Connect with Us:  

Lessons From The Larfaoui Legacy

Jun 2, 2009  - Craig Lord

Julio Maglione, the FINA treasurer standing for the presidency of the international federation, has sent a note to his supporters thanking them for their work on his campaign, SwimNews understands. The note indicates that he is now the only candidate for FINA's highest office. In time-honoured tradition, Mustapha Larfaoui, the president since 1988, is likely to be voted an Honorary Life President at FINA Congress in Rome in July.

The divisions within FINA on a political level are already beginning to fade, say sources, but there is much to be decided in terms of the nature of the Maglione's new team and the style of leadership that can be expected of him. He has indicated that he wishes to stand for one four-year term only, during which FINA can work on renewing structures for future governance. Supporters of Maglione say that the Uruguayan has let it be known that his work will stand on four core values: integrity, democracy, transparency, and accountability.

Larfaoui's decision to step aside from what had become a devisive and bitter battle clears the way for his 21-year tenure at the helm of FINA bureaucracy to be placed in context. The first African to hold the highest office of the aquatics world and the first African to become president of any Olympic sport federation, Larfaoui was elected to the FINA Bureau in 1972, at a time when Dr Harold Henning was President. He was elevated to Vice-President at the 1976 Congress in Montreal and served in that capacity until being elected President in 1988. A member of the World Anti-Doping Agency's executive committee, Larfaoui has lived through a roller-coaster of highs and lows for FINA on the anti-doping front.

A former hospital and public health director, Larfaoui, 76, has served in office at the African Amateur Swimming Confederation for four decades, more than 30 of those as president. As FINA President and board member of his national Olympic Committee, Larfaoui is a member of the IOC, a role he will relinquish once he is no longer FINA president from July. A water polo player in his youth, Larfaoui was 30 when, in 1962, he founded the Algerian Swimming Federation, though the sport of swimming was already well-established: Algeria was part of France until the early 1960s and many world-class swimmers born in Algeria had represented France.

In 1963, Larfaoui was a founding member of the Algerian Olympic Committee, serving as secretary general until 1967. Since 1989, he has been Honorary President of the Algerian Swimming Federation and holds the same position with his nation's Olympic Committee. In 1970, he was a founder member of the African Swimming Confederation.

Larfaoui has overseen massive expansion in the aquatics world. He was at the helm for the birth of the 1m world diving titles and open water debut at Perth in 1991, the first synchronized diving titles at Perth 1998; the first Olympic women's water polo matches and the first Olympic synchronized diving crowns at Sydney 2000. The advent of official short-course swimming unfolded in the Larfaoui years. World records became official in a 25m pool for the first time in 35 years on March 3, 1991, while the inaugural world short-course championships followed in 1993 to provide a showcase linked to one of the biggest innovations of the Algerian's term at the top: temporary pools that liberated aquatic events in terms of the location of championships (the 1995 short-course event was held on Copacabana Beach).

Some of FINA's expansion has at times taken on the feel of activity for activity's sake: the world cup series in swimming failed for many years to attract the best in the world, while some of the early open water events had the same 20 or so swimmers racing each other far and wide across the globe. Among the many new events added to FINA activities since 1988 are the World Youth Championships (2006) and world cup series and world series in diving, waterpolo, synchronised swimming and open water, while the biggest coup of late was the inclusion of the 10km marathon in the Olympic programme in Beijing, which took to five the number of Olympic sports under the FINA umbrella. 

Many FINA events now carry prize money, the funding of competitions and rewarding of best performances made possible by revenue generated from selling broadcast and marketing rights and attracting "partner" deals. Prize money in 2007 stretched to more than US$5 million, a level of reward that has seen aquatic athletes remain as active competitors for a much longer period. It is not uncommon to see world-class 30-somethings in the pool these days. 

On the downside, FINA, under the leadership of Larfaoui, was slow to respond to the doping threat posed by China in the 1990s, telling critics in the media and among coaches and swimmers at the world championships in Rome 1994 "we can expect great things from a population of a billion". He appeared not to understand what he was looking at, diplomacy prized more highly than the brutal truth of what was unfolding. He was still to be found issuing statements interpreted as supportive of China in 1998, in the midst of a deepening crisis at the world championships in Perth, Western Australia. Yuan Yuan was the swimmer who arrived at Sydney airport with enough HGH in her kit bag to supply the whole China team for the duration of the championships. A year later, as former GDR swimmers lined up in court to reveal excrutiating details of the abuse they suffered at the hands of the likes of Dr Lothar Kipke, a member of the FINA medical committee in the 1980s, FINA decided to turn a blind eye. Dr Kipke, among other GDR officials, remain on the list of FINA Honorees.

In the past year, the president of FINA remained largely silent during a 16-month period in which non-permeable, non-textile suits were allowed to make a mockery of a sport that until that point had been technique based. Up until 2008, FINA had no effective testing system for suits. In the absence of proper control and understanding - which the sport had understood it must have since the late 1990s - Speedo was able to introduce a suit, without debate, that changed the nature of the sport in a truly radical way. Suit wars ensued.

Larfaoui was among those who failed to understand that swimming, by default and a laissez-faire approach to the issue, had become an equipment-based sport. On the day that he let it be known at a private meeting in Lausanne that he would not stand for the presidency for an unprecedented sixth time, Larfaoui appealed for people to talk about the swimmers not the suits but said he had no regrets about how he had handled - or failed to handle - the chaos. He failed to apologise to the many swimmers who had their hard work and aspirations in Olympic year sunk by a suit. He failed to connect his role as leader with the need to act on suits in a rapid and decisive way. To some, Larfaoui gave the impression of being a man more wedded to the needs of commercial partners than his primary responsibility: to deliver standardisation and a level playing field to swimmers and coaches that he was supposed to represent, in the long tradition of those who had served before him.

It is human to err, but the contrast between Michael Phelps and Mustapha Larfaoui of late was stark. While one said: "I messed up, I made a terrible mistake, I take full responsibility for my actions, and I will make sure it never happens again", the other sent a message that "the scientists will make the decisions, we are not experts in fabrics and materials, and the sport is progressing". The lesson had not been learned, contrition was absent, it seemed to many, including some of his FINA colleagues.

Larfaoui's legacy is of crucial importance to FINA: it is patently obvious to many at the helm of the international federation that the culture and style of governance of FINA must change to meet the challenges of the future that are already haunting the world of swimming.

For Maglione, part of the challenge ahead is to weed out the grace-and-favour model of governance for a meritocracy based on hard work, a genuine understanding of issues in times of crisis and an ability to act swiftly and take decisive, remedial measures that consider the athlete as a priority. It is understood that Maglione wishes to press for Larfaoui to be known as FINA President Emeritus. Under the circumstances of the Algerian's departure from the FINA hot seat, such a measure would hardly be appropriate and would sit uncomfortably alongside the contribution made by the likes of Harold Fern and others down the years. This is a time for humility, not pomp and ceremony.