Nick Butler

Populism is all the rage in politics these days, from the "taking back control" of Brexit to "Make America Great Again" and numerous European elections in recent years.

Whisper it quietly, but there are growing signs that athletes are also beginning to rebel against the sporting establishment and an age-old consensus about how sport should be governed.

Athletes, in theory at least, have long had a "voice" in sporting governing bodies. Current International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach and International Association of Athletics Federations counterpart Sebastian Coe were among the first wave of representatives to emerge almost 37 years ago at an IOC Congress in Baden Baden.

Virtually every sports body has an Athletes' Commission these days, but is this the same as genuine influence? A group of Germans seeking funding to set-up an "Athletes Germany" group separated financially and politically from the country's National Olympic Committee certainly think not and, too often, athlete representatives appear to sacrifice conviction for loyalty and self-preservation.

Icelandic swimmer Hrafnhildur Lúthersdóttir agrees.

"My opinion on the federations, whether that be my swimming federation [in Iceland] or LEN (European Swimming League) or FINA (International Swimming Federation), is that they are all too politically driven rather than about the athletes and their well-being," she told insidethegames.

"In my federation, athletes are not heard and it was controversial within the federation when I got onto the Board.

"I was 'too young' and 'don’t know as much' so I feel like my opinions are often not heard or taken seriously.

"I am hoping for a change and that is what I am working for."

Hrafnhildur Lúthersdóttir is one of Iceland's most successful swimmers ever ©Getty Images
Hrafnhildur Lúthersdóttir is one of Iceland's most successful swimmers ever ©Getty Images

Lúthersdóttir announced her retirement aged 26 in January after a career which spanned Olympic Games in London and Rio de Janeiro. In Rio, she carried the Icelandic flag at the Closing Ceremony after finishing a creditable sixth in a 100 metres breaststroke final where American teenager Lilly King waggled a finger before beating controversial Russian rival Yuliya Efimova, who was belatedly allowed to compete despite being embroiled in two separate doping cases in her career.

Lúthersdóttir also won three medals - two silvers and a bronze - at the 2016 European Championships in London and was rewarded by finishing second behind World Cup football star Gylfi Sigurðsson for Iceland's Sportsperson of the Year.

I met her last week in Kazan where she was among representatives from 92 countries attending a Volunteer Leader's Forum organised by the International University Sports Federation (FISU). I enjoyed a rare chance to speak with a group, largely consisting of athletes and administrators-in-the-making, who existed outside the "this is how things are done" bubble that so many in the sports world accept as fact. 

It amazed me that, despite her success, Lúthersdóttir was never able to profit financially from swimming. 

Like many other top athletes, she was awarded a scholarship in the United States at the University of Florida. She describes this as the "best decision" she could have made "both for my education and my swimming career" as it enabled her to "study without having to have to worry about money and I could focus on my education and my swimming as well".

"Coming from a small country and an even smaller town I was training with kids that were five plus years younger than me and only about 20 in the group at max," she added. "So, by going to the States, I was able to train with people my age and on my level, which definitely benefited me and helped me along the way.

"The University of Florida helped me a lot with the scholarship, paying for my education and everything surrounding that, but sadly the Icelandic Swimming Federation wasn't as supportive.

"I got a small contribution from the Icelandic Sporting Federation that the Swimming Federation had control of, and I could only use this money for things related to swimming, such as travelling to meets, training fees, etc. I couldn't use the money at all to support myself or save up for the future.

"It took me a long time as well to get to that level where I did get some support from my federation. Up until then I had to rely on my parents who luckily could help me as much as they could. I wouldn't have gotten to where I was in my career without them.

"Sadly, that’s a common story at least in Iceland that talented kids in swimming aren’t able to partake in all the meets that they want to because it is too expensive, and the parents can’t afford it or they even have a couple of kids and so they can’t support all of them - they pick and choose or have to deny all of the opportunity."

Hrafnhildur Lúthersdóttir, right, pictured with other participants at the FISU Volunteer Leaders Academy in Kazan last week ©Facebook
Hrafnhildur Lúthersdóttir, right, pictured with other participants at the FISU Volunteer Leaders Academy in Kazan last week ©Facebook

Prize money in swimming is limited and not enough to survive on and, while Lúthersdóttir is grateful for sponsorship from Speedo, this was only for swimwear and gear. She also received useful support from the IOC's Olympic Solidarity funding, but only for 18 months leading up to the Rio Olympics.

"Asking for money in Iceland is very difficult, and I got denied multiple times," she explained.

"I was fortunate enough a few times where some company was willing to support me just the one time with some money, and my hometown of Hafnarfjordur was always as supportive as they could be.

"But when it comes to the higher ups in Iceland - the federations for example - the money went to other sports or into middlemen and was not distributed directly to the athletes. I was lucky to get some Olympic Solidarity money before the Rio Olympics, a year and a half in advance so that helped since I could use that money for other things than just swim meets and actually 'live on' the money.

"Swimming is not a career for anyone, sadly, unless you are making medals and come from a wealthy country.

"I know of other athletes that are in the same or similar position that I was in but I also know athletes that were better supported. But as always, everyone has their problems and complaints with their federations and higher ups.

"Even when I won three medals at Europeans 2016 I did not get any more support in money, I even had to pay for my coach to come with me to the Olympics that year. Things need to change in Iceland and that is what I am trying to do by being on the Board of the swimming federation now."

This all appears a world away from the lavish lives enjoyed by top footballers and stars in many other sports. Top swimmers like those in Britain who benefit from lottery funding are better off, but surely bodies such as FINA and the IOC could do more?

The German athletes group chaired by freshly crowned European fencing champion Max Hartung argue that, while Olympic Solidarity funding aids some, it does not help enough people and the IOC should donate more of their vast incomes directly to athletes.

Fencer Max Hartung and swimmer Katinka Hosszu are among other athletes to have called for greater representation ©Getty Images
Fencer Max Hartung and swimmer Katinka Hosszu are among other athletes to have called for greater representation ©Getty Images

FINA sent a letter to all members earlier this month urging them against supporting a somewhat mysterious rival swimming league supposedly offering both prize money and appearance fees. Rather than worrying about "autonomy" and rival events, should sporting bodies not welcome anything which will grant greater opportunities for athletes?

I would argue that a lucrative venture such as the IPL (Indian Premier League) in cricket is beneficial for the whole exposure and development of the sport, as well as enriching top players.

Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu is currently leading calls for a swimmers' union to lobby FINA for change and greater rewards. This is something that Lúthersdóttir supports.

Anti-doping is another area of concern and FISU delegates were full of questions when a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) presentation was made about the drugs testing system in Kazan last week.

"When I was at the Europeans [in London] I remember how shocked I was that I got three medals and swam a total of 11 times - nine times in the breaststroke events and two in the relay - and not once did I get drug tested," Lúthersdóttir told insidethegames.

"I also noticed that there was rarely ever anyone at the drug testing centre that we passed each time we got out of the pool to go to the stands. That was a one-time thing I hope, because luckily at most other meets I have noticed a more active drug testing scene.

"I don’t know how much FINA is actually involved with the testing but I am certainly hoping that WADA is doing the best they can to stop the drug cheats because cheating is unfair for everyone, even for themselves. They are stealing someone else's chance to stand on the podium, be a part of the finals, be a part of the meet, and they are stealing their own pride in knowing they did their best all by themselves.

"The impression I have on FINA is that they care more about money than they do about the actual athletes or sport itself. They are willing to look away and allow drug cheats to get away with things as long as FINA is supported along the way.

"Sadly, when drugs are involved, and people really want to get away with it they are always a step ahead of the system. I think WADA will always be one or even two steps behind the rest of the game, because where there is a will there is a way for those willing to cheat to achieve what they want."

Lúthersdóttir, who is now back in Iceland and plans to study medicine, is refreshingly positive about her swimming experience and does not advise others against pursuing it as a career.

Hrafnhildur Lúthersdóttir swam in the Olympic 100m breaststoke final where Lilly King, right, beat Yuliya Efimova, left ©Getty Images
Hrafnhildur Lúthersdóttir swam in the Olympic 100m breaststoke final where Lilly King, right, beat Yuliya Efimova, left ©Getty Images

"Although these are some strong words and I am criticising a lot of things of course a lot of things are also good and I wouldn't be who I am or where I am without swimming," she concludes. 

"I would definitely recommend swimming as a sport for anyone that wants to live a healthy lifestyle, have fun and make a lot of friends and memories along the way.

"But I beg of them then to stand their ground and stand up for themselves so that we can make a change and hopefully make it a better supported sport in the future."

The IOC Athletes' Commission, now chaired by another successful female swimmer from a so-called small nation in Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry, is in the process of developing an "Athletes' Charter" to better codify their existing rights.

Do they actually need to consider more radical changes to the way athletes are supported?