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