Why Doha 2024 Is The Latest Tear In The Thread Of Swimming History Torn Asunder

2024-01-31 No comments Reading Time: 10 minutes
Time-warpery: Fukuoka 2023 flowed into history as a meet that witnessed pioneering efforts ... next stop Doha just six months later in calendar chaos - Photo: Hugh McNeil, of Canada, captured by Ian McNicol

Editorial –  The fabric of World Championships swimming history is about to be torn by a case of business and political interests over what’s best for swimmers and sport as Doha gears up to host the first ever global aquatics showcase to be staged in Olympic year and in the Middle East.

An aquatics sports show stretching over two weeks will get underway on Friday, swimming’s eight days in the pool to flow February 11-18.

Yes, the Covid pandemic threw the schedule and contractual arrangements off kilter and large sums of money wear soaked up in consequences, stretching to impact on economies local and global; and yes, when action gets underway the weekend after next, there will be be many fine races, excellent performances, a handful of records of one kind or another and much of it at a pace far swifter than you’d expect at this point in the year, especially in Olympic year.

None of that changes the fact that swimming struggles to be a sport with a recognisable structure and season outside the one big moment the global audience truly tunes in, the Olympic Games, once every four years. Doha won’t help. It’s the third of four World Long-Course Championships to be held in four successive years (very before and hopefully never again) and will forever go down as swimming’s Athens 1906: intercalated (regardless of any official status World Aquatics attaches to it). 

It’s a chance for some to shine in once-in-a-lifetime circumstances; an in-season speed test for many others, any podium result a bonus as they make their way to their 2024 goal, in Paris, via the far sharper test of trials for those in the most competitive of nations, a factor that many who excel as big fish in much smaller ponds back home need not take into account; and the experience of a big “lights on” moment for those making their debut at global senior level.     

Of course, the positive spin of the wheel stops wilfully at the the big names in town (scarce mention of ‘in-season’ and the importance of understanding that and realising the lack of selling power in that message if you want the world media to tune in with anything remotely close to the size of presence and passion it affords to many other sports); the chance the moment gives to many of those fine next-wavers (of all ages, who would not have earned selection to a World-Championship team in 2024 in normal circumstances of ‘the very best get to go and will compete in peak form’); and the virtue signalling of geography, universality and the development of aquatics, presence and equality included, in the Middle East and across the world.

Every one of those lines can be knocked down by a feather floating over a sea of facts. Show me no 10-year-old tokens, as FINA has in the past in its efforts to gift the glow of sentimental, sugar-coated claptrap to the gullible. Hopefully Doha has no such plans. Instead, show me a mere hint of prospect in a near future that features clubs and programs in which Middle East female athletes are prized and encouraged every bit as much as their male counterparts, celebrated for their careers in sport stretching well into their 20s and even 30s. That would be the start of a conversation worth having. Anything less is pure PR with a cultural excuse attached to its ankle like a ball and chain.

If sport is non-political and autonomous, what’s the problem?  

Development there is, alongside courage and determination among female athletes and their supporters in the Middle East. For deeper understanding, these are among many instructive sources:

The “development” issue rolls out to every corner of the globe, of course, and is not confined to sex-based discrimination and inequality. Local economies, priorities, the costs to individuals of going for a run versus going for a swim.

Show me the long-term follow up of 1970s and 1980s “FINA Development Programs” in Africa and South America, for example, that in 2024 leave us staring at the likes of a 2:08.94 as the Tanzanian national men’s 200m free record (circa 1969 Gabriele Wetzko, GDR pre-doping, world women’s record) and a 2:07.26 as the Uruguayan (the nation of former FINA decades and decades long-termer Julio Maglione, fan of Putin throughout the years of systematic doping and the invasion of Crimea/Ukraine) men’s 200m backstroke record (circa 1967 and the first World record of then 16-year-old Roland Matthes, GDR).

If sport is non-political and autonomous and universal and aquatics the multi-hundreds-of-millions TV/livestream audience sport and many multi-million-dollar business we’re led to believe it is, what’s the problem?  

Cornel Marculescu was the director of FINA the last time Doha held a World Championships, in 2014. He’s gone but it remains to be seen if Golden-Throne culture remains in the sport of swimming
– image by Patrick B. Kraemer

I’ve been suggesting a fair few answers for quite some time now. Barriers to progress remain tall, including a great many installed in the critical years between the Golden Thrones of the World short-course championships, Doha in December 2014, and Doha in February 2024, which ought to have been shunted to Doha 2025 if the best long-term interests of swimming and swimmers were to have been served.   

Brent Nowicki, the director who arrived at World Aquatics with so much of what is now unfolding already in chain, told me at Budapest 2022 that the pathway would not come clear until after Paris 2024, for contractual reasons. As such, the World Championships scheduled for Kallang, Singapore, sometime in 2025 (dates to be confirmed) will mark the start of a reset.

Whether it will also confirm that a new era has genuinely begun remains to be seen, given the catalogue of questions on transparency and integrity that flow to the very heart and helm of World and European Aquatics

Such fact-based opinions are often met with an inevitable cry of “don’t be so ‘negative’ … can’t you just be positive’. That response is not remotely reasonable, let alone fair. I take such things as a man criticised for refusing to feed his Labrador snacks on the hour.

And I tell it as it is. We all know that there are reasons well beyond sport why standards in sports like swimming are still stuck in a pre-1980s time warp – but we also hear decades of boasting by FINA (now World Aquatics) and its master, the International Olympic Committee and others about the global reach and impact of their activities and the way sports universality raises us all up together. 

We also saw how FINA attempted to kill* off the International Swimming League and its efforts to spread the swimming word and provide opportunities and promotional benefits to many swimmers who do not thrive in the traditional system of two per nation, etc, (all levels, including swimmers in the world top 10 but rarely, sometimes never, seen in the fastest of international waters). And yes, I covered the other side of that coin too.

* – “Kill” – as this feature demonstrating the serious dangerous world FINA walked swimming into in the decade leading up to the Covid Pandemic shows, there was more than one way that word was used and meant, none of them good, including the use revealed in court documents citing current World Aquatics vice-president Dale Neuburger, of the USA, in the context of removing rivals from the sport through long-term suspension, which is what he advocated for one federation head if that federation continued to support the ISL and did not fall into line with FINA’s wishes.

So, anyone thinking any of what I raise “negative”, look to the top table and start your objections at the source, especially in a week that follows a car crash fit to wipe out World and European commitments to “integrity” after two years in which a media officer dismissed from the IAAF over events linked to the Russian doping scandal, is yet to answer a series of serious questions put to his boss and a man who now has a national integrity inquiry finding against him and has been deemed by a Government of the EU to be unfit to run a national swimming federation.

That no communication communication style of ‘media work’ is against the letter and spirit of the Integrity pledges made by World Aquatics.

  • Integrity: “The Art of being honest…”
  • Transparency: “… transparency in a business or governance context refers to being open and honest.”  

There can be no question that there is genuine intention behind some of those pledges to reform agreed by World Aquatics when it approved the recommendations of Swiss lawyer Francois Carrard and the reform inquiry team in 2022.

However, on critical issues such as integrity and transparency – the very reason for setting up Integrity Units (I skirt the word independent because that term has been moored at the deep end of relative as things stand in swimming) – words are largely proving to be much easier than deeds.

The difficult circumstances of Covid-contracts and where Doha fits in has highlighted once more the fire-and-ice conflict between business/political interests and the welfare of athletes and swimming as a whole. 

The Up & Downside of Doha

A few of the many examples of championship entries, rivalries and meaning of the meet:

Teams: USA (the team in full shows at a glance the deepest, steepest absenteeism in American selections for the global showcase), Australia (Jenna Forrester having since withdrawn), China and many others include some of their biggest hitters and sizeable numbers of next-wavers but many of the billboard gold-medal shots have opted to bypass Doha.   

Men: 

100-200 freestyle: No David Popovici, who instead of a “World Championship” opts with his coach Adrian Radulescu (who like all smart coaches plans in entire Olympic cycles not from official decision to decision) to travel to Luxembourg to race in one of those local meets that forms the lifeblood of swimming and elite preparation in between and beyond the dizzy heights of best-of-class, peak-form moments (48 and a 1:46 flat 100 and 200 free outing, very nice light on a short day in January). Several other big sprinters will bypass Doha and while the likes of an Australia team with World champion Cam McEvoy and a Britain team with 2022 World, European and Commonwealth champion Ben Proud – dash kings capable of cutting-edge speed at any point in a season they target – are held up as “look who’s in town” moments, Kyle Chalmers and Sam Short are among those missing, while big hitters Tom Dean, Matt Richards and Duncan Scott are in town on a mission to qualify the Britain 4x100m relay for Paris after the upset of a heats DQ in Fukuoka. 

It is to Scott’s words that we turn for wisdom, understanding: “… it’s very much gonna be sort of more in-season”.  Non-season is the critical context in which we must view this comment from British Swimming Performance Director Chris Spice:

“We are all aware of the unusual challenge that a World Championships in Olympic year could pose – but our swimmers and staff are preparing for Doha as a crucial part of our build-up to Paris and, before that, the British Swimming Championships in April. Locking in relay places across the Olympic programme is a key focus, with our relay teams having been so successful in recent years, showing the versatility and depth of this cohort of athletes. On top of that, though, this is a great racing opportunity on the world stage and will be a serious test of our swimmers’ preparations and work over the winter months as they will still be in heavy training throughout the meet.”  

Chris Spice. Photo: Great Britain gold (l-r) James Guy, Matt Richards, Tom Dean and Duncan Scott – courtesy of British Swimming

So, great sport, fast, for sure, a fine opportunity to hone skills, habits, routines, mindsets and much else – but not a world-championship as we know it.

50-100m breaststroke: Olympic champion Adam Peaty in (can’t wait to see him racing after a winter of work and his latest overseas training camp with teammates and coach Mel Marshall in Thailand) – World champion Qin Haiyang out. Other opponents in, out. So, all about the Olympics, everything else left to guesswork.
So, great sport, fast, for sure, but not a world-championship as we know it.

Women: 

50, 100, 200m Freestyle: No Australian big hitters, no Emma McKeon, no Mollie Callaghan, no Ariarne Titmus (who will race at Queensland titles after required ovarian surgery), almost none of any of the 4×100 and 200m World record holders of the past two Olympic cycles, including Campbell sisters Cate and Bronte. Shayna Jack* will be present to battle with Siobhan Haughey and others there to fight for Doha dividends but, through no fault of their own, circumstance makes any result relative to circumstance and absenteeism. 
So, great sport, fast, for sure, but not a world-championship as we know it.

100m butterfly: Sarah Sjostrom, World record holder, will be in Doha but only to race the 50s; Zhang Yufei is out of Doha, her focus on Paris 2024. Other opponents are in, out, including Sarah, for whom there is no 50m in Paris: it’s either 100m or nothing on ‘fly for all. 

NB – In World Championship history in Fukuoka. Sarah Sjostrom collected her fifth consecutive World 50m ’fly crown in Fukuoka last July, which elevated the four-time Olympic medallist alongside Michael Phelps with 20 solo medals before she added a third successive 50 free gold to her tally. That made it 21 solo podiums, more than Phelps, for top of the all-time heap among the most medalled: 12 golds, 6 silvers, 3 bronzes.

Astonishing achievement but like so many other statistics in swimming, a record tally that, through no fault of the athlete, relies on incomparables: you can’t compare scores between swimmers who have a World Championship every four years, then those who have them every two years and now in the past cycle since Tokyo 2020ne will have had three shots at the global showcase ahead of the next Olympics at the Paris 2024 Games.    

So, great sport … but Doha will not be a world-championship as we know it.

And on it goes, the examples legion, every race in need of an asterisk and explanation if we want to describe events as a World Championship in terms of that title being seen in the light of all other such events all the way back to 1973 when it all began in Belgrade (where a monstrously over-cooked calendar will features the 2024 European Championships in June and we’ll witness another pile-up of what to the wider audience is unfathomable.

Sure, things change, that’s how it goes in the universe but equally fair to note that in many of the most successful sports in the world, season-after-season consistency is guaranteed, the time and even the place of events, leagues, championships, tournaments, opens, is precisely where the wider audience expects it to be, a sporting and cultural date in the diary for us all to look forward to, often attached to a history that does lend itself to direct comparison of greats of old with greats new.

In swimming, that thread of history has been torn asunder. And even World records have taken a mega Big-Bang-style beating twice in the past half a century because of events that spill decades into the future: the GDR doping era, affecting mainly women, and the shiny suits crisis that continues to be felt 14 years after non-textile was boosters were sunk to the ocean floor with a “death of swimming” warning fused to their fibres. 

From 2025 onwards, swimming leaders, national federations, coaches and athletes need to work harder on a skill they have yet to master: understanding the impact of chaos and inconsistency on the ability to grow the sport of swimming, a theme we will soon begin to look at in greater depth in a new approach to the work we have done at SwimVortex, do here at State of Swimming and will expand on with a new team as this Olympic Years 2024 matures.

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