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By Steven V. Selthoffer, Swimming World columnist
BARCELONA, Spain, July 30. WHEN Laszlo Szakadati began his career as the office manager at LEN, after searching for more than 10 minutes, he finally found the office on his first day of work. It was a “small, old office, hidden somewhere under the stands of the 1960 Olympic Stadium in Rome.”
After 14 years of service and accomplishments, sensing a personal need for a new horizon and challenges, he steps down as the Executive Director of LEN after an unprecedented series of accomplishments and development unparalleled globally in size and scope in sport.
As Executive Director of LEN, Szakadati has helped develop and nurture the overall growth of aquatics sports in Europe. During his tenure, he helped Europe to become a dominant world aquatics power, he witnessed the dramatic increase in the number of Olympic and FINA World Championship medalists across all sport disciplines, he contributed to strategizing, planning, lobbying and the building of new European aquatics facilities, he helped implement the creation of new events and competitions, managed the television rights and maintained sponsors in difficult economic times…to name a few.
Unarguably, the growth under his leadership has been no less than spectacular.
Szakadati gives us an insider’s look at the issues that concern him the most, he is straight about the successes and failures at LEN, and in analyzing the emerging threats to the sport, he reveals a compassion and care for the welfare of the athletes and their future, rarely seen in sports executives.
LEN (Ligue Europeenne de Natation) is composed of 51 member countries and 72 sport federations making it the largest Continental organization in the Olympic Movement. LEN stretches from far eastern Russia next to Alaska (at the start of each day 00:00:00) to the Azores off the coast of Africa, from Israel to Iceland, from Malta to the top of Norway above the Arctic Circle. That’s quite a lot of territory.
During his administration, he managed the integration of three countries that emerged from a violent war in the Balkans in the 90’s who are successfully competing together today.
With 51 member European countries and their concerns and needs, combined with the Arab Spring continuing across the Mediterranean and with any other number of emerging sport crises … the office of the Executive Director of LEN sometimes must feel like the sport equivalent to the White House “Situation Room.”
For Szakadati it’s all in a day’s work.
Laszlo Szakadati spent more than 40 years in the swimming world. He was first a competitive swimmer in his native country Romania, where he was a regular on the national team from the age-group to senior level spanning 16 years. He was a multiple national champion and record holder.
In January 1990, Szakadati became the National Team Director of the Hungarian Swimming Association a position he held for a year. He had the privilege to work with such greats as Tamas Szechy, Laszlo Kiss, Jozsef Nagy and Sandor Szeles on the pool-deck, with an outstanding team including Tamas Darnyi, Krisztina Egerszegi, Jozsef Szabo, Norbert Rozsa, Karoly Guttler to name a few.
Today, as the FINA 2013 Barcelona World Championships are unfolding, Laszlo Szakadati sits down with Swimming World to share some unique insights and to discuss his tenure at LEN, the relationship with FINA and his concerns for the future of aquatic sports.
SW: Laszlo you are one of the most preeminent executives in the world of sport. Your career and influence spanned over four Olympic quadrennials. You were an athlete yourself. Tell us about that. How did that preparation help you in your sport career and as the Executive Director of LEN?
Laszlo Szakadati: Thank you. I was a competitive swimmer myself, that’s right, and frankly I loved the sport, the club, the swimming pool, and the smell of chlorine. Those are some of the most fond memories of my childhood and youth.
However, I am well aware that given my natural talent I could have been a much better athlete, achieving more significant results. But frankly, in certain moments when I was young, I was a bit too care free and not as serious as I should have been. I was just relying on my talent sometimes.
SW: Sometimes that’s typical of some top athletes.
Laszlo Szakadati: Well…true. That’s what I brought primarily with me as a sports executive: either one is doing something seriously, 100% all the time, or, if it is not the case, it’s better not do it. I know the difference in myself and can see it in others.
When I was Director at LEN… It was all out 100% all the time.
What you learn in sports the perseverance, dedication, team spirit, the strong will to win, hard work, knowing when and how to adapt, determination… you bring it all to the executive suite. All of those attributes I owe to my career in sport.
SW: What were the highlights of being the Director at LEN?
Laszlo Szakadati: I am really proud of my accomplishments and contributions to LEN. If I look back over the 14 year period, a lot of progress has been made.
When I joined LEN it was a small, three person operation. We were housed in a small, old, office hidden somewhere under the stands of the 1960 Olympic Stadium in Rome… Not to mention, living off sometimes the generosity of the Italian Swimming Federation budget!
However, we gradually managed to put the organization on the right track over the years. We were released to become a 100% independent organization, protected and free from any possible political influence, established in our own headquarters, with the capability and authority to hire appropriate and knowledgeable staff, and dedicated to serve the athletes and the European aquatic movement.
Our events grew from year to year. It was like a rocket trajectory! Sometimes, I am even astonished at the growth curve, scope and size of what has happened.
I am speaking, here not only about the level of sporting performances, but overall attendance, television production, multi-million Euro new facilities, new techniques in the sport, company suppliers and sponsors, marketing, press, social media, etc. The growth has been incredible.
At the 2006 European Swimming Championships, Budapest, HUN, we reached an absolute peak of television audience viewership across all platforms for the televised championship event. However, due to the global recession the following year, we have not matched those ratings figures again. But, hopefully, we are coming back and gaining ground in all the television ratings and growing in the various platform metrics.
We established major competitions. For example the European Water Polo Championships, European Diving Championships, European Open Water Swimming Cup Series, European Junior Open Water Swimming Championships, European Masters Water Polo Championships, etc., and introduced other new events such as synchronized diving, open water swimming team events, diving team events, swimming mixed relays, etc.
It was quite an undertaking. All of these developments involved the dedicated and sacrificial contributions of hundreds of individuals and thousands of athletes, officials, staff, federation and government executives, sport sponsors… television staff, working hundreds, thousands of hours to pull it off.
Not to mention the vital backend intelligence and planning, operational logistics, coordination, technical and operational support that should never be overlooked. Without the hard work and dedication of the LEN staff and federations the events couldn’t take place. And all of this is happening continually! There is no rest.
You have to step back and analyze it over 10, 12, 14 years… LEN and the European federations really came together and have accomplished some great things.
SW: LEN as an organization, opened up.
Laszlo Szakadati: Yes. That’s right. In the same spirit of innovation came the openness, LEN emerged from isolation and engaged other continental organizations and federations namely from America, Africa and Asia and we started to discuss and coordinate matters of significant importance with the representatives of these respective organizations.
Since 2006, one of my favorite projects in LEN is that we collaborated with UNICEF, establishing charity events for the “Safe Water for Every Child”, project focusing on safe water and sanitation in cooperation with the various local organizing committees of the Championships.
The project in fact has three main focuses: education, communication and fund raising. This culminated with a visit and donation to the nation of Togo, in the Savanna region of Africa.
I am firmly convinced, that over the past 14 years LEN has significantly grown in all its aspects and has become a well-respected, well recognized, and preeminent sport organization on the European map.
End of Part 1
Part Two will continue tomorrow. Where Szakadati gives some candid answers to threats facing the sport.