Freediving is the underwater sport most likely to win acceptance as an Olympic sport, according to Anna Arzhanova, head of World Underwater Federation (CMAS).
There are many sports contesting to be included in the Olympics. Few of them, though, have a leader who is as capable of lobbying as Anna Arzhanova. The 47-year-old Russian, who is now into her second 4-year term as the head of the underwater sports governing body, has skillfully maneuvered the NGO founded by Jacques Cousteau to gain influence within the Olympic movement.

“The IOC is interested in apnea mainly because it is an environmentally friendly activity,” Arzhanova told the CMAS General Assembly in April 2017, “and because it is a sport that since time immemorial has managed to find the balance between man and nature.”

Arzhanova herself has no background in apnea. Biographical information about her on CMAS’s website is negligible. However, interviewed in Helsinki at the 2017 European Underwater Rugby Championships, she refuted the popular assumption she had been a fin swimmer. She clarified that her athletic career had been in a shooting sport. Regardless of what got her into sports, as an executive, she is clearly a keen competitor. In a world organization overwhelmingly dominated by male scuba divers, she became the first woman president in 2013.

After an unsuccessful 2016 bid for the presidency of SportAccord, the umbrella organization for Olympic and non-Olympic sports, Arzhanova won a coveted post in the Association of IOC Recognised International Sports Federations (ARISF). When she became Vice President there in June last year, none other than IOC President Thomas Bach himself personally congratulated her.

Being influential in ARISF is a stepping stone in the complex process of getting a sport into the Olympics. CMAS, which currently governs over 10 sports, for the moment at least, only considers two of them – finswimming and apnea – worthy of promotion to the IOC. For Arzhanova to steer either of them into the Olympics will require shrewd salesmanship and dealmaking skills. Encyclopædia Britannica states:

“The Olympic Charter indicates that in order to be accepted, a sport must be widely practiced by men in at least 75 countries and on four continents and by women in no fewer than 40 countries and on three continents. The sport must also increase the ‘value and appeal’ of the Olympic Games and retain and reflect its modern traditions.”

Appeal of Simplicity

Freediver relaxing near the buoy. Ring bubble ascending towards the surface
Freediver relaxing near the buoy. Ring bubble ascending towards the surface

The IOC does not accept sports that employ mechanical propulsion. Motorsports are out. Although fiberglass fins are not anymore technical than the fiberglass or carbon fiber poles used in pole vaulting, there are aesthetic objections to composite fins as a modification of conventional swimming.

Immersion finswimming, a CMAS event that allows monofin swimmers to stay below with a bottle of compressed air, will likely not be touted at all by CMAS. Arzhanova informed the General Assembly that apnea “doesn’t use any technical equipment, [there is] only the athlete, who has to take into account the limitations imposed by Mother Nature.”

Although Arzhanova was not explicit, it seems that CMAS’s leaders have long realized the obvious: finswimming as an Olympic sport is very likely to face fierce opposition from FINA, the governing body of swimming.

According to a top finswimming expert, Olympic caliber FINA swimmers can erase all of CMAS’s current bi-fin world records with just two weeks practice, making a mockery of the sport’s uniqueness. Monofin technique may require more training but even there FINA’s top swimmers might dominate CMAS’s events should they attempt to. And if any form of finswimming were to be allowed, FINA could theoretically seek its admission as a discipline under FINA governance.

CMAS with its total income of €800,000 to €900,000 per year is not in a financial position to contest strength with FINA, whose gross annual income exceeds €50.0 million.

There is objective evidence of CMAS not putting much effort into lobbying for finswimming. In the minutes of the 2017 annual meeting, apnea and freediving were mentioned 30 times, more than all the other sports combined.

Host nation influence

Paris Olympics 2024 Logo
Paris Olympics 2024 Logo

The easiest path to inclusion is behind host nation support. At the Tokyo 2020 games baseball, softball, karate, sport climbing, surfing, and skateboarding will be part of the games, though not necessarily permanently. Baseball, softball, and karate all have a strong local following, which makes financial sense for the Japanese Olympic Committee.

But it goes beyond the local angle. Journalist Kurt Badenhausen reported for Forbes that the Olympic movement likes the alternative of host nation approval because it allows the IOC the flexibility to introduce sports that will appeal to millennials. Without young people becoming fans, the Olympics will lose commercial value.

This host nation breakthrough is clearly a shrewd strategy. The signs of it are already apparent. Arzhanova has already revealed that she is in discussions with the President of the French Olympic Committee (Denis Masséglia) and the Mayor of Paris (Anne Hidalgo). According to CMAS, “both are delighted by this idea and promise to reach an agreement to include this sport in the Olympic program.”

CMAS further reported that the discussion for the introduction of apnea will take place in June. And for Paris, there is an additional connection in the past, for at the Paris 1900 Olympic Games apnea was an event. For the French Olympic Committee, there is a point to be made. This was the nation that foresaw modern competitive freediving.

“Apnea,” declared Arzhanova to her organization, “… is the sport that makes the most progress in the world and within the CMAS.”

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