Article By Craig Lord. The following article appeared in edited versions in The Sunday Times in Britain and the Sport & Politics magazine.
Swimbledon. Strawberries and cream on ice.
Swimming as a pro-sport paying salaries of more than $1m a year? The vision of Konstantin Grigorishin, a power-sector tycoon from Ukraine, does not stop at the International Swimming League (ISL) he intends to launch next year: he wants to see the revolution in the pool extended to an overhaul of the Olympic Movement that would see champions of the Games earn $3m a gold, $2m for silver and $1m for bronze.
In a sport populated by what even the World Swimming Coaches Association has described as “the downtrodden victims of modern slavery”, Grigorishin may turn out to be what swimmers have been waiting for: a Kerry Packer for swimming.
Evoking memories of the cricket revolution of 1977, the financier of ISL, head of its Advisory Board and a man whose wealth Forbes estimates at more than US$1 billion, including a $300m art collection, intends to sue FINA if they stand in the way of turning swimmers into highly paid sportsmen and women with union representation and the standard set of rights workers are entitled to.
Little wonder that the athletes are queuing up: 50, including Peaty and 11 other Olympic champions and 12 World champions, have already pledged their support for the League. Peaty is a prime example of the lot of swimmers. Take away private sponsorship and he is among those eligible to be at the top of the funding tree in Britain on a maximum grant of £28,000 a year.
The irony of Peaty’s situation is that the success he has worked for in the pool has attracted enough private sponsorship to take him over the maximum £70,000-income threshold for eligibility for funding. In that sense, he gets training-facility and coaching support via sports authorities in Britain but no direct income whatsoever. He is not considered to have a job. He is, in effect, a volunteer swimmer in status even though he is a professional in workload and dedication.
In an interview for The Sunday Times, Grigorishin scoffs. Swimmers, he says are treated “like laboratory rats, with risks to their health” and with “no salary, social guarantees, no welfare, no medical and life insurance, no pension rights, no insurance.”
The head of the Energy Standard Group has registered ISL in Switzerland on the doorstep of the International Olympic Committee and FINA, the global swim federation. He is heartened but not surprised, he says, to find athletes queuing up for a new start while Olympic and swimming bureaucrats are lining up to crush a challenge to their “a self-serving monopoly”.
Moves to stop Grigorishin have begun in earnest. On November 15, a League test event offering prize money of almost $1m and scheduled for Turin on December 20-21 was cancelled after FINA threatened whole-nation suspensions and financial penalties against the hosts, the Italian swimming federation, and all other member nations whose swimmers had signed up to race unless they punished their own athletes with domestic suspensions.
FINA issued a statement citing monopoly rules that bar “relationships with non-affiliated members” and because “no approval has been sought” to host the event in Turin.
That, says Grigorishin, not only paints a false picture but fails to mention that he was asked to pay $2 million for approval in the course of several talks with FINA in the past year. They ended in September when he met three members of the federation’s executive, director Cornel Marculescu, and vice-presidents Hussain Al-Musallam, the Kuwaiti delegate cited as a “co-conspirator” in the U.S. Justice Department case of Guam football official Richard Lai, and Dale Neuburger, the USA’s top-table delegate and a director of TSE Consulting, an outfit that has won lucrative contracts organising FINA events.
A source said “things did not go well from the moment Mr. Grigorishin asked Marculescu ‘you call yourself the FINA family, so how come you treat your children so badly’.”
Grigorishin told FINA he was happy, beyond Turin, to discuss a 10-year multi-million-dollar deal in which the governing body would be recognised as the global regulator of the sport, without having a say in details such as the levels of pay pledged to athletes.
What happened? “Nothing happened. We sent our last letter to them in September and since then have heard nothing except about the threats to swimmers and federations,” said Grigorishin.
Frustration tangible when he speaks of FINA’s approach, the head of the League says: “What is holding us back? Sheer inertia of minds and the resistance from international federations, specifically from FINA due to their conservative mindsets and possibly some degree of malicious intent, which I don’t even like to think about.”
When he talks of athletes being treated like “rats”, he is talking about a culture in which the nature of the show demands the athlete to give their all – but in return for a medal and “pennies”, not a fair share of the revenue their efforts generate.
The World Championships and Olympic Games cycle, he believes, has created a culture and environment in which “the rarity of major competition once every two or four years means that athletes are treated as expendables; the next Olympic cycle will bring new ones. That also manifests itself in terms of the athlete having no institutional voice unless they are chosen by the institution; they are not reckoned with as individuals, unlike NBA players, for example. They are expendable. Not even slaves, just expendable because at the end of their career they are gone and new ones come along.”
As he speaks, the shadow world comes to mind: the athlete comes and goes; the bureaucrats stay … and stay… and stay… and stay, one might say. And that for decades with no maximum terms in office and a budget model that devotees bigger sums – sometimes far bigger – on bureaucrats and their luxury lifestyles than the money allocated to athletes. Allocated is an important word: what actually reaches athletes in pay and direct support often falls well shy of the advert, in both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds.
Back to Grigorishin and the picture he paints of coaches and systems preparing swimmers (and others) for very rare peak performances and the cultural expectation that to get the biggest medals (and attract the biggest private sponsorship in the aftermath), they will need to exceed previous human limits. Add to that equation a weak anti-doping regime that allows cheats to return to racing, applies different suspensions to different athletes for the same or similar offences and, as witnessed in swimming, tends to treat “stars” more leniently than the unknown swimmer.
As FINA director Cornel Marculescu – acting as promoter and policeman, a conflict of interest that the World Swimming Coaches Association, its national affiliates and many athletes around the world have said must be brought to an end – put it in 2015: “You can’t condemn the stars for a minor doping offence”.
Grigorishin argues that the very people setting doping rules also encourage athletes to break world records, to exceed human limits. “In that way, we see that they also motivate athletes to cheat,” says Grigorishin. “If you ask most athletes why they should not take doping, they [often] don’t tell you the most important thing: it destroys their health.”
“If the current paradigm of high performance sport defines ‘the result’ as the necessity to push the athlete to levels of performance that often exceed the natural limits of the human body – this is an indirect motivation for the athlete to resort to various performance enhancers (not only substances), in other words doping, which could be extremely harmful to a person’s health.”
“Olympic sport is built on the assumption that the athlete should deliver a most remarkable result once in four years and his/her entire sports career banks on achieving that particular result. In that context the so-called “fight against doping” sentiment coming from the IOC is sheer hypocrisy and lip service.”
He believes that members of the Global Association of International Sports Federations, such as FINA, are not upholding the statutes they are signed up to, paying lip service to such mission statements as “Sport should not be judged to pose an undue risk to the health and safety of its athletes or participants. The sport proposed should in no way be harmful to any living creature.“
“If the athlete risks his life and health, then where is insurance, compensation, social security, like in any other high-risk occupations (test pilots, rescue workers, military, etc)? Where is the explanation of the potential risk for the athlete, especially young ones.
Grigorishin is particularly critical of the IOC, international and domestic federations for allowing what he calls the “ridiculous” Youth Olympics.
“Children have to have a childhood,” says Grigorishin. “They have to enjoy the sport; they have to enjoy the competition not feel pressure when you are a 15-year-old girl or boy there is huge pressure to perform for your country. It destroys their mentality. It’s a form of conditioning. They don’t have a real childhood because they have training twice a day six days a week and preparing for one big moment to make a team and race at the Olympics.
Konstantin surrounded by participants of the 2017 Junior Energy for Swim Cup
His Energy Standard Swimming Club nurtures young swimmers from Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. He wants the program to be a safe haven for talent that must be given time to grow. “Especially in the post-Soviet system, that destroyed a lot of talents by promoting rapid development. They accelerate their development and by the time they are 16-17 years old they look like veterans. When these kids come to us, some of them have much more injuries than 30-year-old Olympic champions. Kids bodies are very fragile. It is easy to destroy them.”
Add all that and more together and takes in the money, says Grigorishin: “It seems to me like a science experiment in which we push young people to break limits of moving through water but in return those athletes have no way of earning a salary or a decent living from their work. Compared to other pro athletes – because swimmers put in a professional day of work – they earn pennies as salaries, do not have insurance or pension, do not have many rights at all vis-a-vis governing bodies, enjoy limited engagement with fans, very limited exposure to media and limited media nor even sponsorship exposure.
“That paradigm is historic and has existed for decades: it is still very much supported and incentivised by swimming governing bodies and bureaucrats with no motivation or plan to change. We need to shift that paradigm.”
How? “A professional league in a team format that would mean swimmers are seen more often in an environment that does not demand they break a world record every time they race, is the only way to ensure fair distribution of profits; promoting images and image rights/ reputations/ help swimmers transition for life after an active career, post career employment assistance programs. ISL is ready to take the lead in creation of the Union.
It is about to register the USA Swimming League as an offshoot of the parent body in readiness for the start of the league with a 12-team tournament to begin in August next year and run until November. That timing will put the league in direct competition with the FINA World Cup…
The Union will be in place for the start of the League – and LOI will be converted to agreements. A selection of swimmers will join the ISL board. The Union will protect athletes rights to compete in the ISL and protect athlete interests in negotiations between the governing bodies and the ISL.”
A request for comment and questions put to FINA went unanswered, the international federation simply issuing a long statement that included: “…aquatics athletes are at the core of FINA’s activities. They fully deserve all our respect”.
The buzz on social media alone in the 24 hours after the Turin decision suggested that swimmers do not feel respected by FINA.
The international federation, says Grigorishin, “intends to hold on to its 110-year monopoly” despite a European Union Competition Authority anti-trust ruling last year in which the International Skating Union (ISU) was told to change rules granting itself a global monopoly in the face of complaints from athletes threatened with punishment if the raced to earn money at an event the ISU did not approve of.
The EU competition authority has indicated that it will roll the same ruling out to other sports on receipt of complaints. One complaint is already being prepared in Britain. Others may follow.
In a letter to federations and swimmers expressing regret over the cancellation of the Turin event, Paolo Barelli, the head of the European and Italian swimming federations and a vice-president of FINA at loggerheads with his fellow board members, noted the challenge FINA has opened itself up to: “We understand that this may be considered as anti-competitive conduct, which is not permitted under European Union law, which, as a European Federation, FIN must comply with.”
He added: “FIN can only assume that FINA’s true motive if to safeguard its dominant position as the sole and exclusive license holder of aquatic sports … it is using its power to restrict competition, which is to the detriment of the Athletes’ individual earning capacity.”
The ISL responded to FINA’s move by saying it intended to press on with innovation and change in swimming: “It is with much regret, that we have to let you know that Italian Swimming Federation was just forced to cancel the Energy for Swim 2018. Best world-class athletes were excited to meet in Turin this December to celebrate swimming and to partake in the unforgettable two-day show. ISL is very sorry and predicts a groundswell of discontent in the swimming community and beyond. The ISL pledges to be at the forefront of change and innovation that we can ensure together for the sake of our beloved sport.”
There was more fight in Grigorishin’s words: FINA “has never been in a real fight with real people,” he said. “They have just bullied kids with no experience. I have told them openly that I am ready for a big litigation process.”
In 1977, Packer took the ICC to the High Court in London and won, his “Circus”, though short-lived, reverberating yet, years after fast bowler Dennis Lillee said “we’re not getting a fair share of the pie”.
Peaty feels the same in the pool today and fired a broadside at FINA after the Turin event in words that his own domestic federation may wish to sit up and note given efforts to discourage coaches from letting their swimmers risk suspension by challenging FINA’s resolve.
“Athletes should be at the heart of any decision made by our governing body,” said Peaty. “I think this is the wrong decision and it will galvanise the swimmers, not break them.”
Another swimmer, who preferred not to be named, noted: “That British Swimming won’t public back the Italians and swimmers against FINA makes a mockery of their claim to support good governance. If they stood together with athletes, all this could end overnight.”
After the ISL predicted a “swell of discontent in swimming”, several Olympic and World champions joined a chorus of protest. Hungarian Laszlo Cseh said: “Thank you, FINA. Instead of looking for solutions, they just want to block a brilliant initiative. They are sitting on the horse backwards … it should be FINA serving athletes not the other way round.”
Especially with physics and engineering graduate Grigorishin and his sharp mind for the maths. As efficiently as Bolt from gun to gold, he rattles through the global sports industry of 2018, covering the mega-statistics of a $1 trillion sports industry and its 1%-of-global GDP through to the potential in a world with 300m regular swimmers and a potential audience of 100 million by 2024.
The business of sport gets its money through media rights, sponsorship, ticket sales, merchandising, sales os equipment, building infrastructure and the supplements sector. There is also bookmaking. Together, it is a market growing at 7-8%, much higher than many other sectors.
Question: what share of that market does a professional, elite, world-class athlete get?
Grigorishin asked people in swimming what professional sport means. “Hardly anyone with an aquatics background reflected my personal understand: “It’s a show; it’s a business: it’s show business”.
Sport is not a hobby, pastime, social activity, he says: “That’s amateur sport. Professional athletes train 6-8 hours a day with little time in between to recover. That’s not a hobby: it’s a job.”
If you want swimming to grow you have to think outside current experience, says Grigorishin. Swimming’s obsession with medals and records misses a trick: it fails to reach big audiences on a regular basis.
There’s no shortage of money. The question, he says, “how to distribute it”?
Where FINA allocates less than five per cent of its revenue in prizes for swimmers, the League has pledged a 50% share of all proceeds in salaries, bonuses and funding for teams. The likes of Peaty could look forward, says Grigorishin, to an income of $5 million or more as his value rose with swimming’s profile in the global sports market.
“So,” asks Grigorishin, “why have no attempts been made to make swimming a show for a wider audience even though 300m people around the world swim at least once every ten days and many of them more regularly; and of those 300 million, some 60% are children, according to FINA statistics. Those children are your potential future audience: if they do a sport in their early years, they will know what the sport is about and they will form an opinion on it.
“In the USA alone, 30m people watch Olympic swim finals, a figure only the likes of the Super Bowl tops. Yet, swimming has still not converted to being a business. The Olympic Games, it has been argued, is not a “regular” sports competition in that it fits the Olympic idea of people rooting for their countries and comes with all the typical propaganda cliches. We have to change the mindset.”
There is no need for swimming to reinvent the wheel, says Grigorishin. The model is there: American professional leagues and commercialised sport elsewhere.
Money redistribution is a priority: 50% of all revenues to swimmers, 20% for bonuses, 15-20% on salaries and the rest to the professional clubs; organisers and the league will share the rest. Bonus and Salary funds are fixed and ring-fenced. The salaries would be the first paid in international professional swimming. The worth of individual swimmers will not only come down to what they win from helping their team to win; their value in the media and image rights market will also be taken into account.
The League plans to run from August to November in the United States next year, the timing matching that of FINA’s ailing short-course World Cup, a series bypassed by around 90% of the world’s top-ranked swimmers. Given that the Turin event has had to be cancelled, the 2019 League will serve as a major test of formats, including the formation and backing of teams and the interest of broadcasters, other media and sponsors.
The timing of developments could hardly be better: the League once trialled in 2019 will arrive in Olympic year 2020 with a soaring chance of attracting the biggest wave of world-class swimmers ever seen outside the Olympic Games and World long-course Championships and the biggest ever seen at an international event that FINA has not organised.
The League will feature a series of 12 team-based “matches” of three teams from a pool of 12 professional multi-national teams of 12 men and 12 women. Eight teams will make the semi-final knockouts, with four progressing to a showdown for the biggest prizes. Within five to eight years, Grigorishin says “we believe the League could be generating $1bn a year”.
Each team will race in a maximum of three rounds of the 12 qualification matches before semi-finals of eight teams lead to a final of the four best teams. Each team and its sponsors may recruit the 24 swimmers and reserves from anywhere in the world. Tactics include the decisions of coaches to use reserves when big names may not be available (training, illness or injury, for example). Conscious of what Grigorishin calls the “absolutely ridiculous FINA World Cup, where not even the swimmers can work out how the points work”, ISL promises a simple points system that “everyone can grasp at a glance”.
The use of reserves is particularly attractive to the world’s best. Take Peaty: he may not wish to devote much time to the League in the lead up to Olympic year. That gives his team a chance to bring a reserve up into the racing squad earning bigger money.
Come post-Olympic season 2020, it is not hard to see how the League could put on a thrilling clash of the world’s best in regular team-based competition – the spirit of the Duels in the Pools to the four, the clock secondary (even turned off but certainly out of focus) – that broadcasters and sponsors have long been looking for. In talking to broadcasters, League organisers found that one of the biggest barriers to interest was blanket objection to anything resembling the FINA World Cup.
Grigorishin stays “formats have to change for the sake of athlete welfare and fairness”. As such, swimmers with a doping record will be barred from the League, cutting out the likes of the two most controversial figures in the pool at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Sun Yang, of China, and Yuliya Efimova, of Russia.
Olympic nerves are running high. IOC president Thomas Bach admitted last week that the IOC governance model is “under threat” from “who just want to harvest the fruits of the trees” planted by Olympic associations.
It need not be, says Grigorishin: “They are the regulators and that role will remain but if you are a regulator you should not be a beneficiary of the issues and entities that you are regulating. That’s a big conflict of interest.”
And where Bach told Olympic delegates that it was “in the interest of European society” to preserve the status quo, Grigorishin begs to differ: “They lack transparency; they are not sharing their wealth with athletes; the ridiculous Youth Games destroys the mentality of very young people and they are paying lip-service to anti-doping because they motivate cheating by creating a culture in which athletes are expected to constantly work towards exceeding human limits.”
Athletes need to “wake up to their value” and the value of regular world-class racing that does not demand the Olympic “stronger, faster, higher” once every four years, he says, and “organise themselves in a formal Union to protect themselves because their federations are not protecting them.
“Look, athletes have a huge level of physical talent. Normal people cannot distinguish between a 48-49 100m freestyle and a 47sec swim. The 49sec swim does not impact the body but we push the swimmers to swim 47sec once in their life and push them to destroy their bodies. Do we ask Ronaldo to run up the pitch in 9.5sec? No. Do we measure the speed of the ball and hold that up as the most important thing? No. If you have a talented singer, you don’t measure how high she or he can get, you just enjoy it, each weekend at the opera. In swimming we are measuring ‘how fast, how strong’: it’s the wrong message.”
“We need a change in the way of thinking, a paradigm shift,” says Grigorishin.
He watched Ryan Murphy at an event in Bali and asked the triple Olympic gold medallist how many autographs he had been asked to sign, how many selfies had he been asked to pose with? None was the answer. “Look,” says Grigorishin. “Ronaldo will never be Olympic champion but he has a commercial value, a brand but your talent as a swimmer is the same as their talent. Ryan Murphy has the same talent as Soares, say: you should be paid for your value.”
Head of the League’s development, Dmitriy Kachurovskiy, noted the long-term plan before the decision on Turin was known: “Even if we don’t have this event we will start to develop the union and help the athletes to unite and develop their association. That will be a different story and the IOC and FINA will have to enter a different dialogue with athletes.”
Swimmers appear to have got the message: that “swell of discontent” was very obvious on social media after FINA’s decision.
Peaty has said he wants a role in sports governance when his racing days are done. A powerful head for the new Professional Swimmers Association? Says Grigorishin: “He’s been really great. The swimmers just weren’t scared of FINA. It’s the first time they’ve felt they had the power to stand up. That’s a very important step on the way to changing the game.”
In 2017, Peaty, Cate Campbell and others led the cry for FINA to change its ways and engage directly with athletes or suffer the consequence down the lane line.
Responding to the League’s mission, Peaty issued a rallying cry for swimmers all over the world to join him in backing a new start. He said: “I really believe in the International Swimming League concept, it’s exactly what the sport needs. I’m passionate about the sport and know just how hard the athletes work; I really believe we need to make a stand for the future of swimming.”
Asked if he was the man to lead a Professional Swimmers’ Association, Peaty said he would would one day like to take on a “leadership role”. For now, “my focus clearly needs to be on my training and performance in the years to come, however, I’ll fully support the formation of an athletes’ union or something similar to ensure athletes rights are represented better than they currently are.”
The Australian sprinter lit a torch among swimmers at the World Championships last year when she suggested that the likes of FINA would have to negotiate with and consult.
Asked why that was needed, Campbell said: “I think the fact that they haven’t ever requested an athlete’s opinion on anything … We are essentially FINA’s assets. Without us there is no FINA and I think sometimes that can be forgotten. The way they deal with us is strange a a bit arrogant. FINA uses us to promote things, so I feel like we should be able to have a say in how they are governing and who governs it and which issues are being raised and which issues are being dealt with.”
“They’ve made lots of changes, which we’ve all just got used to: they added kicker blocks, they added wedges, all these things: where was the consultation with the athletes and coaches over that? Things that impact us, you know, but we haven’t had a say in it. It’s about athletes having a say in it and an opportunity to have a say and them being willing to have feedback; to and from FINA, its’s two-way communication.”
Once the swimmers’ union is up and running, that communication will no longer mean a private chat with Marculescu, nor talking through the wall of an athletes’ commission hand-picked by the director and other FINA leaders.
Communication will be with lawyers and professional representatives who will ask for what FINA are a thousand leagues from providing: a fair share of all the revenue their efforts generate.
Craig Lord has been the swimming correspondent of The Times and Sunday Times for the past 30 years and is a recipient of the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s Al Schoenfield Media Award.