Before the International Swimming Federation (FINA) Short Course World Swimming Championships get underway in Hangzhou in China on Tuesday (December 11), the InterContinental Hangzhou hotel is hosting the fifth edition of the World Aquatics Convention.
FINA President Julio Maglione has said the world governing body is "incredibly excited" about this year’s event.
"Our conference features the most respected minds within aquatics and provides an idyllic learning platform for all aquatics leaders and experts," said Maglione, who became FINA President in 2009 and was recently re-elected for a second time until 2021, when he will be 85.
Among the sessions on the Convention agenda today is one entitled "Licensing and Merchandising - Tapping into New Partnerships".
This will specifically focus on how aquatics organisations can benefit from the practice and what brands are looking for from governing bodies to make collaborations a success.
An accompanying statement from the organisers reads: "Today's world of sport business is changing and, as technology and innovation continuously evolve, it can be difficult to keep up."
Pertinent words for FINA, which, as reported yesterday by insidethegames, is now facing a class action lawsuit from three swimmers including Hungary’s three-times Olympic champion Katinka Hosszú following its decision last month not to sanction the 2018 Energy for Swim meet due to have been held in Turin on December 20 and 21.
The body behind what was to be the first of a series of short course swimming events involving many of the sport’s top names, the International Swimming League (ISL), has filed a similar lawsuit against the sport’s world governing body for violating United States antitrust laws.
The current crisis has its origins in last year’s decision by the European Commission deeming as a breach of European Union (EU) anti-trust law an International Skating Union (ISU) rule imposing severe penalties on athletes participating in "unauthorised" speed skating competitions.
The European Commission called for the ISU to change their competition rules as a result of the case.
At the time, the ruling was considered the most significant legal case in European sport since the 1995 ruling in favour of Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman, which secured free movement of players within the EU.
The ruling had been asserted by some sport leaders as threatening to "destroy the Olympic values underpinning sport".
There are several other ongoing disputes between sporting bodies and so-called commercial enterprises.
The International Basketball Federation has been involved in a feud with EuroLeague over the sport's calendar in what the world body claim is a "commercially-driven attack to the national teams".
Similarly the National Hockey League decided not to break its season to allow its players to participate in the men's ice hockey competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, as it had for the previous five editions.
And now there is blood in the water as far a swimming is concerned.
The Turin event was being funded by the Energy Standard Group, which is run by ISL advisory board head, Ukrainian businessman Konstantin Grigorishin, and was offering $2.1 million (£1.7 million/€1.8 million).
Billed as a rival to the FINA World Cup, the ISL was originally set to launch in December with eight international clubs each made up of 12 male and 12 female swimmers set to feature.
They were due to compete over two days of races across all swimming events in a short course pool, with the four teams which gained the most points set to progress to a grand final over the following two days.
It was hoped that the event would develop into a global series of races in 2019.
The ISL was challenged by FINA, which sent an open letter to all 209 member countries on June 5, warning them against cooperating with the "so-called" international competition, which they "do not recognise".
At a meeting last month, FINA was reported to have told swimmers that they would run the risk of two-year bans if they competed in the ISL event.
Britain’s Olympic 100 metres breaststroke champion Adam Peaty criticised "politics" for the cancellation of the Turin competition and said it would only serve to "galvanise" swimmers.
Subsequently Hosszú has 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."
Asked by insidethegames to comment on the FINA action with regard to the proposed new ISL event, Maglione commented: "We ruled that the event was an international competition, which it very obviously was. The calendar for international competitions does need to be carefully thought out.
"FINA is ready to consider proposals for commercial partnerships but always in compliance with our rules. It is very important for FINA that the sport, its athletes and coaches, and their respective National Federations take the necessary benefit for their effort, thus developing even further our aquatic disciplines."
On the subject of Peaty’s comments, Maglione responded: "Adam, a world and Olympic champion, has his perspective, and like the views of any aquatics athlete, we do listen to what Adam says. In Hangzhou, FINA will engage with its Athletes' Committee on this and other matters."
Unsurprisingly, Maglione’s response finds little favour with Ali Khan, chief executive Officer of ISL.
He told insidethegames: "I believe FINA is out of touch with respect to what is happening in global sports.
"Whatever they now do will be too little too late for the athletes.
"Hence why the swimmers are reacting in this manner."
Ali went on to analyse why he felt ISL was getting "fantastic" grass roots support from swimmers.
"I think ISL presents FINA’s biggest challenge today and a wake-up call for all Federations and governing bodies that continue to remain disconnected with their respective sport and athletes," he said.
"Governing bodies such as FINA and Federations have a responsibility not only for athlete safety, but also to ensure their sports evolves with current dynamics in order to remain a viable spectator sport and ensure the commerciality and longevity of a swimmer’s professional career."
The opposing view was put last month by the International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach at the General Assembly of the European Olympic Committees (EOC) in Marbella.
Bach called upon National Olympic Committees (NOCs) to work with their Governments to defend this model from the perceived threat of commercial enterprises.
The EOC Executive Committee meeting then duly agreed that NOCs were the right bodies to develop sport and that they should "oppose competing models that are primarily based on money and treat athletes as assets".
Asked if he felt this issue was the greatest challenge currently facing FINA, and indeed all other international sports federations, Maglione replied: "Sport’s great success of the last years has been to develop a commercial and competitive model that serves not only elite athletes but the development of sport all around the world.
"It is no surprise that some with a commercial interest might be attracted to the brightest part: the televised and sponsored events featuring the best athletes.
"It is for FINA to make sure people understand that these events should continue to benefit all of our sport and not just part of it."
This comment echoes some of Bach’s comments in Marbella, where he insisted that the existing model works for the greater good of sport, and underlined that the IOC distributes 90 per cent of its income, pointing out that the IOC's solidarity programme helps to boost social projects in countries, while supporting the development of sports and athletes.
"You are all contributing," he told delegates.
"The big athletes are also contributing by accepting [IOC] Rule 40 about advertising to allow you and us to protect our sponsors so this model does not only support the big stars, but also all your Olympic team and the not so popular sports.
"If we give up or are forced to give up this model we will land on a purely market based model which means the financing of these smaller sports and younger athletes will become extremely difficult, if not impossible.
"The abandoning of Rule 40 would mean the big stars would benefit, but none of the not so big stars or from the smaller sports, as no commercial company will run a campaign on an athlete they do not know yet.
"I would urge you to turn to your Governments, and the EOC turns to the European Union authorities, and make them aware of these issues.
"Make your representatives aware and it will help you to defend this model of solidarity.
"This is really serious."
Rule 40 relates to the Olympic Charter and warns that "no competitor, team official or other team personnel who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games".
The case is well made by Bach. But all around there is the sound of slippage.
At last week’s International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Council meeting, for example, it was decided for the first time to allow national teams to display their own sponsors on their kit while competing at next year’s World Championships in Doha. According to IAAF President Sebastian Coe, it’s about maximising all potential revenue streams.
Given this background, how important does Maglione believe the latest World Aquatics Convention to be? And just how feasible is it for Swimming Federations and event organisers to develop new, better models of operation?
"The FINA Convention is also an important opportunity to share best practice, learning from each other in the FINA family," he responded. "After years of political, social, and economical challenges in many parts of the world, many federations in all sports have seen reductions in Government contributions.
"They have had to compensate by creating more commercial opportunities and this process has certainly been enhanced by our Convention. FINA has supported, with its several development programmes, the National Federations at an unprecedented level, as they are the pillar of our sport."
On the question of if and when FINA planned to raise prize money for swimmers, Maglione was less than specific in his reply.
"You can see from the historical trajectory of prize purses that the direction has never been down," he said. "We will, of course, continue to do everything we can to reward the hard work required to even be selected for international competitions and especially to perform among the best."
It is, frankly, not a response likely to hearten the likes of Peaty. On Twitter yesterday he replied to a the lawsuit which quoted FINA as earning "about $118 million (£93 million/€104 million) in gross revenues from all aquatics events in 2016 and 2017. It paid only 12.5 per cent of that to the athletes in the form of prize money."
Peaty added: "And a lot of that paid into non prestigious 'World Cups' which most of the best athletes don’t attend and in return do not grow the sport at all. Not only do they need to raise it to 50 per cent but also recognise that another international race model is needed desperately."
...And a lot of that paid into non prestigious ‘World Cups’ which most of the best athletes don’t attend and in return do not grow the sport at all. Not only do they need to raise it to 50% but also recognise that another international race model is needed desperately. https://t.co/GbrGTZSuqJ— Adam Peaty MBE (@adam_peaty) December 8, 2018
But there are other stats that make more comfortable reading for FINA. A Canadian Sports Tourism Alliance survey in November 2017 revealed that the FINA Short Course World Championships and Aquatics Convention held in Windsor in 2016, had generated $25 million (£20 million/€22 million) in economic activity for the city. Does Maglione believe the upcoming Championships can do a similar job for Hangzhou?
"It certainly can," he replied, "and this is not simply by accident. And while we are proud of legacies like this, we should not focus solely on the financial attractiveness of FINA events. FINA gives a huge amount of attention to making sure that the economic, social and sporting propositions for hosting are all as positive as possible."
On a personal level, Maglione recently chaired the Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly at which Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah decided to step temporarily aside after allegations that he has been involved in a forgery case.
"It was a great honour for me to chair the General Assembly and I prefer to let Sheikh Ahmad’s words speak for themselves," he said.
"I believe however that after the outstanding work he has done in favour of the National Olympic Committees and of the Sport in general, he will soon be again with us. He certainly deserves it."
In the meantime, Maglione is due to remain as FINA President until 2021. What does he most wish for his sport when he leaves it at that point?”
"My sport has already achieved more than I could ever have dreamed of, and it has been a great privilege to lead such a gifted and hard-working team in the delivery of so much success," he said.
"So my wish will be simple: that under FINA, aquatic sports will continue to go from strength to strength, in a healthy and transparent economic situation."
Others may agree with that sentence – minus two words…