With the FINA Congress soon approaching where important water polo-related decisions will be taken, I thought it would be useful for the water polo community to take a minute and look at the big picture in order to understand what is at stake. Maybe this modest contribution will help define new strategies for the future of water polo.
First let me issue a few notes to the reader. First, my comments are my own and I don’t represent any groups or National Federation even though I was President of Water Polo Canada from 2005 to 2013. Every time I’m writing about FINA, one should understand FINA lead water polo, be it the Bureau, the management or TWPC. Lastly, English is my second language and I thank the reader in advance for his understanding and patience.
After looking into the various comments made by coaches and water polo aficionados, but, alas, no official positions by FINA members (except LEN’s which is not an official position) I realize that the issue at hand is a symptom of a deeper problem. Basically, is FINA equipped to efficiently govern, promote and think about the sport of water polo? My position is “not in its present form” but there is help out there. Ultimately, FINA needs to review how it conducts business, find its agent of change, shed its culture of inertia, open up cooperation and most of all listen to its members.
I came to that conclusion by looking at how the issue of gender equity has been dealt with by FINA. Gender equity (GE) is at the center of all the discussion going around in the water polo world even though what is talked about is the 11-player roster team. It’s a consequence of GE. Not the other way around like world-renowned coaches would tend to let us believe. Note that only men’s team coaches expressed their opinion on the matter.
Let me be crystal clear, from day 1 of my presidency at Water Polo Canada almost 10 years ago, I’ve lobbied our Canadian IOC representatives about gender equity. Our plan was to have 11 players per women’s team and then work our way up to 13. There was a vested interest, the women Canadian water polo team will be one of the team benefiting from the increase of women teams at the Olympics, as a handful of other countries. But the greatest gain will be for all girls playing water polo worldwide. Let’s not forget the battles women football and ice hockey had to fight in the past. This is the issue at heart. How important is gender equity for the water polo community.
Gender equity comes at a cost. IOC, under Agenda 2020, agreed at the condition of reducing team rosters for both men and women at 11 players. This is where everything went awry. First, IOC, by imposing this condition before the FINA Congress, undercuts FINA members’ authority in establishing the rules of the game, making FINA look like a follower, a servant to IOC. Furthermore, in announcing the 11-team roster at the same time as new sports and events inclusion at OG, one could think FINA traded off water polo for new swimming medals and other sports like FIBA’s 3×3. The second FINA misstep was to seize the moment to try to overhaul water polo to make it more dynamic and spectacular, problems that are plaguing our sport for years now.
One has to realize the seriousness of the matter at hand. IOC’s proposal Is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I doubt IOC would reconsider its position, too many sports/events want in. A negative vote on gender equity could have catastrophic implications. Even if Thomas Bach said that all sports in the Rio 2016 program will be present in 2014, I would not be counting on it if FINA goes against IOC’s wishes. To be blunt, we may be witnessing the future presence or not of water polo at the Olympics. But again, this is only my opinion. It stresses even more FINA’s inability to communicate and plan water polo’s future.
FINA’s intentions are good, but the process is all wrong making all proposals dubious, ie no data, no position paper, no consultation and so on. The fact that LEN voted against the rule changes proposal speaks volume to me. Look at the technical committee members of both LEN and FINA. Both are chaired by the same individual, and others are members of both committees also. How can one defend both opposite positions? There is a huge credibility issue. Again, where’s the leadership?
Now, let’s suppose the proposed rule changes are adopted in Budapest. Then what? What is the plan to develop water polo around those new rules? There is some sort of magical thinking at play. A bit like the “If you build it, they will come” in the Field of Dreams movie. There is no second chance here. It needs to be done right. So how we should go about it?
The world of sport is changing at such a pace that organizations have difficulty adjusting to it. Be it technological, societal, generational or organizational, all of them generate their own and compounded challenges. FINA is no different. Where international federations (IFs) differ is how they deal with them. The comparison game with other IFs is easy and sometimes unfair, but necessary in this case. Let’s look at how one organization deals with changes.
No matter how planetary a sport like football (soccer for us North Americans) can be, status quo is not an option. That’s why IFAB’s Play Fair initiative is so interesting. IFAB stands for International Football Association Board and is the body that determines the laws of the game of football. I won’t go into details about the inner workings of IFAB-FIFA relationship. Play Fair is a bold endeavour where all the rules are looked at. To do so, a dedicated website went live recently, www.play-fait.com, where rule change proposals are explained. A link to a downloadable pdf document is also active. As an example of what IFAB is looking at, duration time. Why not a 60 minutes game instead of 90? Data showed that at least 15 minutes per game were unproductive, ie no structural attack.
IFAB’s case is the perfect example of what FINA should have done its proposed water polo rule changes. IFAB has a clear objective and purpose in pursuing this endeavour, data to build upon, a published process to go about it, a defined timeline. I could go on and on but the point is made. As an observer of world sports, I can assure you almost all IFs are asking themselves the same question. And it comes from the top.
Ask IAAF’s President Lord Sebastian Coe. OK, I’ll admit, athletics has its load of problems, but nonetheless it is asking the right questions. Read the interview Coe gave to The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/jun/13/sebastian-coe-athletics-sport-usain-bolt. Let me quote Coe: “I won the English Schools title 44 years ago and the format hasn’t changed. I’m pretty much watching the same format over the same period of time. I can’t think of any sport that’s remained inviolate to change for that amount of time.” Or “We have to be more innovative, we have to be braver and more creative in formats. The first thing I said when I became president was that we have to think differently.”
Those two quotes say it all and beg the following question: who at FINA thinks about water polo, who strategizes? It’s not TWPC. As an aside, try finding a team sport international federation managing its sport development, rules, tournament, referee formation and evaluation and so on with only one committee. There is none. There is a lot of knowledge out there, it is not shared. This is in part an issue. Just take a look at volley ball’s IFBV. And I’m not even touching the communication including social media and marketing of the game. FINA is not best in class, far from it. I’ll say it bluntly, water polo is a sport with no leadership, no guidance. Enough said; I guess everybody gets the point.
Now, back to the issues at hand. The first question a FINA member has to ask is “what is the best for water polo, gender equity at Olympics or a 13-player roster”? Again, this is the issue. Then, if it’s gender equity, we’ll have to deal with the 11-roster thing. I would stop there. All other rule change proposals were either tried and dropped in the past or are totally new. To deal with them, either with a 13 or 11 roster, and draw a solid plan for water polo, I’d call a 3-day workshop in the fall animated by a neutral and experienced moderator to guide us through the process. At the end of the day, it means FINA has to become customer centric and listen to the players, coaches, experts, sponsors and media.
There is so much more to be said but it goes beyond the scope of this letter. I welcome comments from FINA and others so please share this letter as much as one can. Let’s start the dialogue and build the consensus on the future of water polo.