Catching up with Mark Koganov about Proposed FINA Water Polo Changes

Mark Koganov at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo Courtesy M. Koganov

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By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

Mark Koganov, who represented his native Azerbaijan at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio as a water polo referee, is comfortable taking on about any subject related to the sport. First as a player in the former Soviet Union and then as a world-class FINA referee for matches all over the world, Koganov is passionate about water polo—and has decided opinions about efforts to grow the sport worldwide.

Cited by WaterPoloPlanet’s Russ Thompson as one of the top neutral referees in the world, he has whistled all major polo championships including the 2016 Men’s and Women’s European Water Polo Championships, the 2015 FINA World Championships, the 2016 LEN Water Polo Champions League Final Six, NCAA men’s and women’s water polo championships, and numerous CWPA and MPSF matches.

In 2016 Koganov was elected to the LEN Technical Water Polo Committee which oversees all water polo events sanctioned by LEN in Europe including the European Championships and the professional leagues. Prior to traveling to Budapest for a meeting Thursday of FINA’s Technical Water Polo Congress, which is considering new water polo rules, Koganov spoke with Swimming World about those changes—including reduced rosters, smaller field dimensions, a smaller ball and an increase in the number of women’s teams at the 2020 Tokyo Games—that will transform international polo.

What is your understanding of the reasons behind the controversial rule changes that FINA has proposed adopting for men’s and women’s water polo prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

It was the agenda of FINA, which entered the top group of Olympic sports, after London. FINA Aquatics enters into Group 1 with track and field and gymnastics. These sports are the most visible at the Olympics and producing the most money, according to TV contracts.

Now FINA wants to consolidate its position. My guess is that if FINA wants to have more events to place more athletes in medals events for the Olympic Games, FINA would have to add more swimming events.

But IOC is basically saying: “Okay guys, you have a certain number of aquatic sports.” They don’t separate water polo, synchro, diving or swimming. Aquatics has a certain quote —I don’t remember how much is a quote, 1,400 or something like that.

They basically said: “You want to have more events in swimming, you have to work something out within your sport, within aquatics.” If you have this kind of proposal that you can be number one at the Olympics by events, you would probably go and grab it, no matter what. And water polo is not in a position to defend itself.

As a businessman, I understand FINA. Being part of the water polo family I don’t recognize it. I also think that countries should do more to defend water polo, but again this is a matter of money. And somebody at the top of FINA made a business decision just to have aquatics number one discipline in Olympics. We will go for 48 events now in swimming, but we have to stay at the same number of athletes in the Olympics. So, somebody has to suffer; somebody should go down.

It was a proposal to have 11 players in water polo and it was a proposal to have the equal number on the women’s side, to have 12 and 12. That I don’t know why it isn’t happening—why we have ten at women’s side and it’s not equal to men.

We lost about 18 quotes from water polo. But again, it’s probably a negotiation with the IOC to go to 48 events with swimming that [water polo] has to give up some spots.

We have two perspectives here: one is the financial and prestige perspective—being the number one sport at the Olympics—[the other] is a technical perspective, which is damaging water polo, hurting water polo as we’re going back… we played water polo with 11 players before 1981 or 1982, but back when we had five minute quarters. Total game time was only 20 minutes with 11 players. Now we have 32 minutes [and] with 11 players it’s impossible. I agree with everybody; it’s impossible to do.

But as a referee, your assignment is to carry out whatever the rules are that are proscribed…

It has nothing to do with officials. Officials are just whistling the game as it is. This is about the game, and the conditioning of the teams—fatigue, exhaustion and all this. It has nothing to do with referees.

I would say this way: it wouldn’t be a good game to watch. It would be a more physical game than we have now. It will be a slower game. It would be a less interesting game, because 11 players cannot perform the same as 13 players.

If you are not fresh enough you cannot perform your technique and your tactics.

I will tell you more: having 11 players will make the gap between weaker and strong countries even bigger. Players who play professionally year around—and we’re talking only about European countries—they probably would adjust to that. Players who don’t play professionally—players from Latin America, from USA, from Japan, from Asia—they will have problems because of the more physically demanding game.

Before now if there was a gap between Japan and Hungary that was 10-12 goals, probably now it’s going to be 15-20 goals. This is the situation that we don’t want to be in. And it’s not good for the sport.

We have no choice now. IOC is ruling its own event—the Olympic Games. They don’t care. If we don’t accept the conditions, we’re going to be out. We have to deal with the situation right now.

On that point, you will not be voting on the major changes this Thursday in Budapest.

It was the decision of the Bureau just today that all these proposals there is not enough data to justify the changes. Basically, the proposal that was tested for two – three years was different than the final proposal at the Congress.

This proposal had never been tried at the senior level. At that level, they had only tried 25. We didn’t try 20 seconds for the shot clock. It had been tried only at the junior level, which is not enough data to decide.

Basically, the proposal was not good enough to consider. That’s why I think it was wise for FINA to pull it back and start from scratch with a new committee—which is going to be elected on 22nd of July.

But the IOC has decided that changes need to be made before the next Olympics. Do you agree that this will happen?

If you read carefully, there is a proposal for 11 players for Olympic Games only. And this proposal is going to be voted in Congress. And I’m sure it’d going to pass because otherwise water polo is going to be out of the Olympics.

People in the water polo community are pointing fingers at FINA for problems with the sport.

I’m not talking about Serbian, or Hungarian or Italian—we have a problem with water polo to produce money.

Everybody is speaking about FINA. Yes, FINA has made a lot of mistakes. [But] I’m just amazed—I read an article by Frank Meunier, who was once president of Water Polo Canada. He suggested pulling out from FINA.

I thought: “You are from inside, how can you talk about separating water polo from FINA. Are you crazy?!”

If you don’t have enough support you’re out of the Olympics. Look at what happened to baseball and softball.

You see what kind of new sports are coming to the Olympics? 3-on-3 basketball. And you know what? People are talking very arrogantly [saying]: “What kind of sport is this?” I’ve seen this sport at the European Games two years ago. It’s fun—it’s really fun. [It’s a] very fast game—very short [20 minutes]. With DJ playing music during game. Add also the surroundings, somewhere around beach and you really have to watch it.

In water polo, we don’t have even close to that. So, we need to change [our] attitude, we need to change everything, before we start talking about our sport. Things are passing us by—that’s true. Which is why we need to change something to survive.

There’s definitely going to be a new technical committee in FINA for water polo. There’s going to be a lot of new people. I just hope that this committee is going to be working in a completely different approach.

There’s this talk about “gender equality” but then there currently are no women on FINA’s decision-making committee.

Let me tell you how it works. First of all, the Technical Committee is appointed by the FINA Bureau from nominations made by countries and continents. If the national federation of Australia doesn’t nominate a woman, they cannot make it up. If the national federation of USA does not nominate a woman, they cannot make it up.

This is not a FINA problem. It’s the national federations that don’t nominate women. FINA’s just choosing from a pool that’s offered. I don’t know who they have now. But if there is a woman I’m sure she will be on the committee.

Do you think that the suggested game changes—25-meter pool length, smaller ball, tighter time management—do you think they will make the game more exciting and ultimately more profitable?

Absolutely not. The size of the ball and the size of the field have absolutely nothing to do with making this sport fun. This is not the problem with the sport. I’ve been talking about this for many years: 25 second or 30 second shot clock is not the problem. Or two minutes time-out or three, four timeouts per game or two, who cares.

The problem is too many stoppages. Too many whistles. Minor foul which is free throw that provides an advantage to the defending team for destroying the attack. You are destroying the attack and you do not get punished. And exclusions are not punished enough. 20-second exclusion—most of the teams would rather take the exclusion rather than let [attacking team] score live goal.

Center is a problem. 80% of exclusions happen at the center. The physicality and brutality that is happening at the center—this is a problem. We have to think about how to make it less physical and less static at the center.

Problems with the sport have nothing to do with the number of players, size of the field, ball size. It’s an absolutely dead-end direction that FINA was going with these rule changes proposal. It’s a dead end.

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Frank Meunier
Frank Meunier
6 years ago

I was a bit shocked to read that I’m suggesting in any way or form that water polo should separate itself from FINA. That is pure nonsense. When I write : “Basically, is FINA equipped to efficiently govern, promote and think about the sport of water polo? My position is “not in its present form” but there is help out there. Ultimately, FINA needs to review how it conducts business, find its agent of change, shed its culture of inertia, open up cooperation and most of all listen to its members.” it just means FINA needs to get its act together and manage water polo efficiently with all key stakeholders. Past is the time of top-down decision making.

Water polo needs FINA and vice versa. But, like I wrote in my letter, it needs credible leaders that understand how to manage change, bring different stakeholders to share a common vision and “close the deal”. I am more than ready to help water polo.

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