50-year old swimmer Siphiwe Baleka will leave Tokyo without swimming after the Court of Arbitration for Sport denied his appeal of FINA’s decision of disallowing him a Universality spot.
According to a press release by Baleka’s representatives, a CAS arbitrator denied his appeal, though they say “provided no rationale for the denial.”
The CAS has not yet published its decision.
While the original reason for FINA’s denial involved differing interpretations of the Universality deadline, another problem emerged throughout the proceedings: the residency requirement.
FINA rules require athletes who are establishing Sporting Citizenship to produce one of three documents:
- Birth certificate of the competitor…in the Sport Country;
- Proof of current residency for at least 12 months in the Sport Country; or
- A birth certificate of the mother, father, grandmother or grandfather of the Competitor…in the Sport Country.
The press release about Baleka’s case states that the residency requirement is “unpublished,” though the rules are addressed in FINA General Rules GR 2.5 and GR 2.6.1. In essence, Baleka would have had to “live and sleep” in Guinea-Bissau for 6 months of the prior year to establish residency there. Athletes also need certified registration of an address in the new country for at least 12 months prior to the first representation of the competitor…for the new country.
Baleka was born in the United States, and discovered his Guinea Bissau heritage through DNA testing. Because neither his parents nor grandparents were born in the country, he would have had to meet the residency requirement in order to gain Sporting Citizenship in the country.
FINA ultimately pivoted their argument to the more clear-cut residency, which Baleka acknowledges he does not meet, though his statements continue to focus on the Universality deadline.
He is currently sequestered in the Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Japan, awaiting the results of a negative COVID-19 test to return to Guinea-Bissau, where he currently lives. He is expected to return home on Friday, but has been unable to leave the airport since his arrival on July 25.
This appears to end Baleka’s quest to race at the Tokyo Olympic Games. In spite of his Olympic dream not coming true, Baleka states “I hope that my experience will start a movement of Black Americans competing on behalf of their ancestral homelands.”
Baleka, attempting to become the oldest Olympic swimmer in history at 50 years old, is disputing FINA’s interpretation of the deadline for Universality swimmers to achieve qualifying swims. After tracing his heritage to Guinea-Bissau, he received citizenship there and was attempting to become the country’s first-ever Olympic swimmer.
Under FINA selection rules, the deadline for federations to submit paperwork for Universality athletes was on June 20, 2021. That date is a week ahead of the deadline listed by FINA for athletes to achieve “Olympic qualifying swims,” which is June 27.
Baleka had originally based his universality application (submitted on June 17) on a time he swam at the 2019 International Masters Championships in Egypt, where he swam 25.25.
But FINA informed Baleka that the 2019 Egypt meet had not been a FINA-approved Olympic qualifying event. Baleka scrambled to find a new FINA-approved Olympic qualifying meet in which to compete before the June 27 deadline, eventually competing in the Egypt Swimming National Championships on June 26.
FINA’s position is that universality qualifying has a different qualifying period than A/B cut qualifying, implied by the June 20 submission deadline. Baleka’s camp maintains that FINA rules don’t specifically list different qualifying periods for universality and A/B cut swimmers, and that his June 26 swim should still qualify him because his application was submitted on-time and his swim (though after the submission deadline) still came before the qualifying period ended.