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Future Of FINA: Part 2 - Coaches

Jun 3, 2011  - Craig Lord

In the second part of our series on the future of FINA as the international governing body considers constitutional change at an extraordinary Congress in Shanghai this July, we consider an opportunity lost. The list of proposals to be voted on in China is significant not only in terms of what has been thrown into the pot but in terms of what has been left out: coaches. At a time when FINA's own proposals include a non-voting position for an athlete on the Bureau, coaches have been snubbed by those who run the sport.

A proposal calling for a coach to be added to the Bureau was presented to the ruling group by USA Swimming and supportive federations in February. The vote was lost 17 to 4. Old habits die hard. However, significant among the four 'yes' votes was the name of the top man, FINA President Julio Maglione, who has made no secret of his admiration for the professional men and women who spend their lives working at the coal face of the sport developing and honing the stars of the show and serving as guardians to generations of children. 

Despite the backing of the president, the majority of those who fill the seats at the top table consider coaches unworthy of being invited to the top table to provide insight and guidance on how aquatic sports might be governed. We consider the implications in part 2 of our series.

Today marks the 90th Birthday of a coaching legend, Australian Forbes Carlile, graduate physiologist, lecturer at the University of Sydney, pioneer in scientific training and the pace clock, the first swimming author  to deal with the concept of tapering, a term originated by Carlile and Professor Frank Cotton. Many happy returns of the day to a man whose journey through the world of swimming is more than pertinent to the debate over the role of coaches when it comes to who has a say in the governance of the sport.

The bottom line: coaches have no say. Yes, there is a FINA Coaches Commission (we will look at the role of commissions and committees in a future article) and coaches have been sent out into the world by FINA to help spread the swimming word to developing nations. All good and well - but when it comes down to having a voice (let alone a vote) on the substantive issues that affect the culture and direction of swimming, coaches do not even make the start list. Indeed their entry to the race has so far been rejected by the majority of those at the helm of FINA. That may be about to change.

Last month, USA Swimming submitted a proposal for consideration at the Extraordinary Congress that would place a coach on the Bureau for the first time, the successful candidate to be chosen by the President of FINA from a pool of five nominated by the FINA Coaches Commission. In its submission, the US federation noted: "United States Aquatic Sports strongly believes that having a coach on the Bureau is a critical step forward for FINA." I have heard no logical argument to counter that view, while the use of the term "step in the direction" reflects the wish of a fair few influential figures in the sport to go further than simply one coaching position on the Bureau in the longer-term when it comes to having the men and women on the burning deck included at the decision-making heart of a sport that is one of the biggest draws on the Olympic billboard.

Recognising coaches in that way would be a watershed in FINA history, a fundamental shift in the way business between deck and boardroom is conducted. Anti-doping, calendars, suits, rights and access to competitions and competitors are among the big issues that have rattled the sport down the years. Coaches have played a significant role in influencing decision-making on all those topics but the key to understanding how the land lies is to consider the way in which they influenced the jury. Significantly, coaches have had to wage war, to cajole and threaten in order to have their voices heard. And on just about every subject and complaint they have raised, they were shouted down before they were proved right and their views carried the day and the vote. 

Their role in doing that and the kind of relationship that has developed with FINA over the decades have left FINA looking decisively reactive and definitively not pro-active on any issue that was not their idea, particularly at times of crisis. That difficult relationship between coaches and those who govern the sport has long prevailed at all levels of the sport, from domestic grass roots and domestic associations and federations through to the upper reaches of elite competitive swimming, where successful coaches and those who lead national federations meet once again in a structure designed to keep coaches away from a direct say in the way things are done.

The conflict is steeped in the culture of the sport and remains the norm in the vast majority of countries in the world, the USA, the world's leading swim nation, standing out as almost the singular example of a federation that has embraced coaches and now counts them in, with voice and vote at various levels of the organisation, including the very forums at which future policy is decided and big decisions taken. Even so, the norm in many leading swim nations of the world, even those who take into account coaching representation within federations to some degree, is for coaches to be more tolerated than invited, while there are a fair few examples available of very senior head coaches at the helm of successful programmes who endured or are enduring uncomfortable relationships with those on the bureaucratic side of the pool. 

No need to go quite as far back as the days when amateur status was the bedrock on which the rules and commandments of the sport were built. But trawl back just 40 years and come to the eve of the FINA world championship era, the cusp of greater commercial influence but still a time when blazers were king, swimmers, like children, were seen but not heard (and knew to hold their tongues if they knew what was good for them as tours and selections loomed) and coaches were mostly neither seen nor heard when it came to the crunch moment of big race day, let alone when it came to having any say whatsoever in the running of the sport.

It is 1971, the year before the Olympic Games in Munich, and Australia sends a squad to the Coca-Cola meet at Crystal Palace in London. Forbes Carlile is there with some of his charges, including world-record holder Karen Moras and a shooting star called Shane Gould, who matches Dawn Fraser's 100m free world mark at the start of an incredible record-breaking trajectory that came to rest at three Olympic gold medals, all won in world-record time, a silver, a bronze at the 1972 Olympic Games. 

That remains the greatest solo haul at a single Games by a woman swimmer. And for those who live in our times, consider this: Carlile, at the very moment that he had a talent like Shane Gould in his pool, was not deemed worthy enough by Aussie blazers to be on the poolside when his charge was charging like no woman had ever charged before.  Don Talbot was chosen by selectors to be coach, not head coach, a title yet to be born in 1971. Forbes's wife and fellow coach at Ryde, Ursula, was added to the team (some reports from the time refer to her as 'chaperone' but officially she served as a coach, something of a breakthrough, for women and coaching)  and was there for Gould, 14 and facing a monumental task and in need of being accompanied by someone she knew well and trusted.

Times changed and gradually, the USA leading the way as has so often been the case on a whole swathe of issues, coaches gained rights and respect. Even then, the level of recognition and how that manifests itself, has been relative, even in the nation that has led the way. In 1996, as Atlanta hosted the Olympic Games and as the wives, friends  and corporate acquaintances of members of this and that federation and this and the other association sat in prime seats watching the action before floating off to cocktails and more in VIP lounges and other watering holes to which coaches are rarely, if ever, invited, the likes of coaching legends such as Nort Thornton, Don Gambril and the 74 year old President of the World Swimming Coaches Association, Peter Daland (who also celebrated his 90th time round this year), were to be found working as volunteers just so that they could get in and catch a glimpse of the Games. Incredible as it may sound, Daland, a man who led some of the most successful USA swim teams in history, jumped at the chance of picking up garbage in the stands so that he could watch the prelims.

The rub is easy to see: comfy seats for many who contribute little or nothing at all to swimming; no access for those who got the kids to the Games in the first place, who worked with children from learn-to-swim through to national team. In Atlanta, those coaches and kids good enough to make team selection complained that they could not see the action at all because the number of seats allocated to them in the stand was less than 30% of what would have been needed. Volunteers Gambril and Daland raised the matter with FINA. Nothing to be done, came back the reply. There is, of course, always something that can be done. It largely depends on whether you want to do it.

One witness from the time was quoted as saying: "We, the coaches and athletes, are not important to these clowns. We just get in the way of their parties, their dinners, their socializing … If we don’t coach, and the swimmers don’t swim, the damn bureaucrats sit home  and count paper clips."

Not words that will have gone down at all well with the bureaucrats, of course. And the fact is that many who were coaching back in 1996 and many who were in power back in 1996 remain in power - and, like elephants, they never forget. The Us and Them of it all prevails, while the arguments of 1971 and 1996 remain as pertinent today. 

Take the following by John  Leonard, director of the American Swimming Coaches Association: "We must judge organizations by what they do; what they accomplish, not by what they say, and not by personalities. Personalities change, constitutions and formal documents that structure organizations in certain ways do not.  I invited FINA President Larfaoui to our banquet, to present his side of the FINA view…he declined to answer. We are not even worth a phone call or letter. We are nothing in the eyes of FINA. The conclusion I reached after weeks of internal debate is quite simple. FINA is not going to reform itself. The perks, prestige and power to which I have referred are too seductive.  They arrogantly believe that 'they' are the keeper of the Olympic Torch. When in truth, it rests in the hearts and minds of all us coaches and all our athletes at the pool in the early pre-dawn hours, working our way to become Olympian in body and spirit." 

He went on to say: "FINA was founded by amateurs.  Coaches and other 'professionals' were strictly excluded. One hundred years later, we are still excluded. They don’t want to hear us. They don’t want to see us.  They don’t want our ideas.  They just want our labors. To sell TV time and tickets for entertainment.  They hide behind tinted glass in their hospitality suites and look down on the multitudes in the heat.  And they say 'We’re FINA, we run the sport'. We can’t even get them to appoint one coach and one athlete to the FINA Bureau, to have our voices heard." 

That was 1996 (so no argument based on 'give it time' is valid on this particular thorny subject) and just four nations, including the US and Britain, voted in favour of a place for coaches on the Bureau, Leonard's response: "There is a word for this condition, friends - and it is SLAVERY."

He called on FINA to "change or be replaced … It is time for swimming to be run by nations who know how to develop the sport." That argument from coaches prevails today and has gained support among many of the world's leading coaches. A vote taken by the World Swimming Coaches Association last autumn established the World Swimming Association. That body would serve as a shadow to FINA, complete with its own constitution, a document that would provide a direct compare-and-contrast agenda to that being pursued by FINA. 

A glance at the WSA Constitution leaves the reader in no doubt as to where schism screams.  If there is one way of describing the difference in approach FINA Vs WSA it is this: Participation Vs Excellence. That is not to say that there is not excellence in the realm of FINA, for there is, nor is it to say that WSA would cut out worldwide participation, for it would most certainly not do so and is committed to the widest possible membership within its ranks. Schism is to be found at the top of the tree: the international governing body is wedded not only to the principle of universality, the inclusion of the world in its sports, but to universality of governance, regardless of standard or knowledge; WSA is committed to having elite sport, in which the stars of the show are some of the very finest athletes on the planet, run by those who are the best at what they do and therefore more likely to understand the issues, the competitive environment, the needs of demands placed on athletes, among a raft of other significant issues.

Where geographical representation is concerned, FINA allows the whole world a say and is inclusive to any member federation regardless of the standard of swimming programme that member presides over. There is a gulf between the likes of the USA, Australia, the leading nations of Asia and European nations and the vast majority of FINA members in terms of position down the evolution chain, development, funding, knowledge, experience and results. When it comes to results, FINA likes to boast - quite rightly - of its key assets, the likes of Phelps, Kitajima, Steffen, Coughlin et al, as "our stars". The vast majority of those who fall into the term "our" have absolutely no impact on or connection to the result and how it came about. The situation leaves the wider swimming community asking such questions as "how come a guy from a nation with no proper pools to speak of, no swim programme and no swimmers beyond the token provided for and racing in the heats of the 50m free gets to have a say in critical commercial decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of athletes and their coaches?" 

WSA's take differs fundamentally to FINA's approach to the world map. What coaches want to see is a weighting in the decision-making process in favour of the best 15 nations in the race pool based on results at the Olympic Games and WSA Championships (the shadow of the FINA World Championships for the purpose of an exercise in showing not what is but what could be). Further, it wants the top table to consist of a 28-person board of members and directors, with athletes and coaches enjoying a 50-50 share of power with bureaucrats representing domestic federations. It makes sense and does not cut out the need for good administrators and folk from a broad walk of life with business experience and other skills to bring to the aquatic table. It would also ensure that the sport's key protagonists knew far more about how their sport was run and which direction it was heading in.

One of the problems inherent in the FINA structure is transparency. Whether obfuscation, reluctance and at times refusal to extend the debating circle to the wider membership of world swimming are at play or not, the fact is that information flows through slowly, if at all on occasion, and sometimes even when the worldwide swimming community is demanding answers. Take that 17 - 4 vote. We know of it, we know the feeling of the Bureau but what the wider membership is not made aware of and will never have access to unless the material reaches the public domain somehow is the substance of any argument: why did 17 members of the ruling body believe that coaches should be locked out? What were the arguments? Were they sound? Were they based on fear? Who led the 'No' vote and why? Ought they not to be challenged on their views? What possible logic is there in keeping coaches out of the loop for a single season longer?

The matter will be decided next month in Shanghai. If there is a thumbs down for coaches, serious challenge to FINA's authority is almost inevitable, according to leading figures on both sides of the divide. FINA President Dr Julio Maglione is keen to avoid such a battle and has been busy trying to persuade his colleagues on the Bureau that the time for change is nigh. Certainly, the issue will not go away, though no-one is in any doubt about the difficulties inherent in challenging FINA's status as leader of world swimming. 

As coach George Block, President, World Swimming Coaches Association, put it: "Fellow coaches, we have come to a place where we must decide if we should put great efforts into continuous, incremental change within FINA, or risk and achieve much more and Change the World.  This is a very difficult place for all of us.  Many of us are intimately involved within our own federations.  Most of us frequently coach athletes on the world stage.  Changing the World requires risking both these relationships.

"By their very nature, our federations must maintain close and positive relationships with FINA.  Actively opposing FINA will place our relationships inside our federations at risk.  By our very natures, we want to coach and compete on the largest stage.  Actively opposing those who run that stage will make us persona non grata on that stage.  When we have to resist the most, it may require asking our athletes or federations to sit out the very competitions by which we all define ourselves.  Although we are all willing to do that ourselves, none of us wants to ask that of our athletes, but it may come to that."

He goes on to suggest to members that by 2014, the WSA ought to be ready to host its own world championships, with big financial backing and broadcasters on board. "We must stop putting our food on their table, then begging them for scraps," he says of FINA. "Our labors put food on that table.  It is time that we Change the World and set our own table."

None of which would be necessary if FINA is true to its vision of worldwide swimming as a "family". Coaches are among the most important and knowledgeable people in that family - people tasked with finding, honing and working with the stars of the show more than any other branch of "the family".

To continue to shun coaches would leave FINA looking strong on paternalism in the most old-fashioned sense of the meaning. When the likes of Forbes Carlile, Shane Gould, Don Gambril, Mark Schubert, Jacco Verhaeren, Eddie Reese and many, many others have dared to criticise FINA and other official bodies, one of the common responses down the years has been "… but they have no platform, they are not FINA". If those on that list above have no platform then FINA can be likened to a blighted house. In comic terms, we can turn for comparison to that fabulous Pythonian moment when Mr Cleese asks "what did the Romans ever do for us?", before preceding to list the stunning legacy left by said Romans. Of course such greats of the world of swimming have a platform - and they always will have - and the media will always wish to listen to them. 

It is also now time for FINA to grant coaches a say - and a vote - at the top table as a precursor to a more professional era for a sport that ought to be run by those who know their realm inside out, either by virtue of being paid to make sure they know what's what in order to be at the very least competent directors or by virtue of working directly with athletes day in and day out, decade in and decade out. 

I was 28 and assigned to the business desk of The Times in London when a young boy called Lachlan Murdoch was placed on the desk next to mine as work experience. His father happened to own the company, News Corporation, and insisted on his offspring knowing what it was like to work on the core business if they were ever to make it to the boardroom themselves. Murdoch's top table includes journalists, while journalists are among the right-hand men and women who help run a multi-faceted, multi-platformed business that is built on a foundation of … journalism. Best then to know what that is all about. It works the same way in swimming. 

The work of coaches is part of the very foundation of the sport of swimming. Leave coaches out and the structure is all the weaker for it. A challenge it would certainly be for some if coaches are called to the top table (and it would be a challenge for coaches too, for with position comes greater responsibility and accountability) - yet FINA, that organisation which ought to be bigger than any of the guardians passing through at any point in history, has much to gain too.

There is no telling which way the wind will blow in Shanghai but if the international federation continues to grant little or no credence to the requests and demands of coaches, if the Bureau continues to keep coaches at arm's length, the place to put the smart money is clear: history and the hand of time will catch up with FINA just as it always has and change will come through struggle that may leave many a victim felled by the wayside along the way but will ultimately lead to a better day. 

There is a peaceful and more sensible way for FINA: cast out fear and welcome coaches to the top table. They not only have a right to be there but in 2011 and beyond have a right to have a significant voice and a significant vote in the sport that is not a passing phase in their lives but a lifetime, life-long professional career and commitment. 

The author dedicates the above article to Forbes Carlile, 90 today, and his outstanding contribution to the sport of swimming.