1964 was a year I’ll never forget.
Donna de Varona (ATR)
It was then, at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, I reached the ultimate achievement as an elite athlete. Four years earlier, at the age of 13, I had been the youngest world record holder, competing in Rome.
I still remember how it felt. I realise that the world of swimming back in the 1960s was a lot smaller and less inclusive than it is today.
In the Tokyo 1964 Games, swimming medals were contested by 405 athletes from just 42 countries. The USA was dominant. In my 400m individual medley final, the USA swept all medals. While swimming was fiercely competitive at the highest level, the sport was just beginning to go global.
Fast forward nearly half a century to London 2012. The swimming programme featured 900 competitors from 166 countries; that’s four times the national representation we had in 1964 and an affirmation that this is now a sport for the world.
There are many reasons for that growth. Increasing prosperity in new parts of the world has made it possible for more facilities to be built and cultural shifts have also played a role.
Today, FINA, the international governing body for aquatic sports, has 208 national members, two more than the United Nations! The sport is flourishing by almost every measure.
As we look forward to the FINA World Championships in Kazan – where a record 188 nations have entered their best athletes - it is worth reflecting on the engine driving its popularity and growth. It has been achieved by a combination of steady, consistent management, a willingness to innovate, respond to the times and seize upon opportunities as they are identified.
At the centre of it all is swimming’s symbiotic relationship with the Olympic Games. FINA’s disciplines of diving, water polo, open water swimming and synchronised swimming naturally benefit from the global stage provided by the Olympic platform. In return, these events generate massive live and TV audiences for the Olympic Games. That contribution has been recognised by the IOC in elevating FINA’s events to first tier status alongside athletics and gymnastics for the purpose of revenue distribution after the Rio 2016 Games.
Nobody understands that relationship better than FINA President Julio Maglione, a long-standing IOC member who has proved an able insider and an advocate for FINA in an environment he understands better than most. His ability to navigate IOC policies and politics has helped protect and expand on FINA’s official Olympic programme.
Additionally, FINA’s support for IOC President Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 initiatives speaks to the federation’s commitment to adapt reform and embrace new ways of working.
Olympic exposure has always helped make stars of the most successful swimmers, encouraging others to follow in their wake. In 1972, swimming stole the Olympic spotlight when Mark Spitz captured seven Olympic gold medals and set as many world records during the Munich Games. It was a TV ratings bonanza. In the run up to those Games, the leaders of FINA had been quick to realise that quadrennial media exposure was not enough.
Consequently, swimming became one of the first federations to organise a world championship, with the inaugural event in Belgrade in 1973.
The result was that swimming not only created a new showcase for its top talent but a new set of media and marketing rights to generate much needed new revenue. Consequently the world championships have become a major global media property as evidenced by the results of a research study undertaken by Kantar Media which puts the worldwide cumulative TV audience for the last edition, hosted in Barcelona, at 4.5 billion, through six platforms; live, delayed, repeat, highlights, news and sport magazines.
Swimmers competing at FINA championships. (Getty Images)
FINA continues to find new ways to support its national federations and improve the value and image of aquatics globally. Revenue from its events and marketing programmes are reinvested in global development initiatives across all disciplines in many regions of the world. FINA conducts clinics for its coaches and officials and this year introduced a scholarship programme for talented and emerging young swimmers. FINA’s “Swimming for All, Swimming for Life” programme encourages children to adopt healthier lifestyles in an effort to reduce the huge number of causalities every year caused by drowning around the world.
FINA has also set new standards of presentation during competitions, making it more attractive for venue spectators and for TV viewers worldwide. Innovation has taken world class swimming into new, non-traditional venues. Temporary pools have been installed on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach, Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis (home of the Indiana Pacers) and the iconic Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. The Luzhniki stadium in Kazan, set to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup final, will host this year’s World Championships in July.
Swimming continues to evolve in other ways. The explosion of interest in open water events has made the sport attractive to a new generation of participants. In hosting the FINA World Masters Championships, in conjunction with this year’s World Championships in Kazan, FINA embraces all those who are eager to find a competitive opportunity in the sport they love. Additionally, in sanctioning professional events, FINA offers equal prizes to male and female competitors.
However, the sport doesn’t exist in isolation from the negative issues which have come to plague so many other federations. As one who has been active for decades in the fight against the use of performance enhancing substances, I believe doping must be eliminated from all sport on all levels including Masters events.
Over the years, FINA has proved determined to support its clean athletes by taking whatever action is required to level the playing field. In addition to supporting the World Anti-Doping Agency in every respect, FINA conducted 1,667 doping samples in 2014, of which 894 were unannounced out of competition tests while 773 were conducted in competition.
Reflecting on the progress of my sport down the decades through the lens not just of a swimmer but a broadcaster, business person and administrator, I can’t help thinking that experience, consistency and continuity will be critical to FINA’s future health. There is no question that there are still issues which must be addressed. They must be dealt with quickly and resolutely by those who have the power and experience to protect the athletes who are the heart and soul of FINA.
After all, when Juan Antonio Samaranch became President of the IOC in 1980, the Olympic Movement was in crisis. Facing daunting challenges, which included three back-to-back Olympic boycotts, lack of sponsor support, doping and vote-buying scandals, Samaranch staunchly led the IOC from the brink of disaster to become custodians of one of the world’s best loved and most valuable media properties. He learned as he led, adapted and adopted as necessary, using his experience to get the job done.
There were those who wanted him to step down during the difficult years. When he finally handed over the leadership to Jacques Rogge, Samaranch was 81. His 20 years of leadership had made him an “overnight success”. Maybe there is a lesson there.
Written by Donna de Varona.
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