Exclusive: Paolo Barelli Explains His Vision for FINA and the Future

Paolo Barelli wants to be the next President of FINA, and he’s not been shy about expressing his discontent with the organization.  Earlier this week Mr. Barelli spoke with SwimSwam about why he believes FINA needs new leadership, and what he plans to bring to the international organization that presides over the world of aquatic sports.

For those who haven’t heard of Paolo Barelli, here are the cliffnotes: Barelli was born and raised in Italy.  As a swimmer, Barelli achieved international success by representing Italy at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, and again at the 1976 Games in Montreal, Canada.  At the 1975 World Aquatics Championships in Cali, Colombia, Barelli won a bronze medal as a member of Italy’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay.  Shortly after Barelli hung up the goggles, he became a board member of the Italian Swimming Federation.  By 1987 Barelli was Vice President of the Italian Swimming Federation, and by 2000 he had risen to President of Italian Swimming.

Last last  year, Barelli was re-elected as President of the Italian Swimming Federation, and has also served as the President of LEN (Ligue Européenne de Natation) since 2012.  In 2016 Barelli was re-elected as President of LEN for another four-year term.  In addition to his involvement in Italian and European swimming, Barelli has served on the FINA Bureau as Honorary Secretary since 2009.

In 2009 Julio C. Maglione of Uruguay was also elected to serve his first term as President of FINA.  The election took place during the XIII FINA World Championships, remembered for the polyurethane suits that enabled swimmers to break world records in almost every event.  At the time, Maglione said he would only serve one term as President of FINA; now, Maglione wants to serve a third.

Having struck down an age limit he helped ratify in 2011, the 81-year-old Maglione, if re-elected, could preside over FINA for a total of 12 years and until he is 86-years-old.  Barelli, meanwhile, has stated that if he is elected he would re-instate the 80-year-age-limit for members of the FINA Bureau, as well as the two-term limit for the President of FINA.

In regards to whether he would serve just one term if elected this July, or whether he would run for a second term in 2021, Mr. Barelli said:

“Time is running fast [and] the problems are bigger and bigger.  Maglione is a good man coming from the past. FINA needs ‘new life.’  I think that two terms for FINA Presidency is correct and enough but we have to fix it in the FINA constitution and once decided it should not be changed at one’s liking.  That doesn’t mean that I want to stay for more than one term; anyway, I think that two terms are enough.”

“Julio Maglione is about 30 years inside of FINA in the top level–before as Treasurer, now as President–and I think it is time to change and present stronger and broader leadership. FINA has to involve in its decision processes also the key protagonists of aquatics, as coaches and athletes, just to be sure to operate in full cooperation and transparency so to avoid any possible misunderstanding and scandal, because we are very near scandal.”

‘Scandal’ and ‘FINA’ are two words that find themselves in the same sentences far too often, something Barelli hopes to change. Recently, FINA First Vice President Husain Al-Musallam, also a high-ranking official on the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), was seemingly identified as “co-conspirator #3” in an indictment by a United States Department of Justice investigation into corruption in FIFA, the world governing body of soccer.  Al-Musallam is also from Kuwait, a country that is currently suspended by the IOC.

One way in which Barelli would like to cleanse FINA of scandal is by changing the constitution so that members of suspended Olympic Committees cannot run for seats on the FINA Bureau.  This is also a step towards improved transparency, Barelli claims.

“Husain Al-Musallam is FINA First Vice President representing Kuwait. However, Kuwait’s swimming federation is a suspended member of FINA and the Olympic Committee of Kuwait is also suspended by IOC.”

“So, how is it possible he can be candidate in the next FINA election in Budapest?  The Constitution is very clear in this respect. This means that [members] inside FINA don’t want to interpret the constitution correctly.  This is not good governance.”

Transparency, for Barelli, is simple: don’t allow individuals with conflicts of interest to serve on the FINA Bureau; and let the public know why a decision was made and what factors were considered when coming to a conclusion.

“You cannot have a role inside of FINA and at the same time hold a professional role with a commercial partner of FINA. This is very, very, very clear.  And FINA has many positions at this moment that can create a threat,” claims Barelli. But even if FINA were to “clean house” and remove all members of the Bureau with demonstrated conflicts of interest, those individuals would eventually have to be replaced.  Of the 24 members of the FINA Bureau, only one member is from the United States, which is not enough leadership from the world’s foremost swimming superpower, in Barelli’s opinion.

If FINA is to thrive in the future, Barelli believes that the organization needs to broaden its horizons and relinquish some of the money it has saved up back to the national federations of countries with developing aquatics programs.

“FINA thanks to the works of the national federations–and particularly the leading ones–has grown tremendously, also financially.  FINA, now needs to share and distribute this wealth in two ways: 1. to the developing countries because we need aquatic development in every area of the world; 2. to the leading federation because they are the “engine” driving the success of FINA.”

“FINA is not a financial institution and has to return wealth to the national federations via assistance and services, without ‘throwing it from the window,'” says Barelli.  But investing FINA’s substantial profits in developing nations’ aquatics federations is only one step towards a more holistic FINA.  Barelli also believes the United States and other swimming superpowers should take on larger roles in FINA.

“I think that US Swimming must have a big role in helping to drive and lead FINA.  I think the US needs to come forward more proactively and must play a leadership role within FINA involving their most respected people and taking responsibility; I think it’s time to promote significant changes.”

The United States and Kuwait, home of First Vice President Husain Al-Musallam, each have one representative on the FINA Bureau, despite their vastly different impacts on world swimming.  To compare: Kuwait sent two swimmer to the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games per a Universality invitation, whereas the United States sent 47. Furthermore, Faye Sultan and Abbas Qali, Kuwait’s only Olympic swimmers, were not allowed to represent their country, and instead competed under the Olympic flag as independent athletes alongside members of the Refugee Olympic Team (though not as members of the refugee squad).

Kuwait’s punishment by FINA and the IOC is largely symbolic, as it aims to castigate the officials and rule-makers that have created the muddled waters between the Kuwaiti government and its sporting bodies.  Kuwait’s athletes, though still affected by the punitive measures, have not been wholly shut out of international competition, as Sultan’s case demonstrates.  Russia, on the other hand, represents a problem much more insidious and threatening to the integrity of sports, yet some Russian athletes—swimmers in particular–were still allowed to compete in Rio under their own country’s flag.

The state-sponsored doping scandal in Russia is well-documented and doesn’t need to be revisited here, save for the allegations that the scandal potentially involves Russian government officials.  While the McLaren Report was not published until 2016, it was nonetheless odd when FINA awarded Russian President Vladimir Putin with the FINA Order in 2015, an award that  “is granted to Heads of States or individuals of high dignity, who have achieved remarkable merit in the world of Aquatics.”

Regarding FINA’s decision to give President Putin the award, Mr. Barelli said the following:

“I want to underline that the war against doping and any form of change to the principles of fair and correct behavior has to be the first big effort of FINA and any International Federation.”

“My point of view regarding Russia, based on the known facts,  is clear: something negative happened.”

“In this regard just as we need to condemn the guilty, we need to protect the clean ones, in Russia or anywhere in the world.”

“I think that the time when Maglione met with the President of Russia generated a misunderstanding about the position of FINA on the doping cases.  Maglione should have understood this and he could have chosen a more appropriate moment.”

Barelli’s hard-line stance on scandal is not without turpitude of its own.  In 2014 Barelli came under fire when he was caught up in fraud allegations stretching back to the 2009 FINA World Championships which took place in Rome under the watch of Barelli, then-President of the Italian Swimming Federation.  Barelli, who maintained his innocence, offered to resign as President of Italian Swimming if he were found guilty of the misuse of nearly $1 million that was intended to be used for improvements to the 2009 world championships.  Ultimately, nothing came of the allegations against Barelli.

At present, only Barelli and Maglione are running for the FINA Presidency.  Maglione is only eligible to run again–now for his third term–because of amendments to the FINA constitution he helped push through in 2015.  In 2015, Maglione, due to his age, was facing abdication from office per rules he himself championed in 2011 that set the 80-year age limit for the FINA President, as well as a two-term maximum limit for the individual elected to the office. Barelli, if elected, has said he will reinstate the 80-year age limit for the organization’s president.

FINA will vote on July 22nd at the FINA Congress in Budapest, Hungary, the day before the swimming portion of the 2017 FINA World Championships begins, and decide who will become the organization’s President for the 2017-2021 term.

Revision: An earlier edition of this article stated that the FINA Bureau contained 36 members; it has been amended to state that the FINA Bureau contains 24 members.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article said that Barelli resigned earlier this year. He has not.

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About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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