Venezuela’s water polo team goes AWOL

By George Gross Jr.,

On the surface, it is a “Trains, Planes & Automobiles” remake South American style; however a deeper investigation may well reveal both political and Machiavellian elements.

Although the men’s Water Polo Olympic Qualification tournament gets underway today in Edmonton, not all 12 teams are present and accounted for.

This past Tuesday, the local organizing committee and Water Polo Canada officials waited patiently for the Venezuela national men’s water polo contingent at Arrivals at the Edmonton International Airport. The only problem was that no one showed.

Frantic calls followed for the better part of a day as efforts were made to locate the team. Some assistance was available since a Venzuelan referee and delegate had already arrived in Edmonton for the FINA (the international governing body for aquatics) international school being run in conjunction with the qualification tournament.

The Venezuelans were eventually tracked down, still at home. The itinerary had called for a flight on a local airline to Trinidad where the team would then transfer for the trip to Edmonton via Toronto; however the local airline never showed. Reportedly there had been a booking problem.

Two days of intense communication followed until Friday when the President of Venezuela’s Swim Federation informed organizers that the team would be arriving the next day at 2:00pm local time. Once again reportedly, the team was being booked through an alternate city. Yet again there were no Venezuelans on the flight that landed in Edmonton.

At that point, the Venezuelan delegate informed the organizing committee and FINA delegates that the team had a chance to arrive on Sunday in time for its game against Canada.

With less than five minutes before the tournament Technical Meeting, the Venezuelan delegate, using a delegate from Argentina as a translator, officially informed the committee that the team was not coming. The lead FINA delegate immediately scratched Venezuela from the qualification tournament.

The key question is whether Venezuela ever had any intention of actually attending the tournament. While the Venezuelans say that all their efforts were real, it seems odd that they didn’t consider Mexico as a transit plan. They reportedly did plan to go through Miami; however that is where the story takes an even more bizarre turn if you believe the AWOL delegation.

The flights to Miami were, again reportedly, confirmed but had to be abandoned because the U.S. government would not grant transit visas to the contingent with speculation rampant from the Venezuelan contingent as for the reasons why.

Regardless, the no-show by the South Americans has significant implications in several quarters.

In terms of the qualification tournament, it means the teams in Group B will all have a day off during the round robin phase while the teams in Group A will not. For the Canadian team specifically, they must now deal with the last minute change to their already tight preparation schedule as well as the fact that it will still play five games in a row including the crucial quarter final crossover.

In addition, the no-show situation has financial implications for Canada as host.

“We had hotel reservations for the entire 22 man contingent,” stated Water Polo Canada Executive Director Ahmed El-Awadi. “So, our association was charged the full rate for each night that the Venezuelans didn’t show. Also, we were charged for meals on the first day. It looks like we will be as much as $30,000 in the red due on this situation.”

Canada was far from the lone nation to be affected by the actions of Venezuela. Countries that did not make the qualification tournament were placed on a waiting list to see if there were any last minute withdrawals. One Federation in particular kept calling over the last month prepared to send its team at a moment’s notice. By the time news of Venezuela’s no -show could be confirmed, it was far too late.

Although this situation is bad enough, it appears as though the Venezuelans will also have big problems that are not just confined to the water polo team.

The FINA Office in Lausanne is currently reviewing the information to determine whether sanctions, including a possible two year ban on all of Venezuela’s aquatics sports, should be imposed. This would be especially devastating to the swimmers, divers and synchronized swimmers who had nothing to do with the water polo team that had no chance of qualifying but will cause everyone’s dream of attending the Olympics this year to die.

Needless to say, it is a very messy situation that seems very unlikely to have a happy ending.

George Gross Jr. is water polo’s iron man, having played in 170 games, twice representing Canada at the Olympic Games (Montreal 1976 and Los Angeles 1984.) He will serve as CTVOlympics Water Polo analyst in London 2012.

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