A tremendous next leap


BARCELONA -- The first-ever high-diving competition at a FINA world championship went down Monday and, yes, said Gary Hunt of Great Britain, one of the 14 divers who took part, there is absolutely an element of crazy involved in throwing yourself off a platform 88 feet high and twisting and spinning your way down for all of like, maybe, three seconds until you hit the water at about 50 miles per hour. "It seems crazy for anyone who hasn't tried it," he said, adding a moment later, "You are taking a risk. But it's a calculated risk."

Maybe this high-diving thing -- which might someday be in the Olympic Games -- is, in fact, crazy smart. Perhaps it's a great lesson in the way a savvy international sports federation moves. Quite possibly it offers a striking comparison: on the one hand, there's FINA's dynamism, and on the other, there's track and field's governing body, which goes by the acronym IAAF and in recent years has often seemed more static, the sport itself relentlessly plagued by doping scandals involving some of its biggest stars.

Track and field's most passionate adherents, including Lamine Diack of Senegal, the IAAF's longtime president, often say that the Summer Olympics begin for real only in the second week, when the action at Olympic Stadium, on the track and in the field, gets underway.

It is unequivocally the case that athletics, as it is known everywhere in the world but the United States, has global reach, and a passionately dedicated -- some might say exquisitely particular -- fan base.

That said, a typical night at the track is too often a carnival, unintelligible to the average spectator, with far too many events going on at the same time.

Meanwhile, aquatic sports -- along with gymnastics -- were this year, in the aftermath of the success of last year's London Games, elevated into the top rank of Olympic sports. Previously, track sat there alone, getting a special share of the hundreds of millions of dollars generated by television rights and other deals from each summer Games.

No more.

As for global reach, consider this line-up of countries from the third heat -- of eight -- in Sunday's men's 50-meter butterfly here at the Palau Sant Jordi: Northern Mariana Islands, Gambia, Tahiti, Guyana, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Mali, Iraq, Pakistan, Tanzania.

The way a championship swim meet works is that the final few heats are the so-called "seeded" heats, with the expected winners. The early heats feature the qualifiers. The butterfly is without question the hardest of the strokes but, as the times in Heat 3 of 8 proved, this was no mere develoment display:

Christopher Clark of Tahiti finished first, in 25.81 seconds. Folarin Ogunsola of Gambia touched last, a more-than-respectable 2.69 seconds behind. Ameer Ali of war-torn Iraq placed sixth, in 27.06.

As these names and numbers show, swimming is doing something right.

What it's also doing right is playing smart politics -- especially in this, an IOC election year.

The IAAF should be surveying the scene and paying attention.

Track has no worries about its place on the Olympic program. But look, for instance, at what wrestling -- which is now fighting to stay in the Games -- is doing. It recently put on an exhibition, deliberately including female wrestlers, at ancient Olympia, in Greece. The message? Sport assuredly must be in touch with its roots, yes. But, and this is the critical part, it has to find new ways to remain ever-relevant.

Surely there are other creative sparks in track like those being shown by Sergei Bubka, the IAAF vice president and IOC presidential candidate, whose 28-page IOC election manifesto is punctuated with creative ideas. Then again, Bubka's mid-winter pole-vault event in Donetsk, Ukraine, is the model for how to take track and field forward -- it's one night, one event and it's a combination of the vaulting itself and whatever music the athletes want to jump to. You don't have to know the basics about pole vaulting to have fun watching it.

Same thing here Monday about high diving. You didn't have to know the intricacies of how you might actually yourself do a front double somersault with one-and-a-half twists to know you were watching the future.  Here were ripped bodies in the hot sun -- these 14 guys from nine nations -- flinging themselves off the platform, then crashing feet-first into the sea, then bubbling up to flash the OK sign. The scores came up to a thumping beat as palm trees swayed in the gentle Mediterranean breeze.

It was postcard-perfect.

"Anything that sticks out of line," away from vertical, "is going to hurt," said Orlando Duque, one of the 14, a Colombian who now spends most of his time in the Hawaiian islands. "If your face is sticking out, it's going to hurt."

Just getting up to the diving platform itself is a test of nerves. It's 120 steps. Learning how to dive from that height, Duque said, took him three full years.

Your lines have to be clean, just like in platform and springboard diving. That's what you get judged on.

Still, he said, the main thing is the rush.  It's like, he said, "when your dog sticks its head out of the window and is enjoying the wind."

Blake Aldridge was Tom Daley's partner in synchro diving at the 2008 Beijing Games; the British pair finished eighth. Now Aldridge is a high-diver. "It's massively different, mentally and visually," he said, adding, "If you get it wrong, there are no second chances."

This is, to be obvious, action sports for the water crowd. Indeed, at high-dive events there are scuba divers bobbing on the surface, just in case.

FINA is run by president Julio Maglione and executive director Cornel Marculescu. Want to know why, under their direction, swimming has moved into the Olympic top-tier?

At the medals ceremony here Sunday night, who appeared on stage to present the medals to the men's and women's 400-meter freestyle medalists? That would be one of the leading IOC presidential contenders, Thomas Bach of Germany, and none other than his ally, the IOC power broker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait.

On Monday, who presented the medals to the men's 100 breaststroke winners? Singapore's Ser Miang Ng, another top IOC presidential contender.  To the women's 100 butterfly winners? Sir Craig Reedie of Great Britain, an IOC vice president, chairman of the 2020 Summer Games evaluation commission and presumed candidate for the World Anti-Doping Agency presidency.

To the winners of the women's 200-meter individual medley? Marius Vizer, the recently elected president of Sport Accord, the umbrella federation of the international sports federations. Vizer is also president of the International Judo Federation.

This is what's called being smart all around and covering your bases.

This, too:

In recent years, FINA has added open-water events. Here, it announced the addition of mixed relays.

Now, high-diving. "Hopefully, down the line we'll get into the Olympics," said Hunt, who leads the 2013 Red Bull cliff diving series after four events. Hunt has won the last three titles; Duque is the only other man to have won, in 2009.

What has track done to grow the sport? To remain fresh and current? To reach out -- in a concrete way -- to young people?

"The truth is that every year, every day, we are thinking to do something new," Maglione said at a weekend news conference.

Marculescu added a few moments later, "It's no secret today that we are living in a sport business environment. If you don't improve your product every day, or as soon as you can, the value disappears."

One of the jury members in Monday's men's high-diver preliminaries:  the man widely considered the greatest diver of all-time, Greg Louganis, the 1984 and 1988 platform and springboard champion. It's another smart play to get Louganis involved; he is an activist and his voice should be welcomed in the movement.

With Duque atop the leader board, the 14 men now move on to Wednesday's finals; preliminary scores carry over. The women's event, from 20 meters, or 66 feet, is set for Tuesday.

One of the six women who will dive Tuesday, Tara Tira, 27, of San Francisco, said, "It's a tremendous leap," literally and figuratively. She smiled at the inadvertent pun, then said, "It's really cool. It's really exciting for us. It's the next step."