What will FINA do next?

"I like breaking my own national championship records. Every time you enter the pool and clock your best time, It feels good," says Sandeep sejwal.-MANOB CHOWDHURY

The alteration of the qualifying norms for 2012 London saw four Indian swimmers miss the Olympics. Now with the World Championship coming up in Barcelona next year, will the world body ring in changes once again and thereby upset the chances of the Indian swimmers? By Nandakumar Marar.

The ripple effect of the FINA (international governing body of swimming) decision that excluded top Indian swimmers from the 2012 Olympic Games will be felt for a long time. Virdhawal Khade and Sandeep Sejwal, two of the four Indian swimmers (Aaron D’Souza and Saurabh Sangvekar were the others), denied the opportunity to compete in London despite making the ‘B’ qualification norm, have, however, decided to move on. Overcoming the disappointment of missing the 2012 Games for reasons beyond their control, both competed in the 66th Enerzal National Aquatic Championships in Balewadi (Pune), the first major national event post-Olympics.

Virdhawal and Sandeep along with coach Nihar Ameen were at the Olympic Training Centre in Frankfurt, Germany, preparing for London 2012 when the news of the FINA shortlist of only 900 competitors eligible to take part in the Olympics broke.

Both Virdhawal and Sandeep had achieved the Olympic Selection Time (OST) in freestyle (100m) and breaststroke (100 and 200) events respectively and were in Frankfurt for the final phase of their training, funded by the Sports Ministry under the OPEX- London 2012 programme.

Coach Ameen explained: “Frankfurt’s climate is similar to London. Many foreign swimmers were also based there like us to get acclimatised. We had planned this a year in advance. Virdhawal had even won an event in Damstadt (Germany).”

It was an embarrassing situation for the two swimmers. “Having seen us perform in local meets there and win medals, it was really a huge shock for people there to know neither of us would be in London,” said Virdhawal.

“We did know the qualifying norms were different this time, but from what we understood each nation’s fastest swimmer, with the most number of FINA points, was supposed to go to the Olympics. One male and one female were eligible, and if no female swimmer was up to the mark, two male participants would be allowed to go. As the two fastest Indians, we were certain to go.”

FINA reportedly altered the qualifying norms for 2012 London and it is learnt that the national associations were aware of it. However, the logic of finalising a shortlist of 900 competitors was a surprise.

India’s National coach Pradeep Kumar analysed the reason behind FINA’s thinking that led to the exclusion of four Indian swimmers with ‘B’ qualifying times from the list of participants for the 2012 Games. “FINA changed the criteria for London. Earlier, internationals credited with ‘B’ time were sure of taking part. This time, after the ‘A’ grade qualifiers and those under Universality quota (nations without any swimmers getting direct qualification), the world body included relay teams before looking at ‘B’ grade qualifiers,” he clarified.

“It was as if the swimmers qualifying with ‘B’ timing had committed some big mistake, since the Universality quota was ruled out for them. India had one swimmer (Gagan A. P. in the 1500m freestyle under Universality) while nations like Nepal and Pakistan, whose swimmers were not good enough to gain Olympic ‘B’ timings, could take part as long as they fulfilled the basic criteria of the 2011 WC participation.”

Was this FINA’s way of sending a message to India about declining standards? Did the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) get confused about the selection process?

“I don’t want to get into pointing fingers. If the world body wanted to restrict entries to 900, then a reasonable way was to include ‘A’ and ‘B’ qualifiers, then fill the remaining places under the Universality rule,” said Ameen.

For Virdhawal and Sandeep, leaving Frankfurt when other international swimmers based there were heading for the London Games was quite an embarrassment. They are now determined to salvage their pride in the world-level competitions to come.

Coach Nihar Ameen at the K. C. Reddy Swim Centre in Bangalore. He is unhappy with the way in which FINA changed the qualifying norms for the London Olympics.-K. GOPINATHAN

“There is little point thinking about London 2012; nothing is going to get us back into the Olympics. We have moved on. We trained really hard for the Nationals. Sandeep is really doing well; I am doing okay and looking at the World Championship next year,” said Virdhawal.

Four years ago, at the Beijing Olympics, Virdhawal, at 16 years, was the youngest Indian qualifier and he competed in three freestyle events (50m, 100m and 200m).

The World Championship in Barcelona is the next major event for Virdhawal and Sandeep to perform and be counted among the world’s elite.

Virdhawal holds India’s best timings in three freestyle (50m, 100m and 200m) and two butterfly (50m and 100m) events and at one time was ranked world No. 42 in the FINA list.

“I like breaking my own National Championship records. Every time you enter the pool and clock your best time, it feels good,” said Sandeep, 23, a breaststroke specialist with National best timings in 50m, 100m and 200m.

Without government funding for preparatory camps and competitions, two of India’s best known international swimmers are on their own. “Mittal Champions Trust supported me for Beijing. Now my father funds my swimming costs,” said Virdhawal.

According to Sandeep, who is employed with the Indian Railways, using his salary to cover the expenses of staying in Bangalore for training under a personal coach was difficult.

“It is not that we get treated badly in India, but I would certainly like to see more people stepping forward to support us,” said Virdhawal, who has slid past 100 in world rankings.

“Our dip in FINA rankings is because we didn’t go for the Olympics. My last big international competition was in June or July, a long time ago. If you want to stay at that level, you need to keep racing at least every month or two, which hasn’t happened. Hopefully, we will get a lot more competitions next year,” he added.

Both Sandeep and Virdhawal are aware that only performances matter if they have to rub shoulders with the best in the World Championship in Barcelona next year. India’s best freestyle swimmer cracked the ‘B’ standard in 50m and 200m at the National Championship in Balewadi. Sandeep also proved himself worthy of a place in the World Championship by qualifying in 50m and 200m breaststroke during the Nationals.

The FINA qualifying criteria apply to each participating nation, but will the world body move the goalposts again by 2013 is a question that is uppermost in the Indian swimmers’ minds.