Is Swimming Coming Up For Air After Decades Of Stagnation In A Murky Pool?

2021-10-18 Reading Time: 8 minutes
Swimming, a sport coming up for air? Photo: Connor Searle of Hamilton Baths competes in the heats of the Men's 200m Backstroke during the Scottish Swimming Masters Championships at Tollcross International Swim Centre, Glasgow, on September 10, 2021 - by Ian MacNicol, courtesy of Scottish Swimming

FINA Reform, Part 1 – Reform and reconciliation are on the agenda at FINA, the global regulator for swimming at which pledges made by the new president Husain Al-Musallam and his right-hand man Brent Nowicki, the first new director for the global regulator in 35 years, will test the resolve of fellow leaders, some steeped in the murky depths of failed governance for decades, like they have never been tested before in a year of make or break.

As Francois Carrard, the Swiss lawyer long steeped in the Olympic Movement and all its victories and vanities, put it as chairman of the FINA Reform Committee of 12 that made recommendations now accepted by the FINA Bureau (board):

“[FINA] shall not leave a single stone unturned in the way in which it looks to the future. After all, reform is not a single event. It is a process that will test out patience.”

So does the past, particularly where generations of athletes, most of them teenage girls (minors in legal language), were the key victims of abuse in the Sporting Crime of the 21st Century.


In this first part of a series on the FINA Reform recommendations leading to a vote in December, SOS considers a commitment to divorce FINA’s role as promoter from that of policeman, starting with the theme that has landed the federation in hot water time and again when it need not have: doping – as the new FINA president pledges a 180-degree turn in the federation’s approach to clean sport. The series asks the question posed in our headline. Future articles will include a look at each of the six categories of reform in turn


Reform and reconciliation are bound for eternity at FINA, as the events of the past half century and the past week have proved. There will, say the athletes, coaches, parents and swimming communities of members and fans, be no moving on to a brighter future if you drag our sweat, blood, tears, torn health and lost identities with you.

The Reform Committee recommendations, with Bureau backing, will be put to a vote of the Congress of 209 member nations, the ultimate authority of FINA, in December. They include measures and remedies that have been welcomed in the sport and raise questions about the meaning and mechanism of “independent”. For example, appointments to an independent Integrity Unity will have to be approved by the Congress of nations in the political realm that Al-Musallam says he wants nowhere near any independent processes.

So far, recommendations fall under six overriding “pillars of reform”, within which there is no specific mention of a reconciliation process in a murky pond or any move to strip Dr. Lothar Kipke and any other officials of the German Democratic Republic convicted of crimes related to the systematic doping “State Research Plan 14:25” that enslaved an estimated 10,000 athletes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Swimming is coming up for air, says a born-again FINA – photo by Ian MacNicol, courtesy of Scottish Swimming

What FINA’s reformists do mention as the Sixth Pillar of proposed reform is “Safeguarding, Medical and Equity”, the very areas where guardians and stewards have failed athletes and others during the three decades of missed opportunities since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the GDR sports system.

Al-Musallam has pledged, via this author and The Times, to recommend that Kipke and any others who fit a similar profile, will be stripped of the FINA honours they still retain for “services to swimming” despite having been convicted in 2000-01 of administering steroids and other banned substances for the sole purpose of androgenization and enhanced sports performance. The Bureau will be asked to show its commitment to reform next month.

Down the line there will also be further discussion about a reconciliation process which could stretch to the GDR’s teenage abuse victims keeping their medals and shadow medals/recognition awards being granted to those denied the result on the day that would have reflected their status as top-three swimmers home among those without the taint of doping administered to every female swimmer who ever made an international podium in GDR colours.

That verdict is delivered by a library of evidence contained in state security police (Stasi) records that include comprehensive details of the names of athletes, doctors, the substances and dosages they were given and the timelines of the biggest mass and murky deceit in sports history.

It is not in Al-Musallam’s gift to redistribute Olympic medals, nor has he promised to do something he has no control over. However, he has stated that he intends to do what he can in recognition of the wounds inflicted on athletes, their families and swimming communities.

Al-Musallam’s heartening words are worth repeating as generations of women who were teenage stars of swimming back in their day pin them to their to cork boards and fridges, frame them for posterity or, in the digital age, share them and the media coverage of a horrid history far and wide with a swim sorority across the world via social media:

“Fina understands the concerns of athletes who have competed against others subsequently proved to have cheated.

“Athletes work their entire lives for a mere chance to compete for a medal, yet alone win one. So when athletes are denied the reward they worked so hard to achieve, Fina must do everything it can to right this wrong.

“Fina is committed to building aquatic sport on the strongest possible foundations. This is why Fina has begun a wide-ranging process of reform, part of which is the proposal – already approved by the Fina Bureau – for the creation of an independent Aquatics Integrity Unit.

“Once established, the independent Aquatics Integrity Unit will investigate the matter to determine what recourse may be taken in support of Ms Davies and all similarly-situated other aquatics athletes.”

Photo – reformist FINA president Husain Al-Musallam

The wave of goodwill from swimmers and others in many parts of the world was tangible after The Times broke news of Al-Musallam’s commitment to a changed course and News Corp papers, such as the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and Herald Sun highlighted the impact of DDR doping on Australians.

That goodwill goes much further than the hope of a gaping wound from swimming’s past finally being healed. The Reform Process package of recommendations has been widely welcomed by a community that will only celebrate when word is converted to deed, particularly in a sport in which trust in the global regulator is running extremely low, not least of all because of the federation’s costly fight with athletes and the International Swimming League as well as the reasons why FINA sits at the bottom of the league of good governance.

Days Of FINA’s Murky Handling Of Sun Yang et al Are Done, Say Al-Musallam

The Sun Yang saga proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and contributed to the end of Cornel Marculecu’s 35 years as FINA director. Asked about the Marculescu’s hug with Sun on the burning deck of the Olympic pool at Rio 2016 just two years after the Chinese swimmer had been steeped in the controversy of an anti-doping penalty after he tested positive for a banned substance, Al-Musallam replies:

Husain Al-Musallam – courtesy of FINA

“I think you will see FINA approach and work on the fight against doping completely 180 degrees different from the past. I pay huge attention to this issue and I want everyone who comes to FINA competition to feel safe, the athletes, the coaches, that the swimming pool is clean.

“There will be more transparency, more information. And not only that: I don’t want the office and the Bureau to be involved, not even me as president, in doping issues. I believe that everybody must feel secure, safe and trust the organisation. So we have to think about a system on which everyone is agreed and that is completely independent of the political or day-to-day operation.”

Hence the recommendation, now backed by the Bureau on its way to a Congress voted in December, for an independent Integrity Unit to be established and take doping and anti-doping out of FINA’s hands, a move that coaches have been recommending for at leats 20 years, dating back to the days when Don Talbot and Mark Schubert were respective head coach leaders to Australia and the United States and waging war on FINA’s appalling handling of the China doping scandals of the 1990s and beyond, the international federation’s approach best summed up by the question they appeared to be asking even when the answer was screaming back at them: “Crisis? What Crisis?”

Yuliya Efimova - July 2014 poster girl for the FINA calendar in the middle of a doping suspension period
A sin bin win of sorts: Yuliya Efimova – July 2014 poster girl for the FINA calendar in the middle of a doping suspension period

That was even the tone in 2014 when Yulia Efimova, of Russia, was the July poster girl for the FINA calendar right in the middle of her suspension for a positive doping test. China and Russia were hosts of FINA events and, it seemed, there was no sin great or shall that could not be overlooked or treated with inappropriate leniency. That was not only down to Cornel Marculescu but an executive that included representatives of leading nations such as the United States, who went along to get along rather than reach for the truth and transparency they sept under the carpet. Now, they claim to be reformists. Time will soon tell but the record of the past cannot be changed.

Soon, FINA will have no further say and sway in the doping realm, its role confined to what is appropriate as regulator: it is the setter and keeper of rules. Assuming, of course, that Congress backs the reform recommendations in December. On whom and in what measure they are imposed on athletes who fall foul of the WADA Code will be up to others – and it will be to them that we put our questions.

For now there is this question: How is an independent unit established by a body that seeks to divorce itself from the folk who will deliver independence and the independent decisions that make? Brent Nowicki told SOS that a list of names for key positions would be compiled and candidates for posts ultimately recommended before a vote of FINA Congress. As such, the first candidates appointed to the unit would be subject to scrutiny by the people they may be called on to scrutinise. There’s a journey ahead on that one.

Al-Musallam understands the dangers of getting it wrong but appears in his first 100 days in office to have achieved what all the combined leaders at FINA of the past 30 years could not: delivery of a reform process that the world swim community called for in 2014-2015 but was roundly ignored (not even a polite ‘got your petition, back to your when we’re able’).

The current executive and Bureau is stacked with those who were a part of that culture of wilful blindness and turning a deaf ear is the mood music didn’t suit the blazer. Accountability is yet to be acknowledged by many, let alone accepted. Al-Musallam ticks a “good leader” box when he becomes the first of the FINA bosses to accept that he played a role in that culture he now wants rid of. He explains:

“I inherited something I don’t need to explain more about, something very difficult. My first intention is to change this heritage as fast a possible. So by December, six months from [my] election, we will [tackle] the important things, the doping issues, the events, the calendar, the relation with the media, the engagement with the world, the athletes, with everybody; this is important.

“If you look at other organisations, I don’t want to mention names but the good or the bad, they took years [to work through] their reforms. I think we should first change the culture …

“I believe life is changing fast. After Fukuoka [July 2022 World Championships], everyone will understand where they stand, what his position is, what he is entitled to, what he can do and what he cannot do. Then we will look into what is needed, based on the circumstances at that time.”

Husain Al-Musallam

In the days and weeks ahead, SOS will explore the meaning of those words – words that take FINA into uncharted waters before the important step is taken to convert them to action – the role of the born-again reformists at FINA who have long been part of the problem but now wish to wrap themselves in the robes of solution at the turning of the tide and a imminent renaming of the federation, and the measures recommended by the Reform Committee.

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