Michael Pavitt

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has repeatedly warned International Federations to "change or be changed".

It has become increasingly clear over recent weeks that the International Swimming Federation (FINA) are being changed, having failed to change themselves.

A Federation which has been seen by some as complacent suddenly stirred into action by announcing a new Champions Series which they state would offer swimmers "unprecedented prize money". The team format, comprising of 12 men and 12 women, was announced amid the escalation of a feud with the International Swimming League (ISL), who suggested FINA's event was a "shameless cut and paste" of their idea.

While civil lawsuits look likely to decide the outcome in the FINA and ISL battle, two conclusions are apparent. External criticism once again proves to be the way to force sporting bodies to reform, while the establishment of potentially two lucrative competitions seems good news for athletes. 

An assessment of FINA's finances would indicate that there is scope for discussions on the topic of prize money, with roughly 12 per cent of the governing body's earnings available to be won.

"I love walking out and seeing the GB flag, but I have got bills to pay and a family to sustain in the future," two-time Olympic champion Adam Peaty reflected at an ISL Summit last week. "Can you imagine working all year, getting up at 5am and going to bed at ridiculous hours and only getting around 10 per cent of the pay?"

While you can make the case that some of swimming's top athletes have earned fairly sizeable amounts of money from the FINA World Cup, with the overall men's and women's winners earning $150,000 (£118,000/€130,000) this year, clearly that is not the case for all. With swimmers having a fairly short window to be at the very top level of the sport, it is hard to blame them for trying to secure as much money as they can, while they can.

As if to highlight the short span of a career, the United States' five-time Olympic champion Missy Franklin announced her retirement last week at the age of just 23, with shoulder pain leading to the decision. While clearly one of the better known American swimmers, her career at the absolute peak of her powers lasted less than a decade.

While Franklin might have secured significant sponsorship deals during her career due to her status, Peaty referenced swimmers who have made Olympic finals but might need to take on a second job in order to fund their career, let alone a life after sport.

I know of one example of one swimmer who reached a frankly stacked Olympic final, full of some of the greats of the pool, but was not soon after out of the sport after seeing his funding cut.

Adam Peaty was among 30 leading swimmers to attend an ISL summit in London last week ©Getty Images
Adam Peaty was among 30 leading swimmers to attend an ISL summit in London last week ©Getty Images

A key question that would need to be answered going forward is how these competitions can benefit these athletes, as well as the established names. Whether it is FINA or the ISL, these organisations clearly need to do some serious thinking in this area.

The latter, who are promising swimmers prize money totalling $10 million (£7.9 million/€8.8 million) from their format, have also encouraged swimmers to establish an independent association.

The ISL claimed their two-day summit in London would be an opportunity for more than 30 of the world's best swimmers to hear from experts in law, labour relations and business. Ideas like pension rights and insurance have been discussed, but the ISL have stopped short of offering swimmers any assurances.

"I can't say at this stage that we are giving any messaging about guaranteeing some of these benefits, but it is about making athletes aware of what they can achieve if they come together," said Ali Khan, ISL chief executive. "It is ultimately up to the athletes to create a list of priorities of what they think are important things to achieve. There is no reason they cannot secure guarantees or crystalise some of those wishes if they come together collectively."

At this stage, with broadcast and sponsorships yet to be negotiated, it is unclear as to how much of this is achievable. Would the potential development of the ISL lead to a boom in the finances of swimming which could make these ambitions a far more feasible prospect, or would it merely see a shift in broadcast and sponsorship revenue from FINA across to the ISL? As it stands, we also have no idea as to whether the ISL could be a long-term prospect or an event with a wealthy backer which comes and goes in a flash.

As heavily as the likes of FINA and the IOC get criticised, a fair chunk of their income does appear to go back into the sport. Perhaps development activities need to be highlighted more to show that without their cash, events such as the Olympics, where many of the athletes have made their names, may not have occurred.

However, calls for athletes to have greater collective bargaining power certainly seem fair. As was referred to at the ISL summit, the athletes are the stars of the show when it comes to events hosted by governing bodies. It would seem fitting if they could have a greater share.

"Athletes are starting to come together and I think that is what FINA are scared of," Peaty said this week.

ISL chief executive Ali Khan, left, and financial backer Konstantin Grigorishin are hoping to establish their league next year ©Getty Images
ISL chief executive Ali Khan, left, and financial backer Konstantin Grigorishin are hoping to establish their league next year ©Getty Images

The Olympic Movement does appear to be rattled by challenges to their authority, shown by a speech by Bach last month when he claimed their "European Sport Model" had a social role and boosts sport development, compared to commercial enterprises. The German suggested these rival organisations were reaping the fruits of governing bodies' work.

By contrast ISL financer Konstantin Grigorishin last week suggested the "day of the sports governing body is coming to an end", asserting that professional sport should be split from these organisations. He suggested governing bodies should work as regulators and lead development of the sport. After all, the ISL did admit they were hopeful FINA would work with them on technical aspects of hosting swimming events, as well as on anti-doping.

While I do not subscribe to the idea that the governing body is dying, there could be some merit to suggest that its role could change. I do not think we should pretend that splits like this have not already occurred. 

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) went through a similar battle as the one FINA now appear locked in. Top men's players walked out of the 1973 Wimbledon tournament to protest a suspension handed to Yugoslavia's Nikola Pilić for playing in a commercial event, rather than the ITF's Davis Cup. A later mutiny from the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) over a lack of player representation ultimately saw the establishment of the ATP Tour.

While the ITF largely handles the development side of the sport and the rules, along with organising the Grand Slam events, the Davis and Fed Cups and the Olympic and Paralympic tournaments, the ATP and Women's Tennis Association handle the professional tours. Players have clearly benefited from increased prize money under the current format. That is not to say disagreements do not still occur.

Australian businessman Kerry Packer established a controversial breakaway cricket event which ultimately boosted pay for players ©Getty Images
Australian businessman Kerry Packer established a controversial breakaway cricket event which ultimately boosted pay for players ©Getty Images

A similar parallel could also be made with a controversial breakaway league called World Series Cricket, which was heavily backed by Australian businessman Kerry Packer. One of the key reasons for the breakaway was that players did not feel they were being paid well enough, while Packer himself had missed out on a broadcasting contract.

"Cricket is the easiest sport in the world to take over," Packer was quoted as saying. "Nobody bothered to pay the players what they were worth."

Amid major controversy, the breakaway event ultimately featured numerous stars of the sport. While World Series Cricket only lasted for a couple of years, it had a profound impact. England's players, for instance, were reportedly receiving five times what they did previously for Test matches afterwards. Others have credited the event with being a forerunner to the Indian Premier League, along with innovations like day/night cricket.

History would show that in these cases the power of athletes won out over established sporting organisations. Sporting bodies would do well to bear this in mind, with swimmers already suggesting unified action in the event FINA introduces bans for taking part in unsanctioned events.

Perhaps collaboration could be the best way forward for governing bodies with commercial enterprises. Or indeed, proactively reforming themselves and giving greater rewards to athletes to avoid others from spotting an opportunity to exploit their perceived failings.

Change or be changed.