Tension between FINA and International Swimming League

(Photo courtesy of Peter H. Bick / Swimming World Magazine.)

Swimming is one of the most common recreational sports in the world. Yet, the sport fades from the television channels in between Olympics, and only the most successful professional swimmers earn a living wage from competition earnings or endorsements. 

For years, FINA, the international swimming federation, has controlled the international competition format and schedule, effectively mandating the opportunities athletes have to compete on the world stage and grow their brand. 

The only major annual international swimming tournament is the FINA Swimming World Cup — a series of six short course meter (SCM) swim meets held between August and November. Series winners take home prize money based on points accumulated throughout the swim meets. But ask your average sport viewer about the Swimming World Cup, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Even within the swimming community, few athletes participate at all the meets, opting instead to hit more high profile competitions in their home countries. FINA has failed to expand the reach and impact of this event, once again leaving swimming hiding in the shadows until the next Olympics. 

Enter the International Swimming League (ISL). This new league aims to host international swim meets all over the world, running from October to December. The athletes are separated into self-designated clubs. The clubs must consist of 12 men and 12 women. Currently there are four American clubs and four European clubs. Two athletes from each club can compete in each event. Points and prize money from each event are awarded to top individuals and teams. This allows swimmers who may not be mega superstars to share in some of the earnings. 

In addition to this new format, ISL has made some ambitious mission statements. The organization has declared that any athlete disqualified at any time for breaking anti-doping rules will never be allowed to compete in ISL-organized competitions. ISL has set a goal of rowing the global swimming audience to 100 million over five years. Already the organization has partnered with major broadcast stations around the world, including ESPN3 in the USA and online CBC coverage in Canada. The league has introduced spectator friendly features to help capture the audience, including “skins races,” a series of back-to back races where last-placing swimmers are knocked out after each round. There are three minutes between the races and swimmers are eliminated until the final two swim head to head. The League will also crown an overall MVP at each meet based on points.

However, FINA did not take lightly to a new competitor entering their monopoly. When ISL first announced its plan to hold its inaugural swim meet, FINA countered by proclaiming that any athlete who competed in the event would be disqualified from entering any FINA-held competitions for one to two years. This would prevent ISL swimmers from entering the World Championships.  

However, after many years of having their racing opportunities and winnings dictated by FINA, some of the best athletes in the world began to speak out. Swimming stars Katinka Hosszu, Micheal Andrew and Tom Shields filed a class action lawsuit against FINA for violating USA anti-trust laws. The ISL has filed a similar suit. 

Swimswam.com reported Hosszu as stating “My passion has always been to push swimming in the direction where swimmers are partners of the governing body, not just muppets. ISL takes swimmers seriously, not like FINA.” 

After more athletes raised their voices, including world record holders Adam Peaty and Katie Ledecky, FINA backed down from the ban, instead requiring all meets to follow FINA rules and regulations. 

Controversy still brews, however, as FINA has stated that any world records set at the ISL competitions would not be ratified. This again led to outspoken protest by the world’s fastest swimmers, and FINA agreed to recognize results and records set at five of the seven league competitions this year. This agreement was not made fast enough for Katie Ledecky, who set an American Record in the SCM 400m freestyle earlier in the year, however, USA Swimming as said it will recognize the record unilaterally. The decision did come in time for 19-year old Minna Atherton from Australia, who broke the world record in the SCM 100 backstroke. Her record will be recognized. 

While the tension simmers between FINA and the ISL, many of the world’s best swimmers seem keen to take advantage of new racing opportunities and income sources. With the weight of the swimming community behind it, ISL is having a breakout season, with or without FINA’s support. 


Live streams: cbcsports.ca and via CBC Sports app for iOS and Android devices

Broadcast coverage: Road to the Olympic Games on CBC and free CBC Gem streaming service

The next event will be held in College Park, USA at the Geary F. Eppley Recreation Center. The teams competing will be Cali, Condors, DC Trident, LA Current, and the NY Breakers. See https://isl.global/clubs/ for a list of clubs and club rosters.

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