Cornel Marculescu

FINA elections: a power-play clinic

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.

This just has to stop

The international sportswriters' association, which goes by the acronym AIPS, held its two-day executive committee meeting this week in Doha, Qatar. The meeting's guest of honor was Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the secretary general of the Qatar Olympic Committee, who is keenly sophisticated and moves fluidly between Arab and western cultures. The Qataris bid -- unsuccessfully -- for the Summer Games of 2016 and 2020, cut early on in each round by the International Olympic Committee. Of course, soccer's World Cup is set for Qatar in 2022.

His Excellency told the ladies and gentlemen of the press that sport is fundamentally one of the pillars of Qatar's development plan. This year, the Qataris will organize 40 major sports events. By 2020, he said, the goal is to stage a big event every week of the year.

And, of course, he said, to bid again for the Olympics. Maybe for 2024. Possibly 2028.

If you have been to Doha, actually been on the ground, you know that there is serious commitment there. The new president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, has long had extensive ties to the Middle East, so one would imagine the climate -- so to speak -- for a Gulf bid would be as good as it could ever get.

There's only one thing that could stop a Doha bid dead in its tracks, and it's not the heat. Nor is it the capacity, infrastructure or even the impact on television schedules.

It's this:

The start of the women's 100-meter individual medley  at the Doha World Cup event // photo courtesy Universal Sports Network

This photo offers irrefutable evidence of everything the Olympic values -- friendship, excellence, respect -- are not.

This sort of intolerance, indeed discrimination, has to stop. Now. And forever more.

This screenshot shows the start of the women's 100-meter individual medley at swimming's World Cup stop in Doha -- happening more or less about the same stretch of time His Excellency and some of the world's leading writers were meeting to talk about all the exciting things happening in the Qatari capital.

In Lane 5 is Amit Ivry of Israel.

The Israeli flag that should be depicted in the graphic display in the host broadcast feed has instead been washed out.

This incident marked just one of several episodes directed against Israeli swimmers at the World Cup stops in both Dubai (Oct. 17-18) and Doha (Oct. 20-21).

On Day 1 in Dubai, Israeli swimmers were not properly identified, either by announcers on the scoreboard. That way, their name and national flag wouldn't have to be shown, a veteran national-team swimmer, Gal Nevo, told a leading Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz.

Things in Dubai were apparently back to normal by Day 2. Nevo, for instance, announced as from the country "I-S-R" on Day 1, was announced as from "Israel" on Day 2.

He said, "Suddenly, you arrive in a country that has refused to recognize you until now, and know that the next time we'll be here they won't play those games with us. I don't know how many television viewers we're talking about but the people in the emirate saw the Israeli flag over and over again, and were exposed to the country's sporting aspect."

That this sort of thing happened in Dubai can not have come entirely as a huge shock.

After all, this was where in 2009 the Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer was refused a visa for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships; tour officials fined organizers $300,000 and said all qualified players had to be able to play or the tournament's sanctioning would be at risk. Peer has since played in Dubai.

That said, recent years have seen a veritable catalogue of incidents in which politics and sport have mixed in all the wrong ways, consistently with the Israelis as the target.

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, for instance, Iran's judo world champion, Arash Miresmaeli, refused to take to the mat for a first-round match against Israel's Ehud Vaks in the under-66 kg class. Iranian officials later awarded Miresmaeli the same $120,000 given its gold-medal winners at those 2004 Games for what was called a "great act of self-sacrifice."

At the 2008 Beijing Games, Iran's Mohammed Alirezaei refused to compete alongside Israeli swimmer Tom Be'eri in the heats of the 100 backstroke.

At the 2010 Olympic Youth Games in Singapore, in the final of the boys under-48 kg class in taekwondo, Gili Haimovitz of Israel won when Mohammed Soleimani of Iran proved a no-show, officially claiming he had aggravated an old injury to his left leg. Soleimani skipped the medals ceremony as well -- missing the Israeli flag and anthem.

In 2012, Algerian kayaker Nasreddine Baghdadi withdrew from a World Cup event in which Israeli Roei Yellin was entered, and the president of the Algerian Olympic Committee, Rachid Hanifi, said all its athletes might refuse to compete against Israelis at the London Games: "There is an obligation to ask our government if we have to meet Israel in sport."

That prompted the then-IOC president, Jacques Rogge, to declare that only serious injury would be accepted as an excuse for not competing at the London Games, that suspicious withdrawals would be checked by an "independent medical board" and that bogus withdrawals would lead to unspecified sanctions.

Just two weeks ago, Tunisia's tennis federation ordered its top player, Malek Jaziri, ranked 169th in the world, not to play Israel's Amir Weintraub in the quarterfinals of a lower-tier ATP event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

International Tennis Federation spokesman Nick Imison told Associated Press he believed the case was a first-of-its-kind in tennis.

The constitution of swimming's international federation, which goes by the acronym FINA, is absolutely clear that discrimination on the grounds of "race, sex, religion or political affiliations" is out of bounds.

True, FINA officials absolutely had been put on notice by events in Dubai. But Doha? This was where a 20-year-old Shahar Peer in 2008 -- the year before the episode in Dubai -- had reached the round--of-16. Moreover, her first night in the city, the tourney director had even taken her and her entourage out to dinner at a Moroccan restaurant in the traditional Souk district marketplace.

And yet -- Doha.

According to a report in the Times of Israel, it's not just that the Israeli flag was not displayed in the computer graphics of the races. Some races in which Israelis swam were not broadcast. The Israeli flag was removed from outside the venue; a tweet was posted Sunday complaining about the flag's presence before it was taken down from outside the swim complex, according to the Doha News.

How this all happened remains entirely unclear. Who precisely was responsible -- also uncertain.

FINA on Wednesday issued a statement saying that it reacted to events in both Dubai and Doha as soon as it knew. In Doha, for instance, FINA officials say they were told the full scope of what had happened only 15 minutes before the end of Day 2.

The statement says FINA "guarantees" that "all steps will be taken in the future for such acts not to occur again."

This is particularly key because the world short-course championships are due to be held in Doha Dec. 3-7, 2014. Dubai and Doha are also scheduled to host further World Cup events ahead of the worlds.

FINA's executive director, Cornel Marculescu, told Associated Press the two organizing committees apologized for what he called these "stupid things." He also said, "Next year we have the world championships and these things will not happen anymore."

Marculescu is absolutely right to label the incidents so forthrightly and to  say enough is enough.

Now: Doha has a huge incentive to bid for the Olympics.

There are all kinds of bold steps that could be taken. For instance, there are apologies of all sorts. Some are private. Some are meant to be much more public.

Or: there are ways of reaching out, gestures of goodwill -- say, swim clinics in which regional stars teach local kids. Could it hurt to invite Amit Ivry, winner of the silver medal in the 100 medley at the Doha 2013 World Cup?

At the least -- all the Israelis all ought to be taken out to dinner next December at the worlds, everyone ought to shake hands and pose for some tourist-like pictures in the Souk and then all hands can get on with the business of swimming.

The Israelis -- just like they were anybody else. That's what they, and everybody, deserve.

After all, that's the fundamental promise inherent in Olympic sport -- that everyone can get along and that everyone deserves a chance to do their best, however good-enough that best might be. If the Qataris want to invite the world in 2024 or 2028 and be taken dead seriously about it -- an Olympics is way different than the World Cup -- that is the deal. Anything less is a non-starter.


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."