Sheikh’s Conviction – appeal pending – Raises Big ‘First 100 Days In Office’ Test of ‘New’ FINA Leadership

2021-09-12 Reading Time: 8 minutes

Sunday Editorial – This week marks the biggest test of the “review and reform” credentials of the established leadership figures still in charge at swimming regulator FINA but yet to turn new words into deeds where it would really count. 

In a coincidence of timetables, a ruling in a Geneva court last Friday will be followed by the watermark of the first 100 days in office of Kuwaiti Husain Al-Musallam as president, South African Sam Ramsamy as first Vice President and American Dale Neuburger as treasurer, all three at the top table of FINA for more than 20 years. The events are not linked but the people and questions of integrity most certainly are. 

Here’s what happened on Friday in Geneva: Sheikh Ahmad al-Sabah, the “Olympic kingmaker” and a FINA prize winner who once told the billionaire owner of the International Swimming League (ISL) that he effectively ran world swimming, was found guilty of forgery along with four others in a case that saw prosecutors successfully argue that he was the mastermind of a complex plot to implicate another member of the Kuwaiti royal family in a scheme to overthrow the country’s ruler.

Al-Sabah, now facing more than a year in prison, immediately announced that he will appeal the ruling. Outside the c court, he told reporters: ““I know I didn’t do anything; I will wait for the appeal. I will never stop, because I believe I am innocent.”

An appeal will not only determine Al-Sabah’s ability to continue in leading sports governance roles, none of which are actually at FINA or in global swimming leadership, but, if the conviction is confirmed, will pose the biggest test of FINA’s new, yet long-established, leadership and its pledge to review and reform a federation soaked in controversy, embroiled in a legal battle with the ISL and a class action representing many of the world’s leading swimmers as a direct consequence of decisions taken on the watch of the men still at the helm of FINA, and widely seen as having long failed ago represent its constituency and key stakeholders, namely, athletes. 

Al-Musallam has made moves worth supporting since taking office almost 100 days ago in COVID-dictated circumstances of a FINA Congress held apart from the community it is charged with serving.

Now comes a huge test for the elected leadership of FINA in these post-Marculescu days. If Sheikh Ahmad al-Sabah’s conviction is confirmed in any measure, what will FINA do? It must, as a ‘reformed body’ committed to the establishment of an independent integrity unit along the lines of that embraced by World Athletics, surely do something (as opposed to doing what the organisation’s leadership has long done when “one of us” is found to have done wrong: reach for omertà, look the other way, ignore, fail to respond to questions and fail to act, the art of letting sleeping dogs lie the only one at which the FINA leadership has been a champion of). 

Let’s be clear: 

  • there are well-established direct links between the sheikh, the new FINA president, the current FINA executive and FINA itself.
  • The Geneva court case is not the only legal issue that has blighted Sheikh Ahmad in recent years: he is also an indicted co-conspirator, alongside Husain Al-Musallam, in a United States Department of Justice corruption case that led to the conviction of Richard Lai, a senior soccer official from Guam, in 2017. Sheikh Ahmad subsequently resigned from FIFA’s ruling council and pledged to withdraw from soccer while the case was being litigated.
  • The Geneva court case and the ruling last Friday focussed on matters unrelated to the International swimming and aquatics federation and its leadership.
Julio Maglione bathes in the glory of Olympic kingmaker Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah in Budapest back in 2017, the year the FINA president who came to office on a promise of 'one-term only' took up his third term in office
Julio Maglione hands over a FINA size and bathes in the glory of Olympic kingmaker Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah in Budapest back in 2017, the year the then FINA president who in 2009 came to office on a promise of ‘two terms max’ took up his third term in office
  • In December 2014, Sheikh Ahmad was granted the FINA Order, the highest FINA award. Then then president Julio Maglione is now an Octogenarian and still a member of the FINA top table after first joining the group in 1984 and beyond three terms on the throne. The FINA Order is given “to Heads of State or individuals of high dignity, who have achieved remarkable merit in the world of Aquatics”.
  • Four years after that, Konstantin Grigorishin, the Energy Standard magnate and founder of the ISL, attended meetings at FINA headquarters in Lausanne to outline his plans for the launch of the League and request that FINA support the will of athletes to engage in a pro-swimming venture at the start of a new era in the sport. Grigorishin found Sheikh Ahmad at the opposite side of the table, even though the Kuwaiti had and has no role at FINA, and, according to the billionaire from Ukraine, the sheikh asked Grigorishin to “talk to me … I run world swimming”.

A pity that no-one bothered to tell the stakeholders of FINA around the world that the Constitution and voting structures of FINA were no longer worth the paper they were printed and described on: a man never appointed, employed nor elected was, apparently, the powerhouse and broker of world swimming, his very presence evidence of the consent of the actual office e bearers at the helm of FINA.

At the Lausanne meeting(s), Grigorishin was asked by a handful of men to pay a huge sum for official permission to run his league. He refused and the court action that followed is still ongoing, one aspect of ISL vs FINA, the other aspect World-class swimmers Vs FINA. 

While the jury is out on all of those swimming-related aspects, it has, so to speak, returned a verdict in the Geneva court action against the sheikh, who was questioned for five hours last week on the way to a verdict in the wood-panelled courtroom in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva south of Lausanne, the home of the International Olympic Committee, FINA and a large number of other Olympic sports federations and institutions. 

The judgment against the sheikh not only threatens his liberty but also his future role in sports, where his influence has stretched to being seen as “kingmaker” in election decisions involving himself and others, including Thomas Bach, the IOC president, and as a key influencer in the worlds of FIFA and other sporting realms.

Since November 2018 he has been declared the “self-suspended” head of the Association of National Olympic Committees and by the IOC after the charges that led to Friday’s court ruling. Much of Sheikh Ahmad’s power stems from his control of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), established by his father 40 years ago. The OCA said on Friday that its leader would “step aside temporarily” pending appeal.

Prosecutors in Geneva successfully argued that Sheikh Ahmad, his English former lawyer, a Kuwaiti aide and two more Swiss-based lawyers orchestrated a sham arbitration case in order to frame other royals in a coup plot.

After the ruling last Friday, Pascal Maurer, the lawyer for Nasser al Mohammed al Sabah, a former prime minister of Kuwait who was one of the figures Sheikh Ahmad tried to frame, said: “It’s very strange, I’ve been a long time as a criminal lawyer in Geneva; it’s the first time I’ve seen a sham arbitration. It was very sophisticated in the way they planned it, but it was not very sophisticated in the way they realised it because they made many mistakes in their organisation and in the way they forged documents.”

For the IOC, which, oddly, said it would take no action itself because the sheikh had self-suspended, and any body the sheikh is related to, the case is another embarrassing episode in a string of controversies down the years. The IOC had even lined up what would have been the sheikh’s one character witness at the trial in Geneva. It didn’t happen: Francois Carrard, the IOC’s longtime former director general who continues to serve as its legal adviser, did not show up in court last Thursday, an unspecified medical issue cited as the reason for his absence.

Along with the latest ruling and the DoJ’s Lai case, the sheikh has been involved in several other controversies, including this: a candidate for a seat on FIFA’s governing council claimed that she was told she did not stand a chance of winning because Sheikh Ahmad had already decided that a rival candidate from Bangladesh should retain the seat; in April this year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport sided with the woman, Mariyam Mohamed, a soccer official from the Maldives, and agreed that Sheikh Ahmad had actively interfered in the elections held in 2019 by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to achieve his desired outcome; Mohamed told the court that she was told to drop her candidacy and that in return Ahmad would use his influence in international soccer circles to obtain any other position of her choosing at the AFC or FIFA.

The question for the FINA leadership promising reform is clear if the sheikh loses his appeal and the ruling and conviction handed down is confirmed, in any form: will you either act yourselves by stripping the sheikh of the FINA Order, on the grounds that he has brought FINA and its sorts into disrepute; and/or grant retrospective powers to the Integrity Unit to consider complaints at the heart of some of the biggest weeping wounds in swimming so that an aquatics community divided by schism created by the inaction of those at the helm of FINA governance can begin to heal and all can move on.

The argument that the sheikh is not a member of FINA and therefore there is nothing to be done when it comes to removing honours on grounds of “brining … into disrepute’ would not wash: he is intrinsically linked to FINA and its leadership on a number of levels, including his own declaration to Grigorishin and the honour bestowed upon him. And there is this “:… individuals of high dignity, who have achieved remarkable merit in the world of Aquatics”. How, would be the question.

Letting sleeping dogs lie is simply not good enough. FINA’s leadership has rejected calls, internal and external, for a reconciliation process designed to help the healing required along a woeful trail of tears. The sheikh, if appeal is lost, would be just one of very many figures in FINA history who should be stripped of honours granted them for merit and services to the sport even though their roles involved the opposite of merit, the opposite of service, a trail of victims there yet to tell the tale. 

An organisation that still includes (Dr) Lothar Kipke – former member of the FINA medical commission and a man who tub-thumped for ‘clean sport’ this side of the Berlin Wall while shoving needles full of steroids into the backsides of teenage girls – and some pre-pubescent – in swimming – among its honourees decades after he was criminally convicted of abuse of minors as one of the key protagonists in the Sports Crisis of the 20th Century, State Plan 14:25, is an organisation with no merit.

FINA needed never have been tainted by any of this; swimming need never have been tainted by any of this. Any yet…

Time for change. The current FINA leadership will be one that either goes down as the force for reform, healing and change long overdue or yet another that signed up to the harmful mantra of going along to get along and letting sleeping dogs lie even when the truth is out there.

One of the most important drains on good governance at FINA are the political appointments that make up half and even more of all expert positions on commissions and committees. Expert bodies feeding the FINA leadership with the knowledge it needs have long been compromised and ignored, genuine experts often threatened with expulsion if the issues they raise are ‘inconvenient’; to the politics in play. I have known unanimous decisions sent from committees to the FINA top table for consideration to end their journey in the paper basket at FINA HQ. Such malpractice must end.

FINA, under the direction of new executive director Brent Nowicki and an elected leadership that comes with baggage in tow but has a chance to cut itself free, is looking at a rare opportunity: it has a worldwide community of athletes, coaches and other experts in various fields to turn to, to listen to, to engage with and then act on what it hears.

Only then will a new era in swimming truly take hold. Only then will PR and fine words become the real world of action that makes the difference between a sport falling well shy of its promise for far too long.

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