Siphiwe Baleka: ‘I Felt Betrayed by My Sport and by FINA’ After Olympic Snub

Photo Courtesy: Egyptian Swim Federation/Claytown Productions

Siphiwe Baleka: ‘I Felt Betrayed by My Sport and by FINA’ After Olympic Snub

Guinea-Bissau swimmer Siphiwe Baleka said he felt “betrayed” by FINA after his appeal to swim for his adopted country at the Tokyo Olympics last summer was denied.

Baleka discussed his feelings this week in an interview with U.S. Masters Swimming, of which he is an active member of the Missouri Valley (MOVY) program. Baleka was bidding to become the oldest male Olympic swimmer in history at 50 years of age.

Baleka was nominated by Guinea-Bissau to nominate the tiny West African nation at the Olympics, occupying a universality spot. But FINA ruled that Baleka’s paperwork for a nationality switch was insufficient to meet its requirements, a decision levied in July.

“To be quite honest, I felt betrayed by my sport and by FINA,” Baleka said. “There was what I call the athletic disappointment. As a swimmer, to compete in the Olympics is the ultimate goal. Of course, I wasn’t expecting to win any medals or anything like that, but I did want to go and swim my best. I was planning to swim fast.”

Baleka was born in the United States and swam collegiately at Yale. He has followed a circuitous career route to still be swimming at an elite level at such an advanced age. His connection to the country came after Baleka explored his genetic history as an Afrodescendent of the Balanta tribe. He submitted paperwork in June to formally become a citizen of the country.

Baleka said he regretted the missed chance to raise the profile of the country on the Olympic stage. Guinea-Bissau has never had an Olympic swimmer. Its swimming federation was largely non-existent for the last two decades, lacks any organized swimming programs and a dearth of suitable facilities. Baleka remains committed to developing a swimming infrastructure in his adopted country. (For what it’s worth, FINA, under new president Husain Al Musallam, has taken steps toward increased investment in non-traditional swimming areas like Africa.)

Baleka is back training. His immediate goal is the 2022 FINA World Masters Championships. He won four silver medals at that event in 2017. His goal for the 2024 Paris Olympics is for Guinea-Bissau to be represented, but not by a 53-year-old Baleka.

“My goal is not to compete in Paris in 2024,” Baleka says. “My goal is can I develop someone from Guinea-Bissau to compete in the Paris Olympics in 2024. We want Guinea-Bissau to be represented. It doesn’t have to be me. If it’s me, then I feel like I didn’t really do my duty to the Guinea-Bissau people to help them develop.”

Read the full interview with Siphiwe Baleka here.

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