Why did WSCA decide to changes its approach to FINA and the WSA from 2010 to 2015?
by George Block, WSCA President
In 2010, at the WSCA convention in Indianapolis, USA, the WSCA Board gave two instructions to our Executive Director. The first was to work with the FINA Executive Director, if possible and productive, and if not, the second imperative was to “blow FINA up”. No explosives were transferred; the second instruction was a bit metaphoric.
What the metaphor referred to was the understanding (both academically and pragmatically) that it is easier to blow up an existing large, bureaucratic organization and start over, than it is to significantly reform that same organization. We had lived through that experience in the USA. The AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] was no longer serving its member sports well, so Swimming lit the fuse to blow up the AAU and start over with the current National Governing Body format that everyone recognizes today. At the same time, the Olympic House was no longer serving the needs of Olympic athletes, so Congress blew it up and chartered the United States Olympic Committee that we know today, as well.
The WSCA Executive Director, John Leonard, tried to work with the FINA Executive Director, Cornel Marculescu, on two, specific issues, but after losing the battle over the plastic-bag suits to the world’s coaches and federations, Marculescu was doing everything possible to avoid the coaches from growing their voice in the sport, while controlling that of the federations. Simultaneously, we saw doping growing rapidly again, completely unchecked, and–if rumors were true–even aided, by FINA.
The five years from 2010-2015 were largely spent trying to “work within the system” to get international federations (IFs) and national federations (NFs) to seriously take on FINA and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) about the growing evidence of doping. Neither approach was effective.
By the time the WSCA Board convened in Cleveland in 2015, the rumors we had heard about doping and bribery across the spectrum in world sport were being exposed. The elected leaders of FIFA (soccer IF) had been handcuffed and police-escorted, in their pajamas, out of a luxury Swiss hotel. The IAAF (track and field IF) was neck-deep in the worst doping scandal in the history of sport, while a blue-ribbon commission was wrapping up its investigation into Russian doping (suspiciously delayed until after Russian World Championships). Additionally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) targeted FINA’s traditional poor governance practices in its own sports governance reform effort for itself and its member IFs and National Olympic Committees (NOCs).
When the WSCA members gathered around the board table in Cleveland, no longer did people think we needed to blow up FINA. It seemed to be doing a fine job of blowing itself up. The World Swimming Association (WSA) Board wanted to create a safe place to go when FINA imploded. With the help of two international law firms, WSCA developed the framework of a World Swimming Association (WSA) constitution and bylaws that could be developed in detail online by the coaches and swimmers of the world. That effort is well underway.
In 2010, the world’s coaches wanted to enlist the help of all of our NFs to get FINA and WADA to reform themselves. By 2015, perspective had changed. Every coach around that table had long-term, deep friendships with many members of their own NF. They generally realized that both the staff and elected officials in our NFs were in an impossible situation.
The NF staff and officials were significantly dependent (and in many cases completely dependent) on NOC or governmental funding, which was often the same thing, government funding passed through NOCs to NFs. Those funds were completely dependent on performances at FINA-controlled World Championships and the Olympic Games. The NFs were in the same, unproductive position as publicly-help American corporations that often have to sacrifice long-term health for short-term profits. The NFs lived from year-to-year, completely dependent on FINA performances, while the NOCs lived from quad to quad, completely dependent on Olympic performances. The NFs could not do anything that could negatively impact FINA relationships; the NOCs could not do anything that could negatively impact IOC relationships.
The coaches had a different perspective. The fundamental ethics of coaching is to protect the long-term career of the swimmer and the long-term health of our sport. Any compromise to that long-term approach is viewed as unethical. The coaches around the table recognized that their friends in their own NFs and NOCs were captive to a short-term existence. Only the coaches were free to look toward and build toward a long-term solution.
Instead of being frustrated that our NFs couldn’t fight FINA or the IOC, the coaches (paraphrasing Anderson and Adams in Mastering Leadership) decided to: enthusiastically embrace the challenge of being responsible for the future of the sport and for creating the future to which every member aspired. The coaches left the short term to their federations and decided to create an alternative international organization that every swimmer, coach, official, family member and swimming fan could affirmatively and individually join (since none of us actually join FINA).
This organization would be lean, single-sport (Swimming only) and mission driven. The mission would be to teach the world to swim for safety, health and fitness. Sponsors would be challenged to develop 6-lane, instructional and training pools that could be maintained and sanitized with off-the-shelf parts and sanitizers. Swim schools and seasonal swim teams would provide the broad base of membership, with national Age Group participation and performance serving as the real measure of success. Elite performance would not be the purpose of, but the result of, the efforts of this organization. Elite performance would be both the celebration of and the catalyst for grass-roots development.
With both coaches and swimmers worldwide agreed on the type of organization we want (mission driven, athlete centered, and professionally managed), all we had to do was harness the power of the internet to “open source” the development of this World Swimming Association.
Membership will soon be available for anyone who wants to join at the ground floor and be a part of its development. In 2017, in Washington, DC, USA, we will have our first quadrennial convention. Meets and programs will start shortly after that.
We will respect the role of FINA as the rule-making body of our sport; however, since FINA failed to enforce those rules, we will not respect them as the rule enforcer of our sport. They failed us on artificial aids (plastic bag suits). They have failed us for decades on doping. They even fail to enforce their own lax governance rules (giving its highest award to Putin). We cannot let them continue to fail in enforcement.
The WSA will be mission driven. It will be transparent financially and politically. It will be voluntary; no one will be forced to join. It will be financially fair to its athlete members. It will protect those athletes from doping and scandal.
With coaches and athletes agreeing on both mission and outcomes, it does not take a lot of money to start the organization, but money will follow. Money can be forced to move corruptly, or it can be allowed to flow freely and follow good governance, a noble mission and superb, clean athletes.