Bill Sweetenham Calls On World’s Swimming Feds To Rise Up And Banish FINA’s Leadership

Bill Sweetenham - Photo Courtesy: Wayne Goldsmith

Bill Sweetenham, International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Coach and mentor to generations of champions and coach leader, has called on national swimming federations and the worldwide swimming community to rise up and overthrow FINA and the man at the helm of the international federation as its director since 1986, Cornel Marculescu, in the wake of  Sun Yang‘s eight-year ban.

The four-times Australia head Olympic coach and boss of the Britain swim revolution in the first decade of this century, Sweetenham urged FINA’s leadership to submit to a review and reform process back in 2014.

His call followed FINA’s awarding of its highest honour to Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Russian state-supported doping crisis and at a time when Russia had the worst record of positive tests among all members of FINA.  Leading into the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, the hosts Russia had more than 20 cases on the books in just seven years in aquatic sports.

Sweetenham was backed by the World Swimming Coaches Association and its domestic peer bodies such as ASCA in the United States and ASCTA in Australia. The Australian and the requests of coach-representative bodies speaking for more than 20,000 members worldwide were ignored. To this day, Sweetenham has not even had a polite reply from a FINA top table that includes former Australian international Matt Dunn acknowledging his open letter.

Now Sweetenham says the time for  asking FINA to consider reforms is over after the federation departed from the neutral stance a WADA-Code signatory might have been expected to have taken in any challenge from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to a decision involving an aquatic sports athlete in favour of standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a legal process at the Court of Arbitration for Sport involving the most controversial swimmers in history, Sun Yang. FINA took its stand after its Doping Panel had spent the bulk of a hearing report in January 2019 revealing startling details of an acrimonious anti-doping test vision to Sun’s home in September 2018, only to conclude that the misdemeanours described did not merit a penalty, just a caution.


Sun Yang – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

WADA turned to CAS to overturn the FINA decision and, after a November 2019 hearing – and on the back of his 2014 doping positive – Sun was handed an eight-year ban, announced last Friday. The swimmer and his legal team have announced that they will appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal, which has a last say in certain narrow aspects of CAS cases, such as rights and procedures, under the laws of Switzerland, home to the CAS, FINA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Sun, three-times Olympic champion, hails from China, the nation with the worst historic doping record of any barring the German Democratic Republic from a time when State Plan 14:25 won the day and never resulted in a single positive test despite the systematic use of steroids and other banned substances for the best part of two decades on FINA watch.  Says Sweetenham:

“Time has run out for any consultation or compromise. FINA [leadership] must be replaced immediately and prior to the Olympics. National organisations, led by their individual presidents, must show and display responsible character and leadership in forcing this issue. It cannot and should not occur again where athletes are betrayed by this organisation [FINA]. Individual national sporting bodies must honour the athletes and coaches they represent and remove any prostitution or hidden quid pro quo beneficial trade-offs.”


Bill Sweetenham – ISHOF Honor Coach – Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

In comments to The Australian, he added:

“It is time for justice and it must be taken as it will not be given.”

Sweetenham’s comments coincide with Melbourne University Sports Law Professor Jack Anderson telling the Australian Daily Telegraph that Sun’s case was complicated and raised questions about FINA’s handling of it and the role of those around Sun, as raised by Swimming World in this commentary.

“It’s the unanswered question in all of this, the role of the entourage,” says Anderson. “But the difficult thing is, as far as FINA is concerned, is that when they instigated this it was done in a narrow way.

“With FINA, they are in need of major governance reforms, the commercial element of it and how they deal with their elite athletes is important as well as the integrity stuff. It’s not difficult, (world) athletics had to do it so the model is there but you have to have the will to do it.”

FINA is built to last, however: a system of universality grace-and-favour means that a small nation among the 206 members of the international federation, has precisely the same voting power as the United States, Australia and the other 30 or so nations that have world-class swimming programs. The vast bulk of voting nations have no world-class swimmers but they receive subsidies and the same benefits of the bureaucracy of the sport as the leading nations.

Unless the federations of those leading nations rise up alongside the athletes who have been left to do all the talking of late in the sport’s Pro revolution involving the International Swimming League, then little or nothing with change in the way FINA has been run for decades, Sweetenham suggests.

That the international federation’s monopoly of the sport is on its last legs is not in any doubt.

Legal action by the ISL and a class action by swimmers led by Katinka Hosszu, Tom Shields and Michael Andrew in the United States currently underway and aimed at ending FINA’s grip on swimming was the second big challenge to FINA in the past two years.

In December 2017, the European Competition authority of the European Union handed down a ruling that effectively means that sports federations such as FINA must  change rules that seek to or actively do grant themselves rights to decide where and in what circumstances swimmers may compete and earn their living. The ruling was applied to the International Skating Union after a challenge from Dutch skaters who had been prevented from competing, under threat of suspension, at an event for money where the competition was not in the control of the ISU but held under the regulator’s rules. The ISU was told to change its rules.

The judgment came with a footnote: should the European authority receive any similar complaints in other sports, the relevant authority would be sent the same note: change your rules.

With FINA on the ropes and the first ISL season having unfolded with the support of many of the world’s leading athletes and to widespread acclaim, focus now turns to domestic federations linked at the hip to the international federation. It is extremely rare in the history of swimming governance to find national federations opposing FINA’s leadership, the shiny suits saga of 2008-09 a standout exception when United States Swimming successfully lobbied fellow member nations to vote for non-textile garments to be banned, albeit on the back of a campaign by leading coaches and media, this author and SwimNews having been at the forefront of that argument.

Now pressure is being brought to bear on those national federations. The Australian’s Wayne Smith points to the difficulty of the task ahead when he writes:

“Although Swimming Australia chief executive Leigh Russell has indicated she intends speaking to her international counterparts in the near future, it is almost certain Sweetenham’s call to arms will go unheeded.”


It was 2014 and the 12th of the 12th and way past the eleventh hour when SwimVortex published an article under the headline: “Sweetenham: If The FINA Cap Fits, Wear It – Otherwise, Speak Up For The Sport You Want”. The article outlined the many reasons why this author felt that FINA was a failing organisation failing athletes and its other major stakeholders. In the article, Sweetenham urged national federations to stand up for their athletes and the sport of swimming in the face of “the FINA farce”. [If there is a declaration of interest to make here, one is happily give: The article followed my resigning from the FINA media commission in the face of what I opined was a lack of action and response to any substantive issues raised by experts the leadership simply used as a masquerade for credibility but ignored when it suited].

Three days after that December 12, 20-14, article, USA Swimming’s leadership issued a statement backing Sweetenham’s arguments but none of that ever translated to any significant moves within FINA. That the USA, the world’s No 1 nation, could not get past the system and influence the jury, change the status quo, when it came to the significant changes seen widely as critical to the swimming’s betterment spoke, said Sweetenham, “both to the strength of a FINA Constitution set up to self-protect and the unwillingness of leading swimming nations to breakaway and force change”.

Smith today opines in The Australian:

“The International Olympic Committee would refuse to accept any breakaway swimming body, arguing that any change demanded by the global community would need to be worked out within the existing FINA structure. And that means Marculescu and FINA will continue to thumb their noses at their critics.”

Vladimir Salnikov, of FINA – Photo Courtesy: Maria Dobysheva

Smith adds: “Marculescu is protected by a voting system that allows smaller countries which have no swimming history and no skin in the game in terms of being affected by drug cheats to support him. FINA is always able to rely on great swimmers such as Russia’s Vladimir Salnikov [1980, 1988 Olympic 1500m freestyle champion for the Soviet Union – now a member of the Bureau and head of the Russian swimming federation] or South Africa’s Penny Heyns [1996 Olympic 100, 200m breaststroke champion – now head of the in-house Athlete’s Commission with a seat at the top table of FINA] to lend it legitimacy, but in many cases it is almost as though Eric the Eel [so named by this author at Sydney 2000 after he, Eric Moussambani, raced in the 100m freestyle for Equatorial  Guinea at around the space of Ian Thorpe over 200m] has retired from the sport and become a FINA Bureau member.”

Salinikov, as head of the Russian swimming federation, was reported to WADA in 2016, after accusations that he had been present when two teenage Russian swimmers had been told that they would not be punished if they told who had supplied the EPO blood booster they had tested positive for in 2009. The doctor responsible was called in to account by Salnikov and team, before a local authority figure intervened and called an end to any further investigation. The case ended there, the two positives did not get reported to WADA and the WADA Code was broken. All of that was reported to WADA and FINA. To this day, no action has been taken.

“Puppets,” is how Sweetenham describes all the folk cited by Smith, adding.

“Should Marculescu quit? About 32 years ago would have been nice. I tried for years, along with John Leonard (the long-time director of the American Swimming Coaches Association and founder of the World Swimming Coaches Association) to get rid of him but he just hung on.”

Which explains why none of them ever got a reply when they called on FINA to submit to a review and reform process.

Sweetenham’s March 8, 2015, letter to FINA in full:

Use by Date? – By Bill Sweetenham

Bill Sweetenham

Bill Sweetenham – Photo Courtesy: SWTV

I have listened to the comments by many credible and professional experts on their view about the FINA organisation.  These are comments from people who have greater credentials, knowledge and experience than I do. 

One cannot be more impressed with those who are speaking out.  Before making my observations it is important for me to acknowledge that history will indicate that FINA has achieved much good for all concerned in its long history.  However, like all businesses and organisations, the system unless it faces modernisation of strategies within the complexities of improvement or change is soon left with its stakeholders and customers struggling to understand the future and opportunity for the organisation to maintain its strength.

The corporate world, the armed forces and the sporting world have learnt that continual evolution and a requirement for improvement, visionary leadership and change is tied to constant evaluation.  Audits, reviews and performance analyses all play a part in designing strategies and success for their future and hopefully successful operation.

In sport and in particular, Olympic sport every successful nation has the opportunity to review and address improvement every four years as a consequence of their own Olympic performance in terms of successful strategies and organisation.  At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia learnt across many sports that change was happening and coming in many different formats.  The sports which had continued success on the international scene from Australia as a result of the Sydney Olympics learnt that sport must become an entertainment industry as much as a sporting culture and organisation.

The challenge, of course, for sports that learnt this lesson was to stay true to their core values while addressing improvements and change.  This is not an easy thing to do.  Many a head coach has lost their position due to the perceived under-achievement of their nation’s Olympic team. However, very few national CEOs have endured the same outcome. Only the head coach is held accountable and responsible, quite often for environmental or leadership issues beyond their control.

Society across all facets of life has changed significantly in the last 15 years.  The coaching and management of young men and women has had to address both cultural and social change in the modernisation of applied athlete management and technical coaching of the individual.  The 4-year audit of the Olympic Games shows that the performance and accurate decision making is a consequence of a very complex period of change and improvement.

Not just our sport of swimming, but many sports have moved forward with new technology and application.  At least partly because of this strategy, I have been involved with coaching successful athletes at every Olympic Games since 1976.  In doing this, no two Olympic Games have ever been the same and no two athletes have been the same.  The coach must be visionary in addressing performance needs and apply strategies of improvement from one Olympics to the next.  For young coaches in today’s world, they are going to require enormous amounts of assistance and support in their vision of what the successful coach and winning athlete look like in 2024.  It certainly will not resemble what we see in today’s world.

Given the facts and opinions that have been published recently, it certainly would not give the  young coach or the winning athlete a feeling of confidence that we are being led into the future by an organisation that can be trusted or respected.  In my younger years of coaching, particularly towards the end of the 70s and early 80s, we were told that we were simply not good enough as coaches as the East Germans were dominating swimming and not long after, the Chinese did the same.

  • The leadership of FINA did little to assist and support coaches through this era of cheating and unfortunately, it must be said that it was on the watch of FINA’s leadership that this was allowed to occur.
  • In recent times, the cheating swimsuits were not only approved but it appears that in the opinion of many were encouraged by FINA.
  • We have seen a decrease in standards in terms of penalties incurred due to drug testing, and according to those with the knowledge many problems are foreseen with Kazan and its drug testing facilities.

I am not going to highlight all the negatives and complaints that I continually hear about FINA, as we all in the coaching world are well aware of the failures in recent times, but for some of us who have been in the sport a long time we try to ignore the failures and highlight the great things FINA has achieved in earlier times – and we note the good work that is still done by officials and others in the organisation of FINA events.

However, it is very clear that many national bodies will bow to FINA in fear of retribution, regardless of its frequency of failure. I have many good friends in FINA and I know that they are good people, but they are all comfortable in their positions.

Time For Independent Review

Perhaps it is time for FINA to have an independent , external in-depth review and audit of its operation across all its sections of operational authority.

I feel certain that the members of the FINA Bureau want to hold their heads high and be respected by the swimming fraternity, clients and stakeholders.  However, it is very clear that they currently face ridicule and lack of respect due to poor decision-making and inaccurate policies for swimmers and coaches on the world scene.  Certainly, it can be argued that it is time for this review and that we need more practical and applied people with historical success to be on the FINA Bureau.

It is impossible for anyone to ignore the documentary recently completed regarding drug cheating and Russian sports, including a link to swimming at a time when Russia’s doping count is considered the highest in our sport.

Is it time for swimming which has little or no relativity to water polo, diving or synchronised swimming to have its own world governing body?

I am sure these three other sports would also like to have their own world governing body.  In my view and from opinions that I hear from all my travels, there is the question of “repair or replace?”

Before this decision can be made, a complete overhaul and review of the organisation must be carried out.  The findings of this in-depth, transparent and independent audit and review can then determine the question whether to repair FINA or replace it.

Many like myself would greatly like to see FINA evolve and make the necessary improvements and changes so that it truly can become the world-leading body for the sport of swimming.  Should this not be possible, then I believe the swimming world will dictate and demand that consensus, consultation and negotiation on all technical matters for world swimming should be handled by a different organisation.

This would alleviate the concerns and opinions of many who are concerned about the leadership and process of FINA as it now stands.  I would be pleased to hear from coaches similar in experience and age to me express their views in order to support the successful future of our sport.  The new generation of coaches and swimmers deserve this commitment from FINA to improve and modernise itself.

I am happy to accept the majority vote on this issue but of all the countries and coaches that I currently visit, there can be no question that FINA has lost much ground and respect. FINA can reverse this negative perception of many by having the independent review/audit conducted by a competent and highly recognized company in this field.

The stakeholders and clients of the sport of swimming throughout the world have earned the right and deserve the opportunity to have an inclusive, transparent and strong world governing body.  It would certainly seem, given all the complaints, that this is not the current situation.

Perhaps it is time for the needs of the athletes and the coaches to be given what they deserve, and perhaps the “use by” date for FINA has come and gone?

The letter ends there.

Today finds Sweetenham asking FINA to apologise to Mack Horton for treating him to cold shoulders and warnings instead of dealing with the problem in the picture – Sun Yang, in the control of the Chinese Swimming Association and the entourage around him. Urging Swimming Australia to go on the offensive, Sweetenham tells Smith:

“All athletes that I have ever been associated with want fairness. We have a young man who is not a cheat. We have a young man who stood his ground. We have a young man who, on his return (from Gwangju) had to have police protection. We have a great athlete who has been cheated out of a medal. This is the time for Swimming Australia to attack and if they ­attack now, FINA — a bunch of cowards who hide behind the brand name — will be intimidated when the Shayna Jack [doping case, verdict pending] comes along. If you stand back and don’t say anything, they will keep hitting you. I think Swimming Australia should be stronger in its stance when we have Australian athletes continuing to lose medals through the approved cheating of the FINA stream.”


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3 years ago

There’s no way FINA can be replaced “immediately and prior to the Olympics”. That is much too little time especially with all the coronavirus drama happening. Unfortunately even with enough time I doubt it will happen soon and ISL is no substitute for the Olympics and World Championships.

3 years ago

As many people have been saying for a long time. But not our national governing bodies. Please ask the main ones the question directly – do they agree – and see what they say. Then they cant hide any more behind “oh well yes it it’s difficult…” If the main national bodies agree it wont be difficult.

3 years ago

I would not have permitted the ISL.

3 years ago
Reply to  Kimberly Joy

Kimberly Joy Why? Your comment shows the depth of your thinking.

3 years ago
Reply to  Kimberly Joy

The law requires FINA to permit ISL, and anyone else who wants to, to hold commercial competitions. Do you think FINA is tolerating ISL voluntarily, entirely coincidentally after the law suit was brought against it, because it thinks ISL is for the good of the sport and athletes?

3 years ago

Easy make ISL have it’s own championchips, and no one will go to the FINA events

3 years ago
Reply to  Michael Sköld

That’s not so easy if FINA is still recognised by the IOC. The law that protects ISL’s commercial events does not affect FINA’s position as the body that holds the champs. It will take de facto withdrawal of support from FINA from key national governing bodies to bring about a change in reality.

3 years ago
Reply to  Michael Sköld

Sue Arrowsmith Yes, they are the regulator … ‘FINA’ is just all of them under one umbrella… its the FINA leadership that needs to be asked to step down and make way for an intern management that will help, with oversight, appoint an independent review body … etc

3 years ago

Long overdue. The Aussies and the Americans need to lead the way.

3 years ago
Reply to  Dick Beaver

Dick Beaver well British Swimming certainly won’t be but you can be sure that they’ll at least be there joining in quickly after the tide’s clearly turned – and saying that’s what they always supported all along……just like with ISL

Peter Crippen
3 years ago

Please don’t forget the unsafe meets that Fina has run in the past. I hold Fina directly responsible for the death of our son Francis on October 23,2010. Water and air conditions were way too hot and the safety precautions were non existent Drugs and cheating are bad enough ,lack of safety procedures is worse. Fina should be replaced as soon as possible, irregardless is the Olympics. But nothing will happen due to the almighty $.

3 years ago


3 years ago

All sports governing bodies need the voices of participating athletes.