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Bid to form alliance to head off swimming war

by ZwemZa on January 8th, 2019

Swimming Australia CEO Leigh Russell hopes to head off any FINA bans

Swimming Australia chief executive Leigh Russell is hoping to work with Commonwealth nations, plus the US, to formulate a collective response to the breakaway International Swimming League to head off a threatened war with FINA that could wreck all their Olympic campaigns.

FINA has hinted at two-year bans for any swimmers who compete in a series of unsanctioned ISL meets later in the year, which could damage the powerful US, British, Canadian and South African squads at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, along with an Australian team that is shaping as the best in more than a decade.

Russell hopes all the bluster can be avoided and that ISL and FINA can arrive at a compromise that will restore order to the sport while allowing about 300 swimmers worldwide, including at least half a dozen Australians, to benefit from the largesse of ISL’s billionaire backer, Konstantin Grigorishin.

“The thing that worries me is the politicking that seems to be going on between ISL and FINA, so I am concerned that Swimming Australia could be caught in the middle of something that isn’t really of our making,” Russell told The Australian yesterday.

“It could be a distraction to be really blunt. If there was a way for ISL and FINA to work together and provide opportunity for our swimmers globally, that would be the best outcome. But I think the politics has the capacity to stand in the way of solid performances at the Olympic Games.”

Russell believes an alliance with like-minded and predominantly English-speaking countries might act as a circuit-breaker to cool the overheated rhetoric.

“That would certainly be ideal,” she said. “Our job as a federation is to do the best thing by our sport and by our people and that focus is exactly the focus of the US, the UK, Canada and so on.

“There will be, when there needs to be, differences of opinion, — no problem with that — but an issue like this, which has the capacity to derail Olympic campaigns if it got very political, we would probably use the strength of each other to formulate our viewpoint.”

It would be the English-speaking countries, along with the swimming superpowers of Russia, China and Japan, that would most be affected if the situation deteriorates to the point where FINA invokes sanctions that could ban the top athletes in each country.

And while the US and the other swimming superpowers might be able to absorb such a blow, ­Australia would be decimated if it lost such competitors as Cate Campbell, Kyle Chalmers, Emily Seebohm or Mitch Larkin.

That would hardly be of overriding concern to a FINA Bureau presided over by a president from Uruguay, an honorary lifetime president from Algeria, a Romanian CEO and which includes delegates from such countries as the Bahamas, Barbados, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Morocco, Senegal, Thailand, Angola, Uganda, ­Kazakhstan and Paraguay among its 25 voting members.

Russell said Australia had a good working relationship with FINA, although the tyranny of distance did play a part in its dealing with the Lausanne-based organisation. “If FINA said ‘jump’, we wouldn’t say ‘How high?’.

“I definitely don’t want Swimming Australia to be looking like we’re siding with anyone except our own people, but I also want our own people to go eyes wide open into anything new. I feel I have a responsibility to the athletes to find out more and to then provide sound advice so that they are not caught up in something that is bigger than them.”

Where some in the swimming world can’t get past the fact that the ISL isn’t working through approved channels and ticking all the necessary boxes, Russell senses that the sport is about to be profoundly reshaped.

Whether it’s the ISL or some other agent that brings it about she is unsure, but she is convinced change is on the way.

“Sport is changing and really going through a period of transition and evolution, maybe even revolution, and maybe this is the start of it for swimming,” she said. “When something like the ISL comes along, it’s sort of like the perfect storm, young people wanting to earn a living. And they look at the AFL and they say, ‘Gosh, I wouldn’t mind some of that excitement as well’.

“Whether the ISL is the answer I don’t know at this stage, but what is happening and evolving is that we have to look at different formats and offerings and making sure we are capturing every opportunity that we can.”

The ISL’s proposed 12 meets in Europe and the US will have a Skins component, whereby a race is swum and re-swum every couple of minutes until there is an ultimate winner. It’s a format that Australia largely pioneered and Russell is at least thinking about reviving it or coming up with her own formula.

“People have spoken to me a lot about the Skins and they hark back to that,” she said. “It has those two elements of fun and competition and one of the things I love about what the AFL has done is that they have recognised that they are in the entertainment business as well as a performance ­business.

“Swimming is only just starting to think about that and about the opportunities that arise from creating a product that is interesting and fun to watch for the consumer but also for the athletes.”

Yet it was not all about money. Russell said today’s swimmers weren’t nearly as impoverished as those of yesteryear and were well funded not just by the Australian government but also by Hancock Prospecting.

“Gina Rinehart plays a direct role in ensuring our swimmers are directly funded well,’’ Russell says.

“But these athletes have been getting out of bed at an ungodly hour for many, many years, plying their craft, and to have some opportunity to have some fun and really perform would be a really great one to have a look at. This (ISL) is another opportunity to perform against the best in the world and for our swimmers that’s a fantastic opportunity to take up.

“I think we’ve got a bit of an ­untold story.”

Wayne Smith | The Australian

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