“Ilya Zakharov underwent knee surgery in the clinic where Michael Jordan, Gretzky and Lemieux received treatment”

A candid interview of president of three sports federations at once Aleksey Vlasenko

“Ilya Zakharov underwent knee surgery in the clinic where Michael Jordan, Gretzky and Lemieux received treatment” Photo: Maksim Platonov

Aleksey Vlasenko personifies three bodies – he is the head of artistic (ex-synchronised) swimming, diving and water polo embodying one-man management that’s also characteristic of international water sports federations. Because the FINA (the international federation) and the LEN (the European one) have one president each, and only Russia had a regulation where water sports federations were like characters of Krylov’s famous fable. More is in the sports functionary’s interview with Realnoe Vremya.

We consider Kazan is a site for our synchronised swimmers to qualify for the Olympics”

Mr Vlasenko, the Olympic swimming pool has just closed in Moscow, and swimmers are already expressing their desire to hold the 2020 Russian Championships in Kazan, which will become a qualifier for the Olympics. What plans do divers and synchronised swimmers have?

We are thinking at the moment. We considered Penza for diving where there are a gorgeous swimming pool and a diving base (Editor’s Note: Penza has traditionally been a centre for developing this sport, such star divers as Irina Kalinina and Alla Lobankina were brought up here). As for artistic swimming, there is a base in Kazan where we see just a surprising attitude to our sport from local officials headed by Rustam Minnikhanov. By the way, I have an idea to hold the championships in one place, including water polo. It’s clear they have a regular championship, and its final part could easily be held like the Final Four and organise it in one city. Like similar competitions are held at world, European championships, Olympics. Now we are like the swan, the pike and the crawfish, while the new format would allow us to boost interest in our competitions and television and then advertisers. If this idea is approved and created, then Kazan can become a candidate for hosting competitions in this format.

It’s a great idea like the one Kazan aspires to become a candidate for the 2025 World FINA Championships, like “let’s do it again in 10 years”. What do you think of it?

The idea is great, but we are going back to the same problem we faced in 2015. Kazan doesn’t have a swimming pool that would meet the necessary requirements to host the world championships. They should either build or repeat the story that was four years ago when the competition was held at Kazan Arena. But I just don’t know if a football stadium may be used.

If I am asked to give an opinion, I would be for a new stadium like the one built in Budapest by the 2017 world championships. It’s a gorgeous swimming pool with a capacity of 17,000 seats. Now we’re in talks about the construction of such stadiums in Grozny and Ufa chaired by officials of Chechnya and Bashkortostan respectively. After building them, we could host more competitions like today’s World Series in Kazan. We have swimming pools but there are complaints about them concerning the number of spectators, the distance from the stands to the pool’s edge. Our sports facilities were constructed to locate children’s sports schools, for amateurs, but now we must build new swimming pools considering such requirements, and then we will have bigger international competitions.

Photo: Maksim Platonov

Kazan doesn’t have a swimming pool that would meet the necessary requirements to host the world championships. They should either build or repeat the story that was four years ago when the competition was held at Kazan Arena

I will tell you that the FINA and the LEN are ready to hold competitions here with pleasure. Now we are preparing to host the World Cup Stage in Saint Petersburg where a special swimming pool for diving and artistic swimming with two-sided stands for 3,000 spectators was constructed. According to the applications, an incredible number of countries is ready to come here, we’re even considering to stop receiving the applications.

Why is there such buzz?

Because of our skill to host them well and with hospitality, let’s tell the truth. The way such competitions are held abroad is just a pathetic excuse for our hospitality, which is off the charts. I went to the World Cup in London, entered the buffet and was shocked. I say that if Russia had such a buffet, I would have been shot dead next to it! A sandwich with some strange cheese, Coca-Cola, that’s is. They economise on everything. This is why foreigners like to come to Russia…

A European LEN congress will take place at this World Cup, and 54 countries of the Old World, whole Europe without exception, applied for it. Generally speaking, if we look at their calendar, I had an impression that only Russia hosts all competitions. I asked LEN officials: “Are there any other countries apart from Russia?” We didn’t want to host the same World Cup and the congress, but I was simply forced as a LEN bureau member.

“We are just getting used to new rules in water polo”

With your permission let’s switch from organisational issues to sport. There is no complaint about artistic swimming, they win everywhere. How will you characterise the state of affairs in water polo?

Personally, neither do I have complaints about our women’s team, which competes very decently. As for the men’s team, today we are just getting used to hosting international competitions according to new rules. Now international competitions according to the new rules are completely different from those we see at the domestic championship, which is finishing by old patterns. At the international stage, there was a fight to break the game’s style that’s characteristic of mainly the Squadra Azzura when a player with the ball was submerged, eliminations began, while the committee of judges is traditionally under the influence of Italy, and their teams used to get the final advantage. Playing by the new rules, the Italian men’s team isn’t even in the top 6.

I think the current line-up of our men’s team is very good, when they get used to the game by the new rules, we will go back to elite water polo. And there might be significant changes there: apart from Italy, there won’t be the hegemony of Balkan states – Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro. While our players are good, they are all known on the international stage.

Photo: Maksim Platonov

Now international competitions according to the new rules are completely different from those we see at the domestic championship, which is finishing by old patterns

How do you assess the state of affairs in diving one year to the Olympics?

We’ve had a very good team. We’re waiting for Ilya Zakharov’s comeback, our Olympic champion in London. He underwent surgery in one of the world’s best clinics where NBA, NHL stars receive treatment, whole world sport. It’s a huge clinic the size of the Kazan Aquatics Palace whose specialists deal with the recovery of knee joints only. You walk along the local “hall of fame” and see Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux – “golden knees” of world sport. Ilya underwent surgery there, as Russian doctors said he would have to return to sport after the surgery in 6 months. And here two weeks were enough. Also because today’s diving has a lot of youngsters who are at our recognised stars’ heels – same Zakharov, Yevgeny Kuznetsov, Viktor Minibayev.

Photo: Maksim Platonov

After the Olympics and none of the great athletes goes to the next competition and prepares oneself for it deliberately. This is why we will have to judge objectively after this year’s WC, and better after the Olympics in Tokyo

“We plan to host World Cup stages in Grozny and Crimea”

Progress in swimming was notable in Budapest when we won three gold medals, and the three were won by three different athletes – Yefimova, Rylov and Chupkov.

But there is an understanding that leading athletes take a pause after the Olympics and none of the great athletes goes to the next competition and prepares oneself for it deliberately. This is why we will have to judge objectively after this year’s WC, and better after the Olympics in Tokyo. As I can forecast that there will be twice fewer medals after Tokyo compared to the medals we will win in Gwangju.

Isn’t there any possibility to increase the number of Olympic medals for Russia by widening the competition programme of the Games in artistic swimming? Nine medals sets are at stake at the world championships, while there are only two at the Games. Moreover, athletes already arrived, checked in, they don’t need to spend money on transport, accommodation, meals, and the competition programme can be expanded without any financial costs. By the way, rhythmic gymnastics is insisting on the same thing.

Now we are being approached to such a tendency to substitute the women’s duet for the mixed one. Yes, after debuting at the 2015 WC in Kazan, the mixed duets have been still developing, and the number of participating countries is much lower there than in traditional synchronised swimming events. But, according to IOC officials, sales of the TV signal almost doubled after introducing the mixed duet, the number of countries who began watching artistic swimming or, more precisely, mixed duets, is over the top. This is why IOC officials start thinking about substituting the women’s duets for the mixed. I hope this will happen as late as possible.

I talked with coach Gana Maksimova who is responsible for developing mixed duets, and she said the mixed duet was developing at a high pace. They aren’t those novices who became first 4 years ago who won the world championships’ medals. The progress is obvious. Spain, Italy, China enthusiastically took on the development of this event hoping to become a leader, which is impossible in traditional events. And it seems to me that a debut of the mixed duet at the 2024 Olympics is prepared this way. By the way, the French are interested in debuting in high diving. They didn’t have a good diver. But after marrying a French woman, ex-British citizen Garry Hunt received French citizenship. I would consider such changes very positive.

Photo: Maksim Platonov

After debuting at the 2015 WC in Kazan, the mixed duets have been still developing, and the number of participating countries is much lower there than in traditional synchronised swimming events

High diving, by the way, is developing very powerfully. And we took on two World Cup stages in Grozny and Crimea. Might the whole world look at modern-day Chechnya and Crimea. Olga Golodets, who supervises the sports sector in the government of Russia, has already announced her arrival in Crimea. By the way, we’ve already hosted such competitions in Yalta twice and were first to hold the competitions of such a scale on the peninsula. Head of the Republic of Crimea Sergey Aksyonov was very glad, and as soon as we just mentioned the move of the stage to Sevastopol, he called himself and talked me out: “No, only here!” There is a funny story with high diver from Ukraine Aleksey Prigovor who had problems in his homeland, as he had competed in Crimea. Local workers of the Security Service of Ukraine haunted him, while he replied he has to earn money somehow. The man jumps from a 27-metre height, while they decided to frighten him…

By Dzhaudat Abdullin

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