Swimming is going through a tumultuous period right now as the global governing body – FINA – is enforcing the rule that was written in to its constitution in 1908 that no swimmer may have ‘any relationship with a non-affiliated member’. What this means is that FINA has the right to veto any event that it feels may jeopardise the safety or health of the swimmers [fair], not comply to their strict organisation rules [mostly fair] or impact the commercial interests of the global governing body [mostly unfair].
The brainchild behind the International Swimming League (ISL), Ukrainian Konstantin Grigorishin, said to be worth over $1bn, is attempting to do for swimming what Kerry Packer did for cricket and Barry Hearn did for darts – working against the establishment to create its own events, offering substantial prize money to the athletes and widening the appeal through a global television audience.
50 elite level swimmers including Britain’s Adam Peaty have pledged their support and signed up to the International Swimming League – a multi-event global circuit which would see mixed-team racing in a media-friendly format.
Risk of domestic suspensions
In planning for the past two years, the legal rumblings have been brewing for the past six months or so and came to a head at the end of November when the inaugural event, planned to be held in Turin right after the Short Course World Championships in December, was cancelled. FINA threatened suspensions and financial penalties against the hosts – the Italian Swimming Federation - and all the other national governing bodies who had swimmers signed up to race, unless the athletes were punished with domestic suspensions.
According to an interview with The Sunday Times’ Craig Lord, the ISL was asked to pay $2m for approval of the event by FINA, but negotiations stalled in September.
Five times world champion and Olympic Gold medallist Adam Peaty said to The Sunday Times:
“I’m incredibly disappointed [the event] has been cancelled because of politics. We need to ask why. I firmly believe that the athletes should be at the heart of any decision made by our governing body. Turin was a test event for just what our sport and the athletes need. I think this is the wrong decision and it will galvanise the swimmers, not break them.”
Grigorishin has called out FINA and describes swimmers as “the downtrodden victims of modern slavery”. In the interview with The Sunday Times he goes on to say that swimmers are treated “like laboratory rats, with risks to their health … no salary, social guarantees, no welfare, no medical and life insurance, no pension rights.”
An athlete’s union for swimmers
Peaty has issued a call to swimmers all over the world to create an athletes’ union that will demand a ‘fair share’ of the revenue its members generate and a voice at the top table of Olympic sports governance.
Australian Olympic champion Cate Campbell this week was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying “there are a lot of people getting very rich from swimming but it’s not the athletes.”
She continued: “It’s a sad day for sport because we are taking away a great event and losing an opportunity to grow the sport. The reality is we have to evolve with the times and a revolutionary idea like this ISL would take swimming into the 21st century so athletes are losing out.”
Where FINA allocates less than 5% of its revenue in prizes for swimmers the ISL has offered a 50% share of all proceeds to be paid in salaries, bonuses and funding for the teams. The Energy Swimming Meet was offering a $800k prize pot on top of $154k allocated to each team.
European Commission’s anti-trust laws
The regulation used by FINA to ban the ISL event was found to be in breach of the European Commission’s anti-trust laws in December 2017. The EC ruled that the International Skating Union’s (ISU) decision that ‘severe penalties imposed on athletes participating in speed skating competitions that are not authorised by the ISU’ was not legal.
At the time, Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said:
“International sports federations play an important role in athletes' careers - they protect their health and safety and the integrity of competitions. However, the severe penalties the International Skating Union imposes on skaters also serve to protect its own commercial interests and prevent others from setting up their own events. The ISU now has to comply with our decision, modify its rules, and open up new opportunities for athletes and competing organisers, to the benefit of all ice skating fans.”
Swimming needs to gain presence outside of the quadrennial Olympic cycle and the International Swimming League is one way in which this could be achieved – raising the profile of the sport and the athletes, providing entertaining TV programming and bringing new brands in to the sport through sponsorship.
The latest plan is to launch the ISL in the United States in August 2019, however rumours in the world of swimming are saying that the ISL may well be postponed until after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to allow the athletes to focus on what is currently the biggest stage in the sport without the threat of suspension hanging over their heads.
An athlete-led revolution
This athlete-led revolution in swimming should be embraced and encouraged. Let these athletes be rewarded for their talents and let the sport grow in awareness – something FINA should be welcoming with open arms.
Kerry Packer’s impact on cricket can still be felt today, over 40 years after his vision to change the game became a reality. Let’s hope swimming can have its own revolution and the sport can transform in to a TV-friendly, multi-event sport where the athletes get the recognition, and the pay, they deserve.
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