore reluctant to draw firm conclusions from such a short visit. But, while the governing body is certainly not perfect, it is doing good as well as bad, and I did not see any evidence of the worst excesses of its summer sporting cousins.

My tentative impression, therefore, is that FINA will survive. Like the Vigadó Concert Hall, however, it might require a few years of renovation until it is perfect.