FINA elections: a power-play clinic

BUDAPEST — Here is the short version of a contentious campaign that dragged on for months inside FINA, the aquatics federation, and that culminated in Saturday’s election:

A rival sought to execute an Olympic power play. In the end, though, it was like Milorad Cavic and Michael Phelps. A lot of drama, maybe. But you knew who was going to win.

Because when it comes to executing a show of authority in Olympic circles, you have to go a long way to get past the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, especially when what’s at issue is the power of the IOC president and his key allies.

Julio Maglione, who has been president of FINA since 2009, was overwhelmingly re-elected — at age 81.

Selfie moment: FINA president Julio Maglione of Uruguay, right, with a delegate from India moments after Saturday’s election

Selfie moment: FINA president Julio Maglione of Uruguay, right, with a delegate from India moments after Saturday’s election

Husain al-Musallam of Kuwait was re-elected first vice-president — even though the political authorities in his country are embroiled in a complex, long-running conflict with international sports officials and he would seem to have been identified in a U.S. Justice Department document in a case tied to the ongoing FIFA matter.

Sam Ramsamy of South Africa is a longtime swimming and FINA official who served eight years on the IOC executive board. He was elected second vice-president.

Paolo Barelli of Italy, who had mounted the contentious campaign, which was aimed most deliberately at unseating the FINA power structure and by extension the IOC way of doing business, settled for being one of the other vice presidents.

“I think everything has been done in the proper way,” FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu said late Saturday in closing the assembly, comments that referred to the technical merit of the voting but could have meant so much more.

The session, Maglione echoed afterward at a news conference: “Democracy, 100 percent.”

The vice presidential ranking, unlike the presidential balloting, was decided — to be clear, per the rules — by the five newly elected vice presidents themselves, in a quick side vote, moments after the conclusion of the presidential balloting.

“It was only a couple seconds because the story was already written,” Barelli said, and this is always the story when you mount an insurgency and it fails. “Four of the five, the fifth was me, just told that the first vice president was Husain al-Musallam and the second was Sam.”

This FINA assembly made for a robust demonstration of sports politics of the highest order. It also offered a prism through which to see the many viewpoints of what constitutes, in 2017 and in differing cultures, “good governance.”

It surely may be tempting for those who are American or British or German to declare that the American or British or German way is the right, or even the only, way.

The FINA assembly brought together delegates from 176 different places. Why should someone from central Africa subscribe to the same cultural sensibilities and legal rules as the Americans? Someone from east Asia the Brits? Someone from central America the Germans?

The Russians? Chinese? Japanese?

And so on.

The starting place for governance perhaps has to be three fundamental principles — first, recognition of what is not permissible, meaning conduct that is obviously criminal anywhere, and then promotion of two basic notions, honesty and reasonable transparency.

From there, for instance, there can be the argument in the abstract over the merits of having one of the world’s top international sports federations led by someone in his 80s.

Then there is realpolitik.

Maglione has for years worked closely with Bach.

One of the practical effects: Maglione, along with Marculescu, has worked tirelessly to take advantage of the Phelps effect, Maglione noting Saturday with pride an IOC report after Rio that put FINA at No. 1 on the digital scoreboard from all the billions of hits measured during the 2016 Games.

In the IOC system, the various sports are ranked — and financially rewarded per a complicated distribution system— as an A-, B-, C- or D-level sport. Track and field used to be the only A sport. Now, aquatics and gymnastics are, too.

Under Maglione’s watch, aquatics has so grown that at the Tokyo 2020 Games, it will boast 49 medal events, most of any international federation. In 2020, track and field will count 48. In Rio, aquatics had 46, track and field 47. So FINA went up three, the IAAF one. The symbolism is rich.

“For the first time in the history of FINA, we are … in the first place,” Maglione said Saturday, again with understandable pride.

Al-Musallam is director general of the Olympic Council of Asia. The OCA is headed by Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, another key power player not only in the IOC but in international sport. The sheikh also heads what is called Olympic Solidarity, the IOC’s multimillion-dollar development fund.

Husain al-Musallam of Kuwait, FINA first vice-president

Husain al-Musallam of Kuwait, FINA first vice-president

Earlier this year, the sheikh resigned from FIFA’s ruling council after being linked in media reports to the Justice Department investigation. At the time, he said he “vigorously” denied any wrongdoing.

Since then, the sheikh — who even in normal circumstances keeps a low profile — has proven even more low-key. He did not, for instance, show up at the assembly earlier this month in Lausanne, Switzerland, at which the IOC opted to award the 2024 and 2028 Games at a single stroke to Paris and Los Angeles, the order still to be determined.

To think that “low-key” means “not involved,” however, is to believe in the tooth fairy.

The FINA election wound on for hours Saturday at the Intercontinental Hotel, on the banks of the Danube River. The sheikh was decamped at another hotel just a few blocks away; Bach showed up at that same hotel Saturday afternoon.

This is not to suggest — not in any way — that things were being run entirely by remote control.

Nor is it to ignore some of the behind-the-scenes intrigue. For instance, a robust journalistic critic turned up Saturday at the congress; common sense would ultimately prevail, as a long-time PR consultant interceded, and repeatedly, on the journalist’s behalf.

It is, however, to acknowledge that sort of intrigue and, as well, to observe that Olympic semiotics is worthy of a Ph.D.-level thesis.

De-coding the signals is just as important to understanding what happened as what obviously transpired on the closed-circuit television screens showing the FINA assembly to the overflow crowds just outside the Intercontinental ballroom.

The former IOC director general, François Carrard, ran the election. Carrard, a Swiss lawyer, is well-known within the Olympic scene as the iconic go-to guy. Signs, signs, everywhere signs: that he was running things told everyone with more than a reptilian brain which way this was likely headed.

Again, this is not to suggest in any way that there is, or was, anything off-kilter. Carrard played a key role in leading FIFA governance reform and he is consistently adamant — aware, no matter what, there will be critics — that proceedings such as Saturday’s must be run with, back to those keywords, honesty and reasonable transparency.

Mindful of the potential of legal challenge to the balloting, Carrard early on indulged the assembly in a lengthy discussion that centered on one question: should the candidates be allowed, yes or no, to make their cases one last time — that is, give one more speech in person to the assembly — immediately before the vote.

No, the voters decided. No speechifying.

This was before lunch.

When vote time came, after lunch, Barelli apparently decided to try one more time. “There is nothing personal,” Carrard admonished from the stage. “The congress has decided that no candidate should speak.” Then Maglione made a move to speak. Carrard shushed him, too: “It’s the same for both.”

The weighted FINA presidential vote count (by paper ballot, not electronic): 258-77.

This sort of margin came as no surprise.

Paolo Barelli of Italy, seated center, at post-election news conference

Paolo Barelli of Italy, seated center, at post-election news conference

Just before the presidential vote, the assembly had to vote for two slots representing Asia on its council, which in FINA jargon is called its “bureau.” There were three candidates for the two slots: from China, Oman and Iran. In recent days, an article had been circulating suggesting al-Musallam purportedly asking for a cut in sponsorship deals; al-Musallam then said he had done nothing wrong, explaining that he had been referring to commissions for OCA, not him personally; and further suggesting that the candidate from Iran was the source of the tape that formed the basis of the story.

Elected: China and Oman.

Signs, signs, signs.

Shortly thereafter came the presidential tally.

Then the news conference.

First question, more or less: You’re 81! This was issued not as a statement or a question but a challenge.

“Well, first of all thank you for your friendship,” Maglione said, before declaring, “I am feeling well, I respect the decision of FINA,” and more, ending with, “Thank you for your question about the age, sir.”

Then: do you have a plan to resign after one or two years and give the presidency to al-Musallam?

“You must be crazy,” Maglione said.

Some will suggest this sort of answer unequivocally proves otherwise, even as Maglione also said, “I have the responsibility to be here four years.”

One more thing from Maglione, now looking at, in theory, four more years, having just put on a how-to clinic:

“The people are happy, excuse me.”