Nothing To Lose But Your Chains

For several years various world swimming organizations have been pressing FINA to reform its governing practices. The leading voice of the reform movement has been Craig Lord through his website Their cause is a good one. In industrial terms many FINA practices reflect the same thinking that once had children working in coal mines and made trade union membership illegal.

Twenty two years ago Craig Lord first wrote about the need for reform in the sport of swimming in a story about the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Here is what he said.

“In 1973, Nikola Pilic, the best Yugoslavian tennis player of his time, was banned by his federation because instead of playing for the national team for free, he participated in a Canadian prize money competition. When the organizers of Wimbledon told Pilic that because of his sanction he couldn’t compete, he was furious.

Tennis was on its rise at this time: businessmen, agents, and broadcasters were all waiting to come in for their cut of the big money that the players could make with their performances. The athletes knew that they had to be prepared for this change, so a year earlier they established ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals). Pilic told the president of the players association about his ban, who then convinced almost all of the 50 top tennis players to sign a petition which said, If he won’t play, we won’t either.”

“The international federation, the media and the public laughed at the athletes for their weak attempt unify and everyone was sure that when the biggest tournament was about to start the athletes will change their mind. On the day of the draw, out of all the biggest stars, there was only one English and four East-European players set to compete. (The English player was there for patriotic reasons and the other four players because of their communist country’s pressure.) The other 81 players left united. And what was the result? The most awkward sporting event of all time, where the 300,000 fans could watch amateur third class players compete. It became clear, even the biggest, most prestigious event is worthless without the best athletes.”

I have stayed away from commenting on the need for reform at FINA. I don’t know enough about what goes on in the halls of power in Switzerland. I also know that Craig Lord is leading a cause that is not going to benefit by having me wade into a subject of which I know very little. Having said that, and without reservation, Craig Lord and the others involved in trying to provide world swimming with a more responsive, athlete centered form of government have my full support.

When it comes to reform I have focused instead on domestic, New Zealand issues. To a very large extent the problems associated with the governance of swimming in New Zealand reflect what is happening at the top. Swimming New Zealand is a miniature FINA. Many of the old fashioned, unprofessional practices that characterize the worst of “amateur” sport continue unchecked in New Zealand swimming. Most of what Craig Lord objects to on a global stage he would recognize and tear his hair out over in New Zealand’s very much smaller arena.

But the key quality that separates professional sport from the way FINA and Swimming New Zealand are managed is the concept of “athlete centered”. Professional sports recognize and respect the importance of their players. In my opinion Steve Johns and Bruce Cotterill respect only themselves. Let me give you an example. The American National Basketball League has to give more than half of the yearly Basketball Related Income to the athletes; exactly 51% goes to the athletes as salary. Craig Lord and others have highlighted the fact that swimmers receive less than 5% of FINA’s cash pile in prize money each year while professional sports spend more than half of their money on athletes – and not themselves.

I wonder what Swimming New Zealand spends on athlete wages. Is it closer to the NBA’s 51% or FINA’s 5%? Well here is a table that provides you with the answer.

2017 2016
Business Swimmer Business Swimmer
Accountancy Fees 561 0 1310 0
Administration 548751 0 574442 0
Audit Fees 13,225 13225 0 15075 0
Consultation / Communication / Marketing 22017 0 27302 0
Depreciation 50720 0 48262 0
Events 709554 0 626591 0
Education 589133 0 569071 0
Governance 22746 0 23258 0
High Performance Athlete / Coach Support 215126 215126 219246 219246
High Performance International Team 483672 0 656587 0
High Performance Programmes / Other 380502 0 585694 0
Legal Expenses 2400 0 33428 0
Loss on Disposal of Fixed Assets 11079 0 5030 0
Awards Function 27180 0 24356 0
Motor Vehicle Lease 24197 0 30983 0
PEGS / PM Scholarship Expenses 0 128148 0 124430
Rent Expense 73609 0 80316 0
Rewards Incentive Scheme 0 0 0 8000
Total Expenses  3174472 343274 3520951 351676
Percentages 90.3 9.7 90.9 9.1

What I have done is take each Swimming New Zealand expense item for 2017 and 2016 and allocate the cost to either the business or to the athlete. Money to the athlete does not include money spent on the athlete. Money to the athlete means actual cash in their hands. Money they can go into town with and buy a car or a pizza. As you can see I have assumed that half of the category called “High Performance Athlete / Coach Support” will be money paid directly to the athlete. I also have little doubt that this is being far too generous on Johns and Cotterill. I don’t think for a second New Zealand’s swimmers were paid $343,274 last year. But let’s be generous – let’s assume that is the figure.

If it is, it means that Swimming New Zealand is paying 9% of its expenses to the athlete; better than the FINA 5% but is still a million miles away from the NBA 51%. The figures tell the story. Swimming New Zealand is 91% about Steve Johns and Bruce Cotterill and 9% about Hunter and Boyle and Mains.

Or to make the same selfishness point another way – according to Swimming New Zealand all 5,660 competitive swimmers in New Zealand deserved to receive a total of $343,274. Just look how remarkably similar that amount is to the sum that was paid to just two employees at Antares Place, $311,000.

Now try and tell me that the organisation cares as much about the swimmers as it does about itself.

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