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Against the Tide

Elisha Chauhan travelled to Kazan to watch the biggest ever Fina World Championships, but in a time of cost-cutting and efficiency why is the aquatics showpiece growing in size?

Like a Russian doll, the Fina (International Aquatics Federation)’s World Championships contains layers upon layers. Although they are beautifully put together with all elegance of a synchronised swimming routine, they both are seemingly never-ending.

The Championships are a stepping stone onto the Olympic Games for the athletes, however, while the number of event disciplines and athletes at the worlds have been growing year-on-year, some IOC (International Olympic Committee) members are concerned they are swimming too far in the deep end with Fina, when it comes to the amount of aquatics events already in the Olympic programme.

Former IOC vice-president Dick Pound noted that synchronised swimming is one of the disciplines that could – or should – be cut from the Olympic fold when the IOC agreed in December 2014 to limit the Games’ athletes to 10,500 and events to 310 as part of its Agenda 2020 recommendations, as well as to make way for new sports.

Fina has certainly been adding to its programme with reckless abandon for the past few years

Fina responded by adding the mixed synchronised swimming, mixed synchronised diving and mixed relay swimming (both freestyle and medley) disciplines to its biennial World Championships held in Kazan, Russia, from July 24 to August 9. With the introduction of open water high diving at the 2013 Championships, there was a total of 75 gold medals up for grabs in the Tatarstan capital.

“More athletes than ever competed in Kazan, with around 1,200 athletes participating from 189 countries,” Fina executive director Cornel Marculescu told SportBusiness International

“Normally we only have about 1,000 swimmers, but participation in Kazan gives national federations the opportunity to submit many more athletes in the hope of qualifying for next year’s Rio Olympic Games. We don’t have a maximum number of athletes set for the World Championships, however we have an estimated 2,500 attendees [athletes and their staff] for which Fina provides all expenses.

“The addition of high diving has been very successful, and it attracted a lot of spectators. It’s a very attractive discipline, and we’re trying to provide as much as we can to the Olympic programme to increase visibility and participation for the sport.”

Counting Ducks

Despite the growing number of athletes, Fina president Julio Maglione told the press in Kazan that the IOC would be unreasonable if it blocked any new aquatics disciplines after its review of the Olympic programme as part of Agenda 2020, because the same number of athletes would just take part in more disciplines rather than adding to existing numbers.

However, Pound says that the IOC is weighing up the possibility of limiting the amount of disciplines that a single athlete can participate in at the Olympics, noting around three events per person, in order to avoid a repeat of Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals as the American swimmer did at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“Fina has certainly been adding to its programme with reckless abandon for the past few years,” he told SportBusiness International. “It’s now almost making up new events just to add more stuff to its tournaments. Events like mixed synchronised diving are just trick events, they’re not of any particular merit.

“Certainly what’s going to happen is the IOC sports division will be looking at all of the sports. For example, there’s also a lot of events in shooting. They will then go back to the international federations (IFs) with a quota for the number of athletes and events.

“Although it is unlikely there will be any major changes to the traditional sports in the Olympic programme, IFs may be limited in the number of athletes as well as how many events those athletes can compete in.”

Meanwhile, Marculescu acknowledged the IOC does not have an easy job of contending with 26 different sports, but said that Fina is only reinventing itself to stay relevant, like any other business.

“What Fina is doing today [adding new disciplines], is what should be done by IFs. Being part of the business of sport, you have to continually improve the sports programme – you have to become more competitive, as well as more attractive to spectators, the media and television,” he said.

Aquatics isn’t the only sport trying to stay afloat. Pound says with every new generation of athletes, new sports that come to light, while some traditional sports fall by wayside.

“It will be difficult to add any new disciplines to the summer Games, because the event is already so big. Even though we’ve changed the programme from sport to event-based, there’s barely enough space for new sports such as baseball, softball, squash or roller sports, let alone for new traditional sport disciplines,” he said.

“As we get into this new system [Agenda 2020], there’s going to be a lot of give and take, but sooner or later some sports are going to get dropped. Sports like race walking and hammer throw only have like 12 experts in the world, so you have to start asking yourself whether they are still universal sports and if they still belong in the Olympics.

“It’s up to Fina to run its own sport, and it is all very well growing its own World Championships, but there’s just not enough room on the Olympic programme for the additional events,” concluded Pound. “We can’t let the individual sports dictate what the Olympic programme should be.”

The Russian Doll

While Fina has to show the IOC it is still an attractive sports property, its executive director Cornel Marculescu said the only way to do that is to develop the sport’s own events, meaning the World Championships are likely to continue to grow.

All Fina can do to counter the growing event is to encourage future hosting bids to follow in the footsteps of Kazan 2015, which proved to be a watershed moment for the Championships with the first-ever temporary conversion of existing football stadium the Kazan Arena into an aquatics centre.

The stadium-within-a-stadium concept included a makeshift 50×26-metre swimming pool and two grandstands on what used to be a football pitch for Russian Premier League team Rubin Kazan. Another same-sized pool was temporarily fitted in a restricted area of the stadium for athlete training sessions, with installation undertaken at cut-price by Fina partner Myrtha Pools.

Permanent infrastructure – such as stadium entrances, the south and west grandstands and media rooms – complemented the demountable facilities, turning the 45,000-seat Kazan Arena into a more suitable 15,000-seat stadium for the Championships.

Meanwhile, a 35×22-metre temporary water polo arena was also erected in the parking lot of the Aquatics Palace with 3,650 seats. The total budget of the event was 3bn rubles ($59m).

“Kazan put together an unbelievable development – they brought the World Championships up to a whole other level. It was an excellent experience, and Fina is probably going to use that [stadium] model again in the future if the opportunity arises,” Marculescu told SportBusiness International.

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