IWD: When Cate Campbell Called Out ‘Arrogant’ FINA Leaders For Losing Sight Of Athletes In Pursuit Of Money

Cate Campbell 3 - Delly Carr Collection

International Women’s Day (IWD)

To mark International Women’s Day, Swimming World is rolling out a series of features this Sunday, fresh and from the archive, to highlight the achievements and work of  pathfinders in swimming and raising issues that continue to have a massive impact on women in sport.

Here we recall the window of opportunity seized by a leader among swimmers who took a break from championship racing in 2017 and thus found herself able to speak openly and with maturity on issues affecting athletes. Australian Cate Campbell was speaking at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest long before the International Swimming League made its fight, in law and pool, with FINA public, before Matt Biondi had heard of the Swimmers’ Alliance – and before the latest controversies related to FINA, the international federation, and its handling of the Sun Yang fiasco. Her words caught the tall “Athlete Voice” wave washing a revolution through her sport.

So far in our celebration IWD 2020:


From the Craig Lord archive, July 24, 2017

Cate Campbell barely hesitates when asked what singular issue concerns her in the campaign for athletes to have a far greater say in the leadership and direction of their sport: “I think the fact that they haven’t ever requested an athlete’s opinion on anything [laughter rumbles through the journalists listening].”

At a media briefing for her kit at the Casa Arena on the banks of the Danube in Budapest, Campbell adds: “We are essentially FINA’s assets. Without us there is no FINA and I think sometimes that can be forgotten.”

The Australian sprinter with Olympic and World titles to her name is in Budapest with broadcaster as she takes time out of top-flight racing this northern summer.

Among leading swimmers who have backed calls for reform of FINA and moves to make the international federation athlete-focussed, Campbell lambasted the global leadership of aquatics as “strange and a bit arrogant” when it came to dealing with the prime assets of the pool: athletes.

Last weekend, the political circus of FINA’s General Congress delivered the woeful spectacle of an in-house wheeler-dealer culture calling itself a democracy.

After Julio Maglione, the 81-year-old from Uruguay at the FINA top table since 1984 and in charge for the past eight years, was returned to the presidency, as the votes from nations without any world-class swimming programs stacked up alongside those from the likes of mighty USA, the Olympic rings that bind them all were ever present.

Julio Maglione bathes in the glory of Olympic kingmaker Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah in Budapest this evening

There at the FINA dinner after the vote was Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, FINA ‘first vice-president’ Husain Al Musallam’s Olympic Council of Asia boss. The two Kuwaitis were cited as “co-conspirator’s in the Richard Lai bribery case brought by the U.S. Justice Department.

The Sheikh has stepped down from all FIFA roles pending inquiries but continues to operate in Olympic circles, circles that include the end of the chain: IOC president Thomas Bach of Germany. There with the Sheikh at the FINA dinner was … Bach.

The folk FINA honours with its highest prize … the Mayor of Moscow; and Vladimir Putin; and Vitaly Mutko all at a time of deep doping crisis in the Russian sports system; the Emir of Qatar and so on and so forth…

Asked if she was aware of all of that side of her sport – a sport in which there are rules that oblige athletes to leave their politics at home, where governors have been caught plotting $150,000 campaigns to discredit critics, including smearing journalists, coaches and others – and whether she thought it problematic, Campbell hit the nail on the head:

“I know, I know. Absolutely. We are linked to FINA; we are part of FINA and FINA can use us to promote things, so I feel like we should be able to have a say in how they are governing and who governs it and which issues are being raised and which issues are being dealt with.”

A member of the Athletes’ Commission of the Australian Olympic Committee, Campbell explains: “It’s why I was on the athlete leadership group on teams for so long … now I do understand how big it is: there are so many cogs spinning and people pulling in different directions that athletes do just get lost because it does become about making money as opposed to swimming. I feel like that’s a fundamental part of their constitution that they’ve forgotten.”

The Professional Swimmers’ Association, likely to end up as the body that represents athletes, and a grouping called GAPS, the “G” for global, pulled together by Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu, are about to take their case to the FINA top table.

Hosszu’s main arguments were criticised by athletes and coaches, however, for being too narrow, too much focussed on changes from one poor FINA world cup format that helped make Hosszu a million dollars and more to another that docked her earning potential.

Asked if she felt that Hosszu’s issue with the world cup were too narrow in terms of the wider demands of athletes to have their voices not only heard but responded too – with dialogue and action – Campbell said:

“Absolutely. There is a lot more to flesh out in terms of what we would like but for me I joined because athletes should have a say in organisations. Too often they are run by people who are out of touch with the sport or have their own side games to be made from it. For me it was about supporting athletes having a voice and we can work out the details after the championships.”

On the world cup changes that restrict a swimmer to four events per round of the cup, as opposed to the open format that saw Hosszu swim everything and win most of it across all strokes and distance, Campbell, heading on the short-course world-cup tour next month said: “I don’t agree with the changes to the World Cup scheduling.

“I don’t make a lot of money; I only swim two events so it’s not like a big deal for me but just to decide that and to cut it down was a little bit strange, a bit arrogant.”

But that wasn’t the half of it. Said Campbell:

“They’ve made lots of changes, which we’ve all just got used to: they added kicker blocks, they added wedges, all these things: where was the consultation with the athletes and coaches over that? Things that impact us, you know, but we haven’t had a say in it. It’s about athletes having a say in it and an opportunity to have a say and them being willing to have feedback, to and from FINA: it’s two-way communication.”

The latter is the key challenge to FINA’s leadership. The fact is that the ruling Bureau does indeed include an athlete representative. He is Australian’s Matt Dunn. However, a senior FINA source recently told SwimVortex that Dunn’s main role appeared to be ‘drawing up the lists of those who hand out flowers at medal ceremonies’.

Dunn acts as the liaison between the Bureau and the ‘FINA Athletes’ Commission’ but that body has failed to take the athlete voice to the top table with a demand that feedback is obligatory.

A common complaint among those who have resigned from FINA commissions (this author from the press body in 2014 included) is that answers to questions and requests to the FINA leadership never come back if the issues raised are not issues the FINA leadership eithers wants to engage on or does not agree on.

Campbell believes that cannot go on. Athletes are about to demand change. She says:

“There has to be a lot more direction: clear things we want to ask from FINA but all those things can be worked out later. It was just really showing my support for the view that athletes need a say in the way big organisations like FINA run their business.”

That includes deals done on Olympic scheduling – be that midnight finals or additions to the program – without any consultation with athletes.

In Rio, finals did not get underway until very late at night, with athletes often kept from their beds yet at 2 and 3am to suit the U.S. TV schedules of NBC. Athletes were simply not consulted on the issue, while media archives show clearly that a great many world-class athletes and their coaches did not agree with the cosy arrangements of the IOC, FINA and a single broadcaster, regardless of how much money that outfit was paying for rights.

Of late, the 800m free for men and 1500m free for women have been added to the Olympic swimming program for Tokyo 2020.

“Yes, this is another thing. I don’t agree with the fact that they are Olympic events,” says Campbell. “Obviously I support the athletes who are in them 100% but you’re putting a huge burden on the distance swimmers. That is a huge mileage they’re having to swim. They will be swimming kilometres at race pace.”

Cate Campbell

She turns to her own team for example: “We’re got Mack Horton doing the 200, the 400, the 800, the 1500 PLUS the relays. That is a huge burden to put on him. Swimming one 1500 is bad enough why do you have to burden him with an 800 as well. Then, are you forcing athletes to choose from events?”

The IOC, FINA et al have also missed a trick with spectators and viewing audiences, she believes, with a nod to more distance events being added to the program in favour of keeping the 50m stroke events (butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke) out:

“In terms of spectators, 50s are fun. They are races people can relate to. Pretty much everyone has swum 50 metres at some stage in their lives and can say ‘oh, look, they swam 10sec faster than me …’. Most people will never have time to swim a 1500 in their lives. From a viewing spectatorship I don’t think it was a clever move.

“Most people only enjoy watching the shorter events,” she adds.

“They have a short attention span these days, so that’s another example of a decision made without consulting athletes. If you’re looking to add events why not ask athlete and coaches which ones they would have preferred as opposed to ‘oh, we’ll just add in these’.”

Similar, then, to how the name synchronised swimming (often reduced to a snappy ‘synchro’ in headlines’ has officially been changed to “artistic swimming” without consultation with athletes, coaches and other major stakeholders? Says Campbell:

“Yes, absolutely. It’s like why are we rewriting history for no apparent reason.”

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and those quoted in this article and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine, the International Swimming Hall of Fame, nor its staff.

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