As one South Korean aquatic athlete after another put on strong performances across multiple disciplines at the world championships in Japan this month, the leader of the world swimming federation sensed an opportunity for growth for his organization.
In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, World Aquatics President Husain Al Musallam said the development of aquatic sports in South Korea is "important" for the global swimming body.
"When we have new athletes from Korea, it will open an opportunity for World Aquatics to grow in Korea," Al Musallam said Wednesday in the port city of Fukuoka, on the sidelines of the World Aquatics Championships. "And what's happened in the past three or four years in Korea, the national federation started to pay attention on the development, and this is why you saw a lot of the new generation become top in the world."
The interview took place some 24 hours after South Korea's Hwang Sun-woo won the bronze medal in the men's 200-meter freestyle. It was Hwang's second straight world championships medal, making him the first South Korean swimmer to reach the podium at consecutive world championships.
Even those who didn't win medals accomplished notable feats.
One of Hwang's teammates, Lee Ho-joon, also swam in the 200m freestyle final. The two became the first pair of South Korean teammates to compete in the same final at the swimming worlds. Another freestyle swimmer, Kim Woo-min, broke his personal best twice in the 400m en route to finishing fifth in the final. He later broke an 11-year-old national record in the 800m freestyle.
In artistic swimming, Hur Yoon-seo finished sixth in the women's solo free event, the best performance by a South Korean in the discipline.
Al Musallam was well aware of these feats, calling South Korea's performance in artistic swimming in particular "very high standard."
"For me as president of World Aquatics, it's important that the growth of the aquatic sport in Korea becomes stronger," the Kuwaiti official said. "And of course, we need to work together on how to help your federation to improve more, and fast-track in swimming and artistic swimming. This is one part of our plan with different national federations to give them more technical support for the training, and also for the other sports to grow, like diving and water polo."
Al Musallam said he was pleased with the overall organization of the world championships and the "very high" technical level demonstrated by athletes.
"I saw also not only who reached the podium, but you can see a lot of new countries reached the semifinals," he said. "And this shows that there is diversity of a lot of nations working and our development program, our support to the national federations, reflected positively."
Al Musallam was first elected World Aquatics president unopposed two years ago. Then on Tuesday, he secured a new eight-year term, with a chance to seek a final four-year term afterward.
Over his first two years on the job, Al Musallam said he had focused on modernizing swimming rules, the governing body's constitution and independence of anti-doping efforts, among other areas. For the next eight years, he hopes to bring more stability to World Aquatics and make further changes "based on the demand of the world."
One major change for the governing body will be the relocation of its headquarters from Lausanne, Switzerland, to the Hungarian capital of Budapest.
Budapest hosted the worlds in 2017 and 2022, and will do so again in 2027. The Hungarian government has offered World Aquatics a 15-year rent-free deal for its headquarters site, and legal protection for the organization's official activities and official documentation.
Al Musallam said the move to Hungary will "ensure future financial stability" for World Aquatics and will also allow the organization to focus on the development of athletes.
"Our headquarters in Lausanne is all about offices. I'm president. I don't want office. I want to be more practical," he said. "So when I go to the headquarters, I want to see the athletes training. The opportunity in Budapest is that when you enter, you see the swimming pool, you see athletes training, you see their accommodations all together, their living area, food, and then what's remaining is the offices. This is one of the main reasons it is not only headquarters, it is also the World Aquatics Development and Training Center."
Al Musallam said the relocation will help the World Aquatics save at least US$10 million per year in operation costs, and that money can be reinvested in other projects.
A particularly pressing issue for World Aquatics is the status of athletes from Russia and Belarus. Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine early last year, with Belarus providing assistance, athletes from Russia and Belarus have been largely excluded from international sports competitions. At the few events where they have been allowed to compete, they have had to do so as neutrals, without displaying their flags.
In the immediate aftermath of the invasion last year, World Aquatics opted not to invite athletes and officials from Russia and Belarus to its events. That decision remained in effect for the Fukuoka competition.
"Our policy from day one of the war is that it's by invitation," Al Musallam said. "By invitation, we mean that we have to make sure the integrity of the championship and the safety of the athletes, Russian and Belarusians, and other athletes, when they come. So far, we don't see any improvement on these two sectors."
As for what will happen to Russian and Belarusian athletes, Al Musallam said: "We are an independent, a neutral international sport organization. We condemn the war. We are not supporting the war."
On the other hand, Al Musallam stressed the need to consider the role that sports can play to promote peace.
"The other important factor is these athletes from Russia and Belarus, if you keep them isolated for a long time, it's not good for us as World Aquatics. It's not good also for them," he said. "And maybe if they are isolated, the situation will not improve in Europe for peace."
World Aquatics has set up a task force to explore a potential pathway for Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in future events as neutrals.
Al Musallam said the task force, made up of athletes and representatives from around the globe, is gathering opinions from coaches and athletes in Fukuoka on the Russia-Belarus issue.
"The opinion of the coaches and the opinion of the athletes worldwide is important before we take decision," he said. "We are conducting survey on all the athletes here. Based on their opinions, and based on the opinions of other stakeholders, then we will take the proper decision, whether we invite or not invite."
Source: Yonhap News Agency