For eight days every four years, the sport of swimming takes center stage at the Olympics and its top athletes often become household names, if only for a few nights. A well-heeled Ukrainian businessman who is convinced swimming can do better has ambitious plans to launch a professional league that he says will better showcase the sport and compensate the world’s best swimmers.
But the nascent International Swimming League [ISL] has faced harsh resistance from FINA, the sport’s international governing body, which has blocked the start-up’s efforts by threatening swimmers’ Olympic eligibility. The dispute has prompted a federal antitrust lawsuit, sparked discussions around the pool deck about labor organizing and has cast a spotlight on the tilted economics that long have ruled the sport.
“Swimmers have the same level of talent like NBA players or soccer players, sometimes even more. But a swimmer who has talent like LeBron James receives 1,000 times less money,” said Konstantin Grigorishin, the ISL’s chief backer and financier. “We have to fix this.”
FINA is, in effect, the gatekeeper for the Olympic Games, setting standards and staging championship events for six aquatic sports, such as water polo, diving and swimming. The organization has not endorsed the ISL and has emphasized to its member nations that athletes who compete in unsanctioned events face suspensions that could imperil their Olympic dreams.
After FINA effectively blocked a test event from taking place last year in Turin, three swimmers — Americans Tom Shields, Michael Andrews and Hungarian Katinka Hosszú, a three-time Olympic champion — filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, accusing FINA of operating a monopoly and choking off any potential competitors.
The lawsuit says FINA “unlawfully wields its dominant influence to prevent outside organizations from expanding opportunities for hundreds of world-class swimmers and their millions of fans across the world.”
“FINA understands that a free market for top-tier international swimming competitions would preclude it from continuing to keep for itself the lion’s share of profits earned from the swimmers’ skills,” the swimmers state in their complaint. “ … FINA’s power over the swimming world is so strong that it will crush ISL, and destroy the careers of swimmers who want to compete in ISL meets.”
FINA has yet to file a response with the court, and officials with the Swiss-based organization did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment. The organization said in a statement last month: “As always, FINA remains open to proposals that would genuinely enhance — rather than conflict with — the current and planned competition calendars, providing further opportunities for aquatics athletes, and ideally in a manner that benefits the whole sport.”
The ISL has designs on nearly 300 elite swimmers competing for 12 teams; six would be based in the United States with one tentatively planned for Washington. League officials have promised more than $3 million in prize money and aim to stage 15 events in their inaugural season. But the risk of upsetting FINA and losing Olympic eligibility has been a major hitch in the league’s planned launch.
“They basically have a rule for us all: You’re gonna party with us or you're not going to party,” Shields said in an interview. “And that’s not the way it should work.”
Grigorishin is the leading shareholder of the Energy Standard Group whose fortune was once estimated at more than $1 billion by Forbes. He took an interest in swimming when his son began competing in 2008. He recalls watching FINA’s 2013 world championships in Barcelona and realizing the sport wasn’t coming close to its potential.
“It should be one of the most popular events in the world and nobody understands or knows this, just specialists and relatives of swimmers,” he said in a telephone interview. “Boring ceremony, format, bureaucrats giving speeches. I started to wonder how is it possible to change this?”
He tinkered with youth meets and test events, settling on a team-based format and an annual series of events that would pit the world’s best swimmers against each other in the same pool. Grigorishin initially planned a 2018 meet in Las Vegas, but “in response to pressure from FINA, USA Swimming pulled out of negotiations,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit cited a June 2018 letter from USA Swimming to ISL officials that said, “We want the assurance that FINA is willing to work with ISL before we commit.”
A USA Swimming spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending lawsuit. USA Swimming officials “have endeavored to provide U.S. athletes with factual information regarding the current state of the competition, and any possible associated sanctions as shared by FINA,” the organization said in a statement last month.
FINA has told national governing bodies that swimmers could be punished by competing in a non-sanctioned event. They’ve highlighted bylaws that call for a one- to two-year suspension for “participation in unauthorized meets.” That timeline would include this year’s world championships in South Korea and possibly the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
Nations took immediate notice. After plans for a U.S. meet fell through, ISL officials began working with the Italian Swimming Federation on a proposed event in Turin. According to the lawsuit, more than 50 swimmers signed up to compete, but “FINA coerced its member federations into agreeing to, and participating in, an overt effort to shut down the Turin Event by threatening the swimmers with a ban.” The Turin meet was canceled in November, and the swimmers filed their lawsuit alleging antitrust violations on Dec. 6 in the Northern District of California.
“As FINA’s captives, swimmers can never compete in any event to earn money for themselves without FINA’s advance approval,” the complaint states.
FINA officials have said little publicly about ISL but have taken issue with the suggestion that they’ve threatened to discipline swimmers. In a news release last month it said: “FINA merely stated that results achieved in competitions for which approval and sanction were not duly sought and obtained would not be recognised.”
The lawsuit also alleges that “FINA demanded $50 million from ISL and complete control over most of the facets of the ISL league, including its name.” FINA disputes this characterization and says the ISL is the one that proposed the eight-figure fee. Grigorishin says he isn’t sure why the ISL should pay FINA anything if the governing body won’t provide tangible services that boost its events.
“You have to bring some additional value,” he said. “Not just give some shares so you will not be an obstacle. Otherwise it’s extortion.”
Five days after the lawsuit against FINA was filed, the governing body announced plans to launch its own series of meets for high-level swimmers. Many details haven’t been made public, but FINA plans to stage a three-leg competition this spring, promising nearly $4 million prize money and appearance fees. The series will be team-based, invitation-only and include Olympic and world champions.
“By creating this additional elite competition, FINA will generate a true Swimming show, where sport presentation and Stars’ promotion are key concepts for a successful meet,” FINA President Julio C. Maglione said in a statement.
From the ISL’s perspective, FINA’s new series serves as further evidence the governing body intends to choke off any other entities.
“Now they prove they have a monopoly and that they threaten and destroy competition because they’ve copy-and-pasted our format,” Grigorishin said.
FINA's recent actions have spurred plenty of discussion in swimming circles, and 30 or so swimmers assembled last month in London to discuss organizing as a unified athletes’ association — not technically a labor union because of the international nature of swimming.
At issue for many is the finances associated with the sport and whether money is getting fairly distributed. The lawsuit cites FINA’s reports that show it took in $118 million in 2016 and ‘17 revenue and gave $15 million (12.5 percent) to athletes in the form of prize money.
“We have so many people that love swimming and come Olympics-time, it’s always the most popular sports along with track and field,” said Andrew, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and a 2016 short-course world champion. “And the athletes are seeing pennies of what's being made. It just doesn’t seem right.”