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Fina hit by lawsuits over International Swimming League stance

Fina, the world governing body for aquatic sport, has said it is prepared to mount a “robust defence” against class-action lawsuits filed against it by three leading swimmers and organisers of the proposed International Swimming League (ISL).

Both suits are pending in the US District Court for the Northern District of California and come amid escalating tension between Fina and the swimming’s top stars over what the latter see is the federation leveraging its market dominance to extract, and largely keep for itself, significant levels of revenue.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are headlined by Katinka Hosszú, the Hungarian multi-Olympic gold medallist. Hosszú, known as the ‘Iron Lady’ of swimming, has fought a long-running battle against Fina and has been joined in the lawsuit by American world champions Tom Shields and Michael Andrew.

On behalf of elite swimmers around the world, the plaintiffs charge Fina with unlawfully restraining competition in the market for top-tier international swimming competitions. Their lawsuit follows Fina’s crackdown against a two-day competition that the new professional ISL league planned to sponsor in Turin, Italy, later this month.

Organisers were forced to cancel that meet after Fina said it would ban from the Olympics any swimmer who competed in it. As the popularity of competitive swimming has soared over the last decade, its athletes believe a professional league that will compensate its best athletes and better reward them is long overdue.

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

Hosszú, a three-time Olympic gold medallist and seven-time world champion, said: “My passion has always been to push swimming in the direction where swimmers are partners of the governing body, not just muppets. ISL takes swimmers seriously, not like Fina.”

The lawsuit claims that Fina earned about $118m (€103.4m) in gross revenues from all aquatics events in 2016 and 2017, adding that it paid only 12.5 per cent of that amount to athletes in the form of prize money.

“Very few select swimmers make a living swimming, while Fina is making a killing,” Andrew, who in 2013 became the youngest swimmer to go pro, said. “Fina’s main consideration is not for swimmers. Fina set our sport back into the dark ages by blocking ISL’s request. They can co-exist.”

In a simultaneous filing, the ISL has separately sued Fina for its anti-competitive conduct. The ISL was responsible for coordinating the Turin event that Fina blocked, and it has plans to roll out a series of meets in 2019 featuring approximately 300 of the world’s best swimmers.

ISL chief executive Ali Khan said: “Governing bodies and commercial enterprise co-exist in other sports and even work together for the betterment of the sport. But Fina’s priorities just are not aligned with those of the swimmers, and as a result the sport has not been allowed to evolve with the times.

“The ISL deserves a chance to offer swimmers more opportunity to compete and earn a living, and the swimmers deserve not to be shackled to Fina’s whim. And the laws here and in Europe require that ISL has that chance.”

Fina recently rewrote its rules so that it could ban swimmers from competing in events even when they did so in their individual capacity or as part of a team that is not affiliated with any Fina-member federation. The lawsuit alleges that Fina undertook that action only after the ISL refused to pay a $50m fee that Fina had demanded as the price for approval of ISL events.

In a statement, Fina said: “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 (25m) in Hangzhou, where prize money of US$ 2,070,000 will be distributed.

“Fina will nonetheless give the filings our full attention and mount a robust defence if required to do so. Meanwhile in Hangzhou, the Fina Athletes Committee will consult with aquatics athletes in order to continue its work of making sure athlete voices are clearly heard within Fina’s decision-making bodies.

“As always, Fina remains open to proposals that would genuinely enhance – rather than conflict with – the current and planned competition calendars, providing further opportunities for aquatics athletes, and ideally in a manner that benefits the whole sport.

“With Fina’s events serving as the foundation of international swimming competition, Fina will also continue to innovate in terms of competition format, sports entertainment, broadcast and digital distribution, in order to set stages worthy of our sport’s stars.”

The emergence of the lawsuits comes a year on from a similar case involving the International Skating Union (ISU), which resulted in the European Commission ruling its statutes were in breach of EU antitrust law.