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Hoogy's 10-Point Starter Pack For Reform

Sep 29, 2011  - Craig Lord

Pieter Van den Hoogenband, one of the all-time greats of world swimming and three-times Olympic champion for The Netherlands (100m free, 2000 and 2004; 200m free - 2000), has issued a 10-point plan of action to drag swimming and the governance of the sport into the 21st Century. 

Appalled by some of the things he witnessed at the world championships in Shanghai back in July and thinking with two hats on - former great of the race pool and media commentator who saw events in China through the eyes of the broadcaster he works for - Van den Hoogenband has used the pen as a sword to etch out a path to better times in swimming. He tells SwimNews today that he would be happy to be considered as an athlete representative on the FINA Bureau, in the wake of the federation having decided that it will invite, on the say so of the President, a swimmer to attend Bureau meetings and have a say - but no vote.

"Not for me personally. I want to do it to help the sport I love. Swimming is one of my big passions. I can choose to do something else, of course, but it would be good to put energy into this. I know how much effort swimmers put in and that they can only be at a certain level for a number of years and I would want to help them get the best out of those years, to have fun too. I know that the maximum is not being achieved right now and I think it is time we had a discussion on that.

Van Den Hoogenband's 10-point starter plan of action, published alongside an interview with reporter John Volkers in the Dutch paper Volkskrant, comes down to this:

  • 1.    With immediate effect, scrap existing world records swum in high-tech suits
  • 2.    Abolish the 800m and 1500m events because they are too long to retain audience interest
  • 3.    Bring the world-championship programme in line with the Olympic programme by scrapping 50m stroke events, which he describes as "chocolate medals"
  • 4.    More influence to be given to athletes, a move that would help to rejuvenate the board of FINA, which has too many members over 70 years of age
  • 5.    More accurate timekeeping to three decimal points to avoid shared gold [it happened in the 100m back for men and 100m free for women in Shanghai]
  • 6.    Shrink the finals programme to a maximum of one hour by cutting out the overly long ceremonies and the spectacle of "old men, mascots and flowers"
  • 7.    Give every nation its own colour on the swimming cap to help to distinguish protagonists - and make it obligatory [in the way that a FINA sponsor's name is now obligatory but comes in just one colour fits all]
  • 8.    Modernise advertising campaigns [he cites the gap in standard between the Puma campaign headed by Usain Bolt and the Speedo campaign in which Michael Phelps steers a toy boat into Ryan Lochte's groin]
  • 9.    Provide a better showcase for the figure-heads and role models of the sport
  • 10.   FINA to revamp its calendar and take more control in a way that it makes sense for swimmers [eg. all olympic qualification in one week around the world; a Diamond League shortly after the world championships, two peaks a year - winter and summer, scrap the world cup]

The list is likely to have the sort of impact on some at the sharp end of FINA as Hoogy's sub-48sec sprints did on rivals - yet take away the crack round the ear with a kickboard that the former Dutch sprinter is likely to get from Adlington, Sun & Co and those who created a strong thread of history before them, and each of Hoogy's points has wings that many would like to set in flight. 

SwimNews spoke to Van Den Hoogenband today and here is what he said on each point, taken in turn:

1. Hoogy's view: "Let them please start by abolishing the current world records set in 'fast suits'. The old records are impossible to focus on. They should take a long hard look at it. Let a new list apply from January 1, 2010. The president of the European Federation LEN addressed it … but he did not get it through FINA. I say: allow the ordinary sports fan to understand."

Comment: FINA history is graced with precedent that would allow a line to be drawn in the sand. The exercise - examples of which can be found in the history book of world record progressions with the official stamp of the international governing body cane be found in the 1950s and 60s and again at the beginning of the 1990s - is simple and fair. Olympic history also offers us precedent, with Olympic records at one Games faster than the Olympic record established at the Games that followed (1952-1956), the IOC having long ago understood that standards must reflect prevailing conditions if the public are going to make sense of it all in the way that the basics of soccer and other global giants of sport are easy to fathom regardless of level of expertise of the viewer. 

The President of LEN (the European League), Nory Kruchten, raised the matter with the Bureau but got nowhere as those who made the mistake on suits in the first place opted to press deeper into the mud as far as clarity and standardisation of the competitive environment is concerned (those two issues among the pillars that hold the sport up and govern its popularity with the wider public). From a media point of view, I have lost track of the number of colleagues, from columnists to editors back at HQ to producers who must decide on whether it is worth sticking to showing a world-record red line on screens during races, who feel that FINA have got it wrong. 

In Britain this week, leading columnist Martin Samuel writes this under the headline "Copy the Paula Rule": Paula Radcliffe ran a marathon time of 2hr 15min 25sec in London in 2003, which stood for eight years as the women’s record. This has now been downgraded to the time of 2:17:42 she ran in London in 2005, because the earlier race had men in the field. The IAAF believed her time might have  been bolstered by male  competition, and they have a point. Not all sports are so brave with retrospective rulings, however. Between February 2008 and December 2009 all bar three of the 82 swimming world records over both long course distance (50metre pool) and short course distance (25m pool) were broken. This was a direct result of polyurethane suits which aided buoyancy and were banned from January 1, 2010. Just two records remain from before the bodysuit era and six have subsequently been overhauled. Yet FINA, the governing body of swimming, say they have no intention of adjusting records that were achieved in equipment now declared illegal. Radcliffe’s assistance seems gentle by comparison.

2. Hoogy's view: "Take the 800 and 1500 metres away. Those songs are too long. Or at least have the debate about what should stay and what should go. There is too much on the programme. Personally, I love to watch the 1500. Perkins Vs Hoffmann and all through to Sun Yang breaking the world record in Shanghai was fantastic. But the sport needs the debate about what to have: the distance events or the 50m events on strokes, or maybe place all the distance events with the open water events. "

Comment: Personally, I like entire movements alongside the Adeles and Gagas of the world - as well as distance freestyle events. Indeed, some of the most thrilling Olympic finals and greatest entries in the book of swimming lore belong to the longest events for men and women in the pool. Bring a halt to the history of Hackett, Perkins, Salnikov, Goodell, Burton, Rose, Meyer to Gould, Evans to Adlington and all the rest in between? Not one for me. There are some things that broadcasters (just switch the feed to something else if needs be - that's what switches are for), the wider public and Generation X just have to either stomach it or take the moment as a good one to answer nature's call, go get a coffee or an ice-cream… if 8 or 15mins of extraordinary effort happens not to be your thing. 

3. Hoogy's view: "I go crazy about medals in non-Olympic events. The Olympic programme should be adopted at the world championships. There should be no chocolate medals. They have no value. Again: the public do not understand."

Comment: referring back to point 2, if there is a choice, the traditional events win hands down and if there is something to be lost, then taken out what was added in 2001, when the programme at world titles grew by eight events, with 50s on each stroke beyond freestyle and the 800m for men and 1500m for women added on like the fat on a bolt-on diet. Parity between OG and WC would be a good thing for a number of reasons, including creating "stars" out of swimmers who then get hammered back home as they go down in history as "the world champion who didn't make the Games" or "didn't even get past heats at the Olympics". It is highly unlikely that the IOC will agree to adding 50m dashes on all strokes, debate among non-swimming folk already frequent on the subject of "why do swimmers get a shot at 100m AND 200m"? Sessions at world championships can feel too long and it is in the heats of the 50m stroke events that we find the majority of entries from the 155 member nations who received solidarity support in Shanghai. Those programmes would benefit enormously from a need to develop youth swimming on a foundation of 200m and 400m efforts, notwithstanding the need to recognise and work with pure sprint talent.

4.  Hoogy's view: "They need more athletes to be heard." Outspoken on human rights in China and morning finals in Beijing to suit US broadcast times, he notes: "Such things cost me a lot of energy. It's more something for after your career. As a swimmer you tend to only focus on your sport." Yet he also thinks it important to avoid the swimmer being assimilated into the political classes and thus behaving in the same manner instead of truly representing the views of athletes. He cited the enormous potential of Alex Popov having the ear of FINA, though noted the risk of any professional sports politician having to play the games and in so doing becoming more distant from athletes as time goes by. these days, Van Den Hoogenband says: "Popov has a role in the FINA, he is consulted on major decisions, but after the conference on the eve of the World Championships he left Shanghai. I'd like to see him be able to do much more. We may envy the world athletics federation that former athletes such as [Sebastian] Coe and [Sergei] Boebka at the top of their board know."  

Comment: Athletes to have more influence? No question that they should. FINA has recognised it and will include an athlete, non-voting, on its Bureau in future. That, say many swimmers and coaches, does not go far enough, while Van Den Hoogenband raises an important question when it comes to true athlete representation, one void of the diplomatic bag with PC label firmly attached on all too many occasions when frankness would help swimming find a better path. Why not have Hoogy on the board? Fear is the key argument against avoiding what would be likely to lead to healthy debate and, in the words of the Pope on his tour of Germany this past week "open the windows and let the light in". 

5. Hoogy's view: "In the 100 meters backstroke two Frenchmen finished together - two gold medals. Same in the women's 100 free with Herasimenia and Ottesen. That should not be. We need an ultimate winner and you can measure such things to the thousandths of a second."

Comment: The technology is there - why not use it? Omega has raised the issue of the element that makes swimming different to land-based sports that do count to three past the point: the margin of "error" is greater in water because the swimmer coming home hardest and driving water forward at speed, for example, may trigger the pad before actually making contact with it. The presence of doubt may be all the keener in the case of a swimmer winning by 0.001sec. 

6. Hoogy's view: "Those old men who have a hug and a bouquet of flowers to give. I say: medal plus anthem. Take care to avoid annoying interruptions to the programme."

Comment: The tighter you keep it the better you hold the attention. From a media point of view, that holds true for the seen and unseen: broadcasters need to contain and cut down on 'dead time'; while in the realms of the unseen, a two and a half hour finals session that takes the written reporter to the very cusp of a deadline (and often beyond it) results in stories being missed, "stars" being ignored and whole shoals of reporters from around the world crashing away on laptops until midnight and beyond each night with not a sandwich or a decent drink to be had in miles along the length of an eight-day event (make that 2 weeks and more for some at the most recent world championships). Fatigue is not the best diet for excellence of coverage (or anything else). 

7.   Hoogy's view: "There are too many white bathing caps in the water. Give each nation a country colour." Hoogy liked the sliding door and the puff of smoke introduction of swimmers in finals in Shanghai but notes:  "Even then Natalie Coughlin comes out in a winter coat and her Uggs. She had no face. And she is one of the faces of our sport. She is a lovely girl. It would be great to see her face." He believed such issues should be discussed by the athletes' commission and raised with individuals with a view to improving presentation of the sport.

Comment: Casting my mind back to boyhood and watching the 1972 Olympic Games on television in colour for the first time, I can still see in my mind's eye what the suits of Australia, the USA and Canada looked like. They were specific prints that told you instantly where the swimmer came from. Few in those days had caps and none had goggles. The world turns, times change but Hoogy is right - the name of a sponsor on eight identical caps in a final of eight is the wrong way to go. More thought required.

8.   Hoogy's view: [Phelps and Lochte]: "Then they perform in a film by Speedo, so childish. They play with controlled speedboats. One ends in the crotch of Lochte. It really cannot compete with Usain Bolt and his campaign for Puma."

Comment: Quality counts, as does appealing to the widest possible audience on the widest possible platforms. I've seen Bolt in prime time ads in dozens of countries in the world. While such things may exist, in all my travels I've never seen a prime-time swimming ad. Hardly scientific but there's true reflection to be found in the observation. Budgets are in play - and so too is taste and the inner workings of companies that sometimes get their messages right, mixed and wrong. Having wider input in the process beyond the inner circle of sponsored swimmer and marketing agency might help. There are, of course, examples of fine work on selling products and image in the world of swimming.

9.   Hoogy's view [showcasing the sport]: "There is a lot that the athletes commission can do to consider what is best for swimmers." He cites the case of medal presentations in Shanghai and was of the opinion that some of the emotions shown did not ring true and came across badly with audiences. A fan of the sliding door and puff of smoke presentation, he also congratulated those responsible for the new starting blocks, with hand grip bar that reduces significantly the threat of slipping in. That said, he urged Omega and FINA to work on something better for backstroke swimmers and listen to the likes of Aaron Peirsol, the top backstroke ace of the first decade of this century and now retired. 

On how the blazers present themselves to the wider world, the swimmer had this to say: "I was in Shanghai for Eurosport. The best seats would normally be those given to the media that sends back the stories and images of the sport to home nations and the fans. But the best place was a section 20 tables wide for the Bureau and VIPs [mid-section of main stand with media pushed round the corner behind the finish line]. Then there were ten members who showed up. No face to them. Their posture betrayed that they are not interested in the sport. They seem to get their daily allowance, 300 per day. And then you find them in the restaurant … "

Comment: many leading federations run media training courses for athletes and others (and some of what is taught is pure hogwash, apt as it is to suggest that being oneself is less than putting on a face, when in fact swimming is flush with world-class swimmers who come across just fine by being themselves and keeping their necks in). Van Den Hoogenband makes a good point, however, when he suggests that swimmers have a way to go in the league of professional presentation and open discussion between athletes and their representatives could go along way to improving the appeal of swimmers to major sponsors. On equipment, of course FINA and others should work with those who actually use it - from the very conception of an idea, lest things go too far down the road to a yes vote among politicians who do not need to use the equipment and will not appreciate the subtleties known to the swimmer and often the coach. The comment about the stands and some of those who take up their places there is valid, just as it is fair to point out that others in positions of governance and authority do good work and roll their sleeves up (and are to be found on the deck and anywhere other than in the VIP seats during races because they have a job to do.

10.  Hoogy's view: "Autumn is dominated by the world cup short-course season, when the world's real best stay away. What's the meaning of it? They should have a Diamond League as in athletics, and even after the World Championships, when everyone was in top form. After Shanghai, go to Japan and Australia. Put Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam, where the top riders race against each other, in the winter. And that to fall under the prevailing system in swimming: a peak moment in the summer and a peak moment in the winter." 

On Olympic qualification: "We swim in the Netherlands in December. Then we are high in the world rankings because France, Germany, Australia and the US hold their qualifications later on. There should be one week of Olympic year assigned to qualification. Then the whole world has one week to swim in." His former coach Jacco Verhaeren would be happy to take up the issue with coaches if he felt that there was interest and support for the idea. "The interest in swimming would be focussed at one time. The discussion between journalists and the ability to compare results around the world would be really great."

Comment: The thought will go down like a lead balloon among those none too keen on having to perform at one given moment. And yet, that is precisely what swimmers must do come the big moment. No changing the date of the Games or Championships. No excuses - and even illness goes down as a shame, not an excuse. Identifying an Olympic season would provide structure and meaning in a cluttered calendar but any debate on when that season should be would be a fierce contest, with the US more open to trialling its team 3 to 5 weeks out from the big one, while other leading nations prefer a spring passage to the summer showdown. In terms of media coverage, a qualification season would be no bad thing: coverage is always helped by meaning, context, the ability to plan for things, the ability to compare directly, the avoidance of having to write "that makes Billy Bloggs world No 1 this season… but then half the world won't race properly for another 3 months" (in other words, no story, if truth be told).

In his concluding remarks, Van Den Hoogenband fires a warning shot across FINA's bows when he says: "I hear from influential sports administrators that FINA is the laughing stock of all major sports. Athletics and swimming are the main sports of the Olympic Games. But at the allocation of funds [from the IOC], athletics [wins] and swimming is with nine other sports in box 2. And that with Phelps in the ranks. Swimming in terms of TV interest is at least equivalent to athletics."

The Dutch sprinter talks of lost opportunity when he says: In 2001, we had Hackett, Thorpe and Kitajima, the temporary pool in Fukuoka, and there were plans for a circuit supported by large companies. Our destiny was in FINA's hands. It was a good plan - but it didn't happen."

Van Den Hoogenband says that he wishes to see his sport through a new lens. " Shanghai was great. I had a lot of contact with swimmers through interviews. I think there is no vision of how our sport should move forward. I think about that. I have a passion for swimming. I am willing to plough my energy into helping my sport."

Some in FINA may not be best pleased as they read the words of one of the very biggest of stars the sport has placed in the sporting pantheon yet there can be no question that the international federation should listen and engage with a man who, in common with the rest of us, does not have all the answers but wants serious, open debate and would surely be a great asset to swimming as the sport meets 21st Century watersheds along the flow of time in a competitive world.