Breakaway swimming league says standoff not quite over

The independent swimming league at the center of a standoff about the right of athletes to compete for improved prize money has welcomed a decision by governing body FINA to lift a threat to ban those taking part in its competitions.

Still, the International Swimming League (ISL) says that more needs to be done after FINA’s threats to ban swimmers who competed in a December meeting ended up with the competition canceled.

“This is a step in the right direction to free swimmers to compete more and earn more,” ISL managing director Andrea Di Nino said in a statement Wednesday. “FINA’s capitulation comes in reaction to ISL’s and elite swimmers antitrust lawsuits that exposed FINA’s illegal threatened ban of swimmers who participate in ISL’s events.”

Olympic and world champions filed an antitrust suit in California last month over FINA’s threats.

“FINA acknowledges that swimmers are free to participate in competitions or events staged by independent organizers,” the Switzerland-based swim body announced Tuesday after consulting with national federations.

However, results and records will be unofficial if ISL organizers fail to get FINA’s approval, including fitting into the official events calendar and running an approved doping control program.

“We can move forward but what they’re saying is, ‘OK, we won’t disqualify you but we won’t recognize your results,'” Di Nino told The Associated Press. “We consider this gesture of dialogue from FINA a positive response but it doesn’t resolve the problem. … We’re happy to respect all of WADA’s rules.”

FINA has countered the ISL with a proposed three-meet series starting in March and paying $3.9 million in prize money. It also topped up the prize fund by almost $1 million for the short-course world championships held in China last month.

Conflict between FINA and swimmers increased before the scheduled privately run meeting in December in Turin, Italy. It was canceled amid the threatened bans.

“FINA’s supposed change of heart still does not address the real financial harm FINA caused to swimmers and the ISL by forcing the cancellation of the Turin Event, and then copying the ISL’s team competition model in a further FINA effort to quash competition that benefits swimmers and fans alike,” the ISL said.

In a similar case, Dutch speedskaters won a European Commission ruling in Brussels in 2017 against the Swiss-based International Skating Union. They had wanted to compete in a South Korean-organized event in Dubai but were threatened with bans.

The revised FINA policy followed advice from its legal counsel, Francois Carrard, who is a key International Olympic Committee adviser after being its long-time director general.

“FINA’s business is not to punish athletes,” Carrard said in the FINA statement. “FINA recognizes the right of athletes to participate in any swimming event. However, this participation should respect the frame of sport structure.”

Olympic 100-meter breaststroke champion Adam Peaty of Britain, who was committed to the ISL Turin meet, welcomed FINA’s announcement.

“It’s great to see that FINA are listening to the athletes and making some positive changes,” Peaty tweeted. “I’m encouraged by today’s announcement. Hopefully they are a step closer to supporting the ISL which I really believe is a fantastic opportunity for both swimmers and fans.”