FINA’s refusal to approve the Energy for Swim 2018 meet could lead to bans of between one and two years to athletes who compete, sources say. And athletes are currently caught in the middle of the standoff, waiting for each other to make decisions on whether to compete in the unapproved meet.
Background: The skirmish revolves around a FINA rule interpretation which classified the Energy for Swim event as an international competition requiring FINA approval. But that interpretation happened only recently, leaving the meet unable to get approval six months in advance, as required by FINA rules. Meet organizers framed the move as FINA trying to “destroy” the meet, which has ties to the International Swimming League (ISL), an organization meet officials say FINA refused to recognize earlier this year. The meet itself isn’t officially organized by the ISL, but is hosted by the Italian Swimming Federation, whose president Paolo Barelli ran against and lost to current FINA president Julio Maglione in a contentious election last year. You can read more about the political context and maneuvering around the event in the story we broke last week.
FINA Rules: 1- to 2-year bans
USA Swimming made a conference call to national team athletes last week to explain the situation. Sources say the call was led by Chief Operating Officer Mike Unger and also featured Managing Director Lindsay Mintenko and CEO Tim Hinchey. Unger said the call was purely informational, and that USA Swimming didn’t – and couldn’t – advise athletes either to compete or not compete at the event.
“The idea of the call was simply to talk to the athletes,” Unger said. “First and foremost, our priorities are to make sure that we offer as many opportunities as we can for our athletes… but we also need to follow the FINA rules and make sure that no one gets themselves in hot water.
“We do support the idea of this competition, but we also support FINA, and so we have to follow FINA rules.”
Unger said the call was prompted by a letter FINA sent out on October 30 informing the federation that the Energy for Swim was not approved. The letter referenced two sections of FINA rules, one (BL 12.3) governing FINA approval and the other (GR 4.5) spelling out sanctions for participation in unauthorized meets. GR 4.5 lays out the specific punishment: a minimum suspension of one year and a maximum suspension of two years. National federations will be responsible for handing out the specific suspension, but FINA can review the suspension and increase it to the maximum of two years.
“That’s the rule,” Unger said. “I hope we’d never get to that point.”
According to Unger, the decision to comply with that FINA rule would lie with United States Aquatic Sports (USAS), which is the overall umbrella governing USA Swimming, USA Water Polo, USA Synchro, USA Diving and USA Masters Swimming. But if a national federation refused to suspend its athletes, FINA would have power to sanction that federation. We’ve reached out to USAS for clarification on whether they’d comply with the rules, but have not yet received a response.
Most of the stakeholders we’ve spoken to understood USA Swimming’s predicament, and were quicker to place blame on FINA.
U.S. national teamer and 2016 Olympian Tom Shields said as much in an e-mail to SwimSwam: “USA Swimming has been great, but have their hands tied due to the nature of what their role is,” he wrote. “FINA is trying to stop the meet procedurally by both enforcing obscure rules after deadlines have passed and intimidating athletes through their NGB’s. I do not know the personal relationships on their end, but it looks like a now years long dream of true professional swimming is caught in development hell through this procedural gaming.”
That scenario has essentially left athletes in the lurch, deciding whether or not to compete if the meet does go forward next month.
“It would seem now everyone’s kind of waiting to see what happens next, who makes good on their word, and when,” Shields said.
“I don’t think there’s enough information for the kids to make an informed decision yet,” Chelle said, adding that at this point, he’s cautioning swimmers that it’s too risky to participate in the meet (and risk suspension) unless something changes. “I feel like they’re all waiting for each other to make a decision before any of them commit.”
How Likely Are Suspensions?
We’ve reached out to FINA for comment on the matter, and if it truly intends to suspend athletes for attending the Energy for Swim meet, but haven’t received a response, though their inclusion of GR 4.5 in the October 30 letter did clearly inform federations of the potential for suspensions under FINA rules.
Some swimmers have wondered if FINA would follow through with suspending top-level athletes, thereby weakening the marketability of future World Championships and Olympic Games. It was only about three years ago that FINA Executive Director Cornel Marculescu told media that “it would be no problem for us” to create an extra place at the 2015 World Championships for then-suspended-by-USA-Swimming star Michael Phelps, though nothing ever became of the offer.
“I think the swimmers’ general take, though, is ‘even if we participate in this meet and it’s not sanctioned, is FINA really going to pull the trigger on suspensions?’,” Chelle said, though he made clear he still felt the risk of suspension was too high for athletes to risk competing. “I think it would be silly for the stars of the team to risk even the short-term suspension.”
Notably, world record-holding British breaststroker Adam Peaty – currently one of the top few swimmers in the world – announced his intent to compete at Energy for Swim after the news broke that FINA was not recognizing the event. The originally-announced meet lineup is good enough to raise serious questions as to whether FINA would suspend everyone involved. But the lineup would also probably shrink if the meet is indeed outlawed and suspensions threatened.
Others have said they don’t expect the meet to take place at all without FINA approval. Unger says USA Swimming has been working with both sides, encouraging a resolution between FINA and the meet organizers.
Legally, suspensions could run into their own issues. Dmitriy Kachurovskiy, an official with the ISL, said legal precedent should make it difficult for suspensions to stick.
“My personal understanding is that it’s absolutely impossible to disqualify a swimmer from participation,” he said, citing a 2017 European Commission decision. In that case, the European Commission rules that International Skating Union punishments on athletes participating in non-authorized competitions were in breach of European Union antitrust laws.
The other major wrinkle is that FINA’s rules specifically outlaw a “relationship with a non-affiliated or suspended body.” But the Energy for Swim meet is organized by the Italian Swimming Federation, currently a FINA member, even if the meet itself isn’t authorized.