Swimmers hit world body FINA with Californian antitrust case

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              FILE - In this Sunday, July 30, 2017 file photo, Hungary's Katinka Hosszu celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women's 400-meter individual medley final during the swimming competitions of the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Hungary. Three Olympic and world champion swimmers have filed an anti-trust suit in California challenging governing body FINA’s control of organizing competitions, it was announced Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. The legal action by Hungarian great Katinka Hosszu and Americans Tom Shields and Michael Andrew follows Switzerland-based FINA shutting down an independent meet in Italy with threats to ban competitors. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn, file)
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Three Olympic and world champion swimmers have filed an antitrust suit in California challenging governing body FINA’s control of organizing competitions.

The legal challenge is the latest faced by Olympic bodies from athletes seeking greater prize money and more say in running their sport.

It was filed Friday on behalf of Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu and the United States’ Tom Shields and Michael Andrew and follows Switzerland-based FINA shutting down an independent meet in Italy with threats to ban competitors.

The planned event in Turin this month involved organizers of a proposed International Swimming League (ISL), which aims to operate outside FINA’s control and pay higher prize money.

“ISL takes swimmers seriously, not like FINA,” Hosszu, a three-time gold medalist at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, said in a statement. “My passion has always been to push swimming in the direction where swimmers are partners of the governing body, not just Muppets.”

Lawyers in San Francisco for the swimmers said they “believe a professional league that will compensate its best athletes and better reward them for a lifetime’s worth of hard training and sacrifice is long overdue.”

ISL organizers filed a separate and simultaneous suit against FINA for anticompetitive conduct, the lawyers said.

Both suits are pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. They were filed as FINA leaders and national swim teams gather in Hangzhou, China, for a convention ahead of the shorter, 25-meter pool world championships, which open Tuesday.

FINA said in a statement Sunday from Hangzhou, China, where the world short-course championships are taking place, that it had “taken note of the filings.”

“As world and Olympic champions, the swimmers in question will understand better than others that FINA’s attention is currently and appropriately focused on the 950 swimmers, including two of the athletes in question, from 180 member federations taking part in the 14th FINA World Swimming Championships…”

FINA will nonetheless give the filings our full attention and mount a robust defense if required to do so. As always, FINA remains open to proposals that would genuinely enhance — rather than conflict with — the current and planned competition calendars.”

In a similar case last year, Dutch speed skaters won a European Commission ruling in Brussels 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.

After a gathering Saturday of Olympic leaders in Lausanne, the IOC noted concern at the “proliferation” of sports events and “pressure from commercial entities on the existing sports model.”

Delegates included two-time Olympic swim gold medalist Kirsty Coventry, who chairs the IOC’s athlete commission. It has been criticized by some athlete groups for representing IOC interests ahead of those of the athletes.

“Neither of the two lawsuits challenge FINA’s authority to operate as the gatekeeper of the Olympic Games,” the swimmers’ lawyers said. “Rather, they allege that FINA unlawfully wields that power to prohibit swimmers from participating in non-FINA events or in any events that FINA does not formally approve.”

The Turin meet was canceled after months of talks between ISL organizers and FINA broke down.

The world swim body asked for a $50 million payment spread over 10 years to permit the ISL to operate, the plaintiffs claim.

“FINA earned about $118 million in gross revenues from all aquatics events in 2016 and 2017,” the lawyers’ statement said, claiming only 12.5 percent was paid out in athlete prize money.

One month ago, FINA announced it would almost double its prize fund for the short-course worlds in China to $2.07 million.

The governing body is closely tied to influential Olympic power broker Sheikh Ahmad al Fahad al Sabah of Kuwait. His most senior aide is FINA’s ranking vice president and expected to succeed president Julio Maglione, 83, of Uruguay.