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FINA backs down over international swimming league threat

Swimmers that participate in unaffiliated race meetings will not be banned from competing in major championships, the world governing body for the sport has said in a move that could pave the way for a new unaffiliated international swimming league.17 Jan 2019

FINA had previously threatened to stop swimmers from competing in the world championships in South Korea later this year if they participated in events that were not part of its official race calendar.

That threat prompted the Italian Swimming Federation (ISF) to cancel the planned inaugural event in the international swimming league that was scheduled to take place in Turin shortly before Christmas last year. At the time of its announcement, the ISF said because FINA had declared the 'Energy for Swim' event as "non approved" and threatened sanctions against swimmers that participated, it had taken the decision to "protect the athletes" who had chosen to participate by cancelling the event.

Angelique Bret and Paul Williams, experts in competition law in sport at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, last month highlighted how the case showed the tension that can exist between sport and competition law, and cited other such examples from the sporting world.

Reacting to the latest development, Bret said: "It is interesting that FINA has backed down on this and not a helpful precedent for other sporting bodies which consider that there is a need to put certain limits on the freedom of sportsmen and women to participate in competing events. On the face of it, it is good news for the athletes provided that, in the long run, it does not have a negative impact on the value of the events and end up cutting the level of their remuneration"

FINA previously defended its opposition to the 'Energy for Swim' event, claiming the event "did not meet all the necessary FINA rulebook requirements" which it said were in place to "ensure that international competitions provide the best possible conditions to all participating athletes while maintaining a healthy calendar".

FINA's rules prohibit affiliated national swimming federations from having "any kind of relationship with a non-affiliated or suspended body". The rules permit FINA to suspend individuals that breach that rule for between one and two years depending on the circumstances involved.

However, a case was lodged against FINA under US antitrust laws, and the BBC reported that international swimming league organisers believed FINA to be in breach of EU law by "using its powers to restrict competition" and reducing the opportunity for swimmers to earn prize money. 

Following a meeting between FINA and some national swimming federations in Switzerland on Tuesday, FINA confirmed that it has lifted the threat of sanctions against athletes wishing to participate in unaffiliated events.

"FINA acknowledges that swimmers are free to participate in competitions or events staged by independent organisers, namely entities which are neither members of FINA nor related to it in any way," the body said in a statement.

FINA confirmed, though, that it will not recognise results from unapproved events.

FINA said: "Any independent organisers which intend to have the results and records of any competitions or events duly registered with and acknowledged by FINA shall cooperate with or seek approval from FINA or from any relevant member federation... If an independent organiser does not obtain or does not request the above-mentioned approval, all results or records of such unapproved competition or event will be deemed null and void and ignored by FINA and shall not be taken into account for any purpose whatsoever by FINA. However, such participation shall not be characterised as unauthorised relations … and shall not give rise to sanctions by FINA." 

After the meeting, FINA confirmed it will introduce a new 'Champions Swim Series' in 2019. Around $4 million in prize money and appearance fees will be available to swimmers that compete in the series, according to a statement issued by USA Swimming president and chief executive Tim Hinchey, but this is less than the reported £10m plus other incentives on offer in the new swimming league, according to the BBC.