Nick Butler ©ITG

I do not think veterans swimming or, indeed, any sporting competition for septuagenarians, can have generated as much coverage as last week’s FINA World Masters Championships in Budapest did when Spaniard Fernando Álvarez remained on his block for a full minute rather than race in a personal tribute to victims of the Barcelona terror attack.

The 71-year-old was hailed as a hero as images of him standing rather than swimming went viral around the world. Organisers, meanwhile, were blasted by all and sundry for refusing to comply with his request for a commemoration before the race.

"So I started a minute later," Álvarez said afterwards. "But I do not mind. I have a feeling worth more than if I win all the gold medals in the world."

I personally thought this was all a little silly.

It eventually transpired that Hungarian organisers had already held a one-minute silence before competition began that same day, as well as at two other points during the Championships.

Displaying their usual public relations savviness, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) waited three days to comment and then claimed, "not to have been informed" about Álvarez’ request.

"In case a formal demand was received, FINA would obviously immediately consider the minute of silence," they added. 

It took a separate statement from the Organising Committee in Budapest to point out the ones which had already taken place.

A Spanish swimmer conducted a private minute of silence at the FINA Masters World Championships ©Twitter
A Spanish swimmer conducted a private minute of silence at the FINA Masters World Championships ©Twitter

It will be interesting to see what sort of precedent this has set.

Will there now be a commemoration before every single race in which one athlete requests one? Or how about midway through a race, with every swimmer stopping mid-stroke in a gesture of solidarity?

I am not trying to dismiss the extent of the tragedy in Barcelona at which at least 15 people were killed. It was terrible and merits serious commemoration.

But, as we are constantly told, sport is a great way to unite people and show how the normal order continues at a time of adversity. So, by opting not to compete and instead disrupting the race and the Championships, it could be argued that Álvarez upset rather than enabled this.

Surely it would have been better to race and then honour the tragedy afterwards?

Sport does not currently seem consistent in its responses to global events.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) media twitter account burst briefly into life soon after the Barcelona atrocity with two messages posted on behalf of its President Thomas Bach.

"#BarcelonaAttack is also an attack on the Olympic Values in the host city of the Olympic Games 1992," the message read. "We utterly condemn #BarcelonaAttack. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families and friends."

Well I’m sure that made everybody feel a little bit better.

At times, the IOC under Bach feels more like a rival United Nations than a sporting body.

Similar statements have been posted on their website following two incidents in Paris as well as others in Tunisia and Kuwait.

This contrasts with the situation under previous regimes, where political commentaries were only made when there was a clear link to the Olympic and sporting worlds.

In 2005, for instance, when terrorists struck London the day after the city was awarded the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Or the following year, when the President and Secretary general of the National Olympic Committee of Iraq were among sporting officials held hostage in Baghdad.

It is notable also when comparing these statement that these earlier ones were from the "IOC" whereas now they are from "IOC President Thomas Bach".

Another dilemma now is the question of what makes a terrorist attack worth commenting on?

This month alone we have two separate incidents in Afghanistan at which over 30 people lost their lives plus an attack in Nigeria in which 31 fishermen were killed by Boko Haram jihadists. There was also the incident in Burkina Faso where 19 were killed when jihadists opened fire in a restaurant and hotel. There has also been multiple devastating suicide bombings in Pakistan and Yemen.

None of these were considered important enough by the IOC to condemn. 

They also did not react following the incidents in Manchester and in the recent Olympic host city of London this year. There was also no condemnation the day after the initial attack Barcelona when two civilians were killed by terrorists in the Olympic host nation of Finland.

Thomas Bach, left, enjoyed another meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday ©IOC/Greg Martin
Thomas Bach, left, enjoyed another meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday ©IOC/Greg Martin

Speaking during the 2014 Olympic Council of Asia General Assembly in Incheon, Bach said: "In the past, people have said sport is nothing to do with politics, or with money and business. This attitude is wrong and we cannot afford it anymore.

"We have to partner up with the politicians who are running this world, and with international Governments. To ensure the functioning of worldwide sport, we must be politically neutral but realise that our decisions have political implications."

At the time, this speech was interpreted as the IOC publicly admitted something that had been known for decades. With hindsight, however, we can now see that it marked the start of a subtle political shift in which the IOC has sought to shape the Olympics as a more active force for peace.

This has included the constant meetings with world leaders, even those which have no immediate interest in hosting an Olympic Games or major event, as well as the refugees team at Rio 2016 and the never-ending barrage of messages about "Olympism" and the much-fangled "Olympic spirit".

Should the IOC not be prioritising internal sporting matters rather than this higher political purpose? Bach, for instance, has cancelled a planned visit to the International Boxing Association (AIBA) World Championships in Hamburg this week to avoid getting involved in the current feud between the body’s President and his IOC Executive Board colleague C K Wu and his rebelling Executive Committee members.

I know he will be playing a role behind the scenes but surely a public intervention here not be more important than jetting off to China for his second meeting of the year with the country’s President, Xi Jinping?

There is also something pompous and condescending about all of this "sport can change the world" rhetoric at a time where sport has so many internal problems of its own to remedy.

Thomas Bach poses with members of the Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach poses with members of the Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

Bach’s "politically neutral" status can of course be questioned. Take the charade of calling Taiwan "Chinese Taipei" and forcing it to compete under the banner of what is effectively a made-up flag at events including its own hosting of the Summer Universiade; a tradition persevered with in order to keep China sweet.

On the other hand, it is only fair to point out that Bach was responsible for welcoming Kosovo into the Olympics in 2014 ,despite the diplomatic difficulties of such a decision.

The IOC and many other sporting bodies do deserve credit for much of the work they have done to make the world a better place during a four-year cycle rather than just during the biennial opportunity of an Olympic Games.

It is tempting to sometimes dismiss initiatives like the refugees’ team as a public relations exercise, yet it has made a small but important difference. If done properly, providing sporting equipment and a distraction to people languishing in refugee camps around the world is also undoubtedly a good move and an effective way to spend money.

Sport can, on reflection, be a force for good. But surely the focus of the IOC and administrators should be on doing this through sporting events and sporting initiatives rather than passing judgement on terrorist attacks. Participating athletes should also be encouraged to compete despite such atrocities rather than allow them to overshadow their competition.

For the story coming out of the World Masters Swimming Championships that I found most interesting concerned the bronze medal won by Syrian Olympic Committee secretary general Feras Mouala.

Like Syrian high jumper Majededdin Ghazal at the World Athletics Championships, he had managed to train for and win a medal dispute the vast distractions of a brutal war unfolding back home.

This, surely, is the true power of sport.