What’s Next for FINA? Priorities Should Include Women’s 1500 Free, Underwater Video Judging at Olympics; IOC Not Considering 50s Now

Commentary by Jeff Commings

THE Olympic flame was extinguished more than a week ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s time for FINA, the international governing body for aquatic sports, to take a vacation. The Rio de Janeiro Olympics, after all, are only 1,443 days away.

The first FINA Bureau meeting after the Olympics is typically the organization’s most important gathering in the entire quadrennial. This is when the organization looks back on the top issues that faced the previous Olympics and how to rectify them for the next Games. The next meeting will take place during the world aquatics championships, which start next July in Barcelona, Spain.

Need proof of the importance of the post-Olympics meeting? The 2005 meeting is where FINA approved use of the dolphin kick in breaststroke, a rule that was implemented later that year. And 2009’s meeting was filled with talk of how to handle the high-tech suits that had turned the sport upside down.

Next year’s meeting carries just as much weight as those two conclaves. FINA Executive Director Cornel Marculescu has publicly stated that underwater video judging will be an important topic in Barcelona, as well as replacing the women’s 800 with the 1500 in the Olympic Games.

Although the 50s of butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke were recommended by FINA to the IOC in 2008, there is no evidence at this time, contrary to reports in blog-type media outlets, that the 50s will be back on FINA’s or the IOC’s agenda. FINA needs to make a formal proposal to the IOC before the IOC can begin serious consideration.

Though the International Olympic Committee is in charge of the overall running of the Olympic Games, each sport’s federation has jurisdiction over the program. Therefore, the IOC rarely, if ever, makes public recommendations on event program revisions before a sport federation officially presents such revisions to them, usually three years before the next Games. An IOC spokesperson confirmed this procedure to Swimming World in a recent email.

Despite Marculescu’s on-the-record statement that the women’s 1500 is a priority for next summer’s FINA meeting, there has been no official agenda set. FINA Vice President Dale Neuberger told Swimming World recently that the first step in recommending an event change for the Olympics is in a meeting of the FINA Technical Swimming Committee, which won’t gather until early 2013.

It would be in FINA’s best interest to make the women’s 1500 their top priority at next year’s meetings. Underwater video judging should also be at the top of the list, which Swimming World has already discussed at length. Replacing the women’s 800 freestyle with the 1500 freestyle would be the best thing to happen to the Olympics since the women started swimming the 800 free relay in 1996. With men and women swimming the 10K in the past two Olympics, it has now become a no-brainer that the 1500 should be an event for both sexes.

FINA wanted to put the women’s 1500 in the 2012 Olympics, but was pressured to table the issue until after the 2012 Olympics. Dennis Pursley, then the national team director for Great Britain, took the lead in keeping the women’s 800 through 2012, in order to give Rebecca Adlington the opportunity to defend the 800 free title she won in 2008.

Yes, it’s true that Katie Ledecky would not be able to defend her 800 freestyle crown in Rio de Janeiro, but I can’t imagine anyone at USA Swimming pulling their approval of seeing the women’s 1500 free for that reason. The women swim the mile at the NCAAs, and it is often an event featured at national championships. The ability to swim the mile could also give the world record holder, Kate Ziegler, some motivation to stick around for 2016.

Nothing could be gained by adding the 50s of butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke to the Olympics. I’ve been unable to think of one valid reason why those three events would be good for the Olympics. The biggest argument against it is adding to an already full schedule. Yes, the 50s are swum in the eight-day world championships, but would these six new events (three each for men and women) attract new followers to the sport? The IOC was smart to shoot down the recommendation in 2008.

If the 50s become a strong possibility for the 2016 Games, it will be largely because Brazil, the host nation, has two reigning world champions in the 50 butterfly (Cesar Cielo) and 50 breaststroke (Felipe Silva). They will likely make a large push to give their country a possible boost in the medal count. European nations love the 50s, with the United States the only major swimming country that does not contest 50s of the non-freestyle strokes at its nationals.

There’s also the possibility of putting in the mixed medley and freestyle relays into the Olympics. The IOC is currently testing this idea at the Youth Olympics, which held these events at the 2010 edition. The major downside to mixed relays is the inability for leadoff swimmers to set records, which Libby Trickett knows very well. Even if the mixed relays become official events, would FINA allow women to set world and Olympic records while getting drafts off their faster male competitors?

FINA will have to look much further than the current Olympic schedule when determining its proposals. It has long been believed that the IOC wants to keep the number of events in athletics (i.e. track and field) and aquatics (swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, water polo) in the Olympics fairly equal. Since 2000, the number of events in each discipline has differed by no more than two. In 2012, athletics had 47 events, while aquatics featured 46 events. Adding the 50s of the strokes, as well as two mixed relays, would give aquatics a seven-event “advantage,” with 55 events versus 47 in athletics. Athletics would have to respond by adding at least six events, and how much more can they add? More relays? The 100-meter backwards run? The general public already thinks there are too many medal opportunities in swimming and athletics; let’s not stoke the fire any more.

If using the athletics/aquatics parity as a guideline, it’s not likely that FINA will seriously put much thought in adding the 50s for 2016. Replacing the women’s 1500 with the 800 would not change the numbers at all, but could give swimming a completely equal schedule of events that will be praised for many years.