After Closed-Door Meeting, Athletes in London Ready to Organize

After a closed-door, swimmers-only meeting on Wednesday morning in London, a unified group of athletes emerged. While they described “a lot of work to be done” to formalize it, they expressed a commitment to unify as a group.

Hungarian Katinka Hosszu, an Olympic champion, was the first athlete to speak out, in response to a question about the threatened FINA suspensions. The tone shift by athletes was evident in her response. “We want to come together, and that would be the point, if any one of us for some strange reason gets banned, then we will stand together, so our discussion is not about banning.”

Her tone in response, almost as though the conversation in their head had moved beyond bans and boycotts, echoed comments by the head of the advisory board of the International Swimming League (and its financial backer) Konstantin Grigorishin. The topic of suspensions and boycotts were hot on the athletes’ minds a day earlier on Tuesday, but Grigorishin expressed his opinion that the athletes have a powerful leverage position that doesn’t need to rely on boycotts for their strength.

And so the initial steps toward an athletes’ association have begun, at least for the 30 or so Olympians in attendance. On advice of multiple experts (including attorneys and a professor of organized labor at Cornell University, Rachel Aleks), the word ‘union’ is not the one being used. As Aleks explained in the meeting, because of the international nature, the group wouldn’t be a ‘union’ as we see in leagues like the NBA or in labor; rather they’d be an ‘association’ that would rely on their value as unique talents rather than the backing of law to negotiate. The message is that their leverage is their inherent value within the sport as the best athletes. There are no ‘scab workers’ available to replace the swimmers in any reasonable way.

While we’ve seen overtures of swimmers ‘unions’ and ‘associations’ with nearly every generation of  US Olympians for the last 4 decades, including a recent project of GAPS, the difference in the latest incarnation is the financial backing of Grigorishin. Grigorishin is supporting both the networking of the athletes necessary to bond into an organized group, as well as the expertise needed to take the project past an emotional push and into a sustained organization. Grigorishin has also offered to manage the union in its founding stages and help negotiate on the athletes’ behalf. The financial backing of Grigorishin, primarily in the support of the pending lawsuits and any others, seems to have given the athletes a surge of confidence that has lacked in prior attempts.

But the ISL is adamant that the association and the league are two entirely different projects that are simultaneously connected but not to be intertwined.

Athletes described Wednesday’s initial meetings as beginning with emotion before being settled into discussions about what needed to happen to push the association ahead. There were no formal decisions made (though Cameron van der Burgh has a lot of support for a leadership role), rather the athletes laid out a path for how the conversation would continue.

“We did set clear goals of what we want to accomplish,” American Olympian Tom Shields said afterward. “We’re discussing who might be involved in this, what group we would represent or would group would be represented and then from there we would like to communicate about leadership.”

Athletes stressed that building a more efficient or effective path of communication among the athletes is key in the early stages. “I think the hardest thing for the athletes’ organization any time soon is just going to be the difficulty of communication, probably,” World Record holder Ryan Murphy said. “I think what we tried to do today is (determine) steps of what needs to happen. So we all know what those steps are and now it’s about figuring out how we are going to communicate when we’re not all sitting in the same room, trying to do that through representatives from different continents. Then I feel like once we set those representatives, then everything should be able to move pretty quickly.”

The athletes will meet again in an afternoon session on Wednesday with both the ISL team and other subject-matter experts to regroup on the morning’s conversations and further discuss

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straightblackline
3 years ago

The following statement was very significant: “if any one of us for some strange reason gets banned, then we will stand together”. It appears the swimmers are saying they will no longer be intimidated into not entering competitions not sanctioned by FINA and that if any bans are imposed, then the swimmers will collectively boycott FINA. The swimmers realize they are the ones with the power. Any threat by FINA to prevent the swimmers from competing at, say, the Olympics would be an empty one. Everyone knows there is no show without the swimmers.

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  straightblackline
3 years ago

Easy to say, but will their sponsors back them, and if so, for how long. We’re in a ramp-up to the Olympic sponsorship game, particularly for the U.S. pros, and shots at the Olympics are not a given for any of them (who would’ve predicted Dressel’s poor Summer Nationals/Pac-Pacs? — and the surest shots, Dressel, Simone, weren’t at the ISL meeting). There are zillions of people who would gladly take their slot on an Olympic team roster. Michael Andrew falls on his sword over this, so much for the family breadwinner, unless Adidas or the Oligarch support him through it. They should’ve pushed on this the year after Rio not with two years to go. Are athletes really going to… Read more »

Ol' Longhorn
3 years ago

No one’s commented on the billionaire backing the league, Konstantin Grigorishin. “The Oligarch Who Says He Is Not,” as one article put it (https://objectiveproject.org/2017/02/09/grygoryshyn-eng/). Is he funding the Shields et al lawsuit legal fees? What does SwimSwam have to say about him?

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
3 years ago

Yeah, it flat out killed my enthusiasm over it.

joe bagodonuts
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
3 years ago

Yes. I heard that Bill Gates might want to invest – but, he’s one of those evil billionaires!

Mr O
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
3 years ago

It doesn’t matter where he got his money as long as he is investing in swimming. The sport needs investors

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  Mr O
3 years ago

Unless it gets seized. Then the athletes are hung out to dry.

Stefan
Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
3 years ago

“The soft-spoken and mysterious oligarch has a sarcastic manner of speaking and a skeptical attitude: he often joked and smiled ironically. When thinking of something, he stared into empty space or glanced out the window.”

Not to mention that his eyes also glistened with the ghosts of his past… 😀

Ugh
3 years ago

Same!!!

Spectatorn
3 years ago

Hope their efforts will take swimming to the level like other major sports, not just for the swimmers but also a more structured career for others to work in swimming – coaches (pool and dry land/strength), medical, club admin, etc, etc. We have seen KH travels around with her own crew like other sport stars. I hope that become the norm for more swim stars, and open opportunity to others who love the sports a chance to stay in different capacity.

Socrateshatesoliveoil
3 years ago

Good for these kids..at least they are trying to do something constructive. While I doubt any of these athletes will significantly benefit financially, it is a wonderful exercise in humility, double speak, lawyer-ese and table the vote until next year.

BGNole97
3 years ago

It appears the Iron Lady has ballz of steel. Really hope they’re successful. These talented athletes are sick of seeing other athletes in other sports earning more and more money each year while they continue to struggle.

Swimming4silver
3 years ago

why no Aussie swimmers? not even retire ones?

Swimswim
Reply to  Swimming4silver
3 years ago

Seebohm and groves were there..

Yozhik
Reply to  Swimming4silver
3 years ago

If Hosszu is the voice of this movement then it would be better to stay out of it. With so many court appearances, case filings, open aggressive letters, etc she is the most scandalous person sport of swimming has ever seen. Does it say anything about her? It does. When I got into a car accident my insurance company puts me on the black list even if it was nothing of my fault. If it happens several times they will kick me out because they consider me a client of high risk.
One may argue that all Hosszu’s scandals are for the sake of justice. Well, I would be careful with that. She has been a golden child of… Read more »

Mr O
Reply to  Yozhik
3 years ago

The FINA employee Yozhik is back again

Mr O
Reply to  Mr O
3 years ago

You got a point though.
But Hosszu is a extremely popular swimmer (especially in Hungary) and will be a very important voice for this movement.

ERVINFORTHEWIN
Reply to  Mr O
3 years ago

it looks like it , yes .

Chlorine
Reply to  Braden Keith
3 years ago

She is not Tonya Harding!

Old Man Chalmers
Reply to  Yozhik
3 years ago

Yozhik with another bad hot take, what a surprise.

Blackflag82
Reply to  Yozhik
3 years ago

TLDR: yozhik thinks if you benefited under a system you can’t critique it and work to improve it. Luckily history disagrees.

Brownish
Reply to  Yozhik
3 years ago

It would be better you “stay out of”…

Ervin
3 years ago

Missy’s retiring!!!!

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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