Wednesday, July 24th, 2014, marked exactly 365 days (one year, in the Gregorian calendar) until the beginning of the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, and in honor of that ceremonial date, local officials unveiled a huge new art installment in the square near the Kazan Family Centre.
In the form of a gigantic newspaper outlining the World Championships, the art is made of a composite panel coated with digital printing film and protective laminate.
But on the day after the mayor christened the new installation, FINA made a bold move and cancelled the Junior Open Water World Championships that were scheduled to run in Eilat, Israel.
FINA wisely steered clear of any political implications in the generations-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a conflict where neither side has to push much to convince their supporters of their righteousness, and where those on the outside are saddened for the losses of innocent lives on either side of the border and hope that a peaceful end is within sight.
Instead, FINA focused on the security of athletes, and apparently decided that whatever the risks might be, whatever the efforts might have been by people like Michael Bloomberg and others to convince the rest of the world that is still safe to travel to and from Israel, FINA wasn’t prepared to step into the situation with the lives of their junior athletes.
While the political climates are very different, and the conflicts leading to the violence are very different, it’s hard to not be able to look past the Junior Open Water World Championships, which pale in economic scale and disruption to the World Championships in Kazan.
The Russian-Ukrainian-Ukrainian separatists conflicts has a much different feel than the one between Israel and Palestine. In the Ukraine, it’s not quite as clear who’s fighting who, and there’s so much murkiness in the relationships and who is on which side. The direct concerns to safety in Kazan are no more significant now than they were when Kazan hosted the 2013 World University Games without any major issue. Kazan is about 1600 kilometers by road from Donetsk – not much closer than somewhere like Berlin, Germany.
And what’s more, nobody seems to be sure exactly where Russia has their hands in the fray. Depending on what part of the world you’re in will determine whether Russia’s prints will be left upon the missile that downed the Malaysian Airlines flight earlier this week. According to Forbes, the U.S. Pentagon now says that Russia is firing artillery directly into the Ukraine. And then there’s the question as to whether Russia is justified in doing whatever it may or may not be doing.
All of those things are very important topics for conversation, and everyone on the SwimSwam staff certainly has a decently-informed personal opinion about all of those questions. Those conversations, however, are well outside of our scope at present, and the good news is that those opinions almost don’t matter for the wet side of this conversation.
When FINA announced it was moving the Junior Open Water World Championships, they made it clear that not only safety, but individual federations’ stated concerns over safety were the driving factor behind the move. And again, with a diverse worldwide landscape, the door is cracked ever so slightly for questions about whether FINA should be considering moving the 2015 World Championships.
There wouldn’t be a shroud of safety to hide behind, at least not as clear-cut of a shroud as there is in Israel. There will be political charge to a decision to move from Russia. Memories are invoked, inevitably, of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic boycotts. Those were dark moments in the history of sport, and most around the world agree that those were decisions that nobody wanted to see repeated anytime soon. The question, though, is which decision do they not want to see repeated?
If we’re trying to avoid history repeating itself, does that mean that we’re trying to avoid repeating the history of large-scale boycotts causing a significant watering down of competition? Or that we’re trying to avoid the decision to host high profile sporting events in countries that are mired in such complex political situations that significant numbers of countries are forced to consider using sport as a political statement?
The World Championships are a big event in swimming, but they’re not big in the sense that the Olympics are, where moving them a year out would be a monumental effort.
The climate in Russia and the information available will almost certainly change drastically in the next 364 days. Afterall, it’s only been 247 days since former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich announced that he had ended trade negotiations with the EU to position the country closer to Moscow, thus setting off the chain of politics leading to the increasing body count in the region.
However, based on the way things sit now, if FINA decide to leave the World Championships in Kazan, they’ve made a political decision. The ‘sweet spot’ of those World Championships in terms of scale leaves FINA in a very challenging situation, because they’re small enough to move, but big enough that it matters to move them. If they move the World Championships from Kazan, they’ve made a political decision by saying that they don’t believe whatever Russia is doing in the Ukraine is severe enough to warrant moving the event. If they move the event, they’ve said that they’re siding with the countries that will inevitably be pressuring the governing body behind closed doors.
But then let’s take it a step further and recede into our own little bubble that is the aquatics sports world. As alluded to, we believe that there will be some governing bodies pressuring FINA to make a drastic step. In some cases, that will be of their own volition, and in other cases, it will be due to either the actual or perceived urging of their government (which is a big no-no by the IOC’s rules). Within the sport, FINA is going to have to decide where there’s the most political capital to be conserved. In the situation of Israel, the decision was probably not as challenging. Russia, however, is a major player. They win World Championships, they host major meets, a Russian bank is the new title sponsor of the FINA World Cup Series. On the other hand, in the last 24 months, Russia has had a major doping issue within their swimming program, does that erode political capital?
The matter could come down to who is on the other side of the coin, and how severe the threats are. If the U.S. and Australia both threaten to pull out of a Kazan World Championships, is that enough to outweigh the damaging of FINA’s relationship with Russia? What if the world’s Masters’ swimmers launch an informal boycott? There’s significantly less financial risk for Masters’ athletes for skipping this sort of a meet, and here in the United States they seem to be much more apt to do so. With 2015 expected to be the first opportunity for Masters Worlds to come immediately on the back of regular Worlds, is FINA willing to take that mark?
Consider these questions not an advocacy; rather consider them a portrait. It’s easy enough to say that politics and sport should be kept wholly separate, but the fact is that other than war and oil, few things have as much force for social and political change as sport does. We’re all comfortable embracing that when we send soccer balls to Africa with hopes that sport will give young females the confidence to fight for equal rights; and we embrace it when we celebrate the World Military Games and their reminder that the world’s soldiers are more than just casualty reports on a news ticker.
So we can’t ignore that whether we like it or not, politics and sports are intertwined. They are matched, they are inextricably twisted, and they put federations in sometimes difficult situations. The status quo is the easy answer – leave the championships in Russia and hide from any admission of awareness of the broader issues in the world. The 1940 Olympics, scheduled for Tokyo, were cancelled, but that’s not the missed medals that everyone talks about. There is always conflict in the world, but at some point scales tip, and it has so few opportunities to do so that the world’s mood is still calibrating. The 1980 and 1984 boycotts were a stain, but the 1940 cancellation was simply the only logical thing to do. When does that teeter, totter? In the next 364 days, FINA will find itself in the unfortunate position of having to make the next move in this centuries-old headache.