On the eve of a home World Championships in Budapest, Katinka Hosszu, the born-again Hungarian swimmer who collected her first Olympic medals, three golds and a silver, at her fourth Games in Rio last year, has advocated boycott as a vehicle for reform in swimming.
While the Olympic 200 and 400m medley champion heading for the defence of the world crowns from July 23-30, falls shy of calling for a boycott of her home event, she does cite the showcase as an example of FINA’s control on the sport in a way that confines swimmers to amateur status.
In an open letter in social media, Hosszu slams FINA for scrapping the World Cup model that made her a dollar millionaire but was not backed by the vast bulk of world-class swimmers. She says the international federation is self-serving and lacks transparency and cites the history of Wimbledon and the ATP as she calls on swimmers to rise up against FINA and force change on the way to a new professional era.
Last month, FINA, the international federation, announced changes in the format of the World Cup after consulting athletes, including some of the bigger names who have been on cup tour.
One of the most significant changes was a restriction in the number of races a swimmer can compete in at each passing round of the nine-event tour spread over four months and three continental regions. The measures seemed particularly aimed at Hosszu.
The Hungarian made more than $1 million in prize money on world cup tour in the past Olympic quad, setting personal best times across almost every events, stroke and distance, on the World Championships program as she charted a course unlike any other in the history of the sport.
Here was a swimmer who could, at least from the age of 24, race at world-class speed many times in one session meet after meet after meet, many a world short-course record in the mix, the outcome of the annual world-cup prize of $100,000 (world-record and other local bonuses adding significantly to the final income tally) a fait accompli well before the end of each season as Hosszu stole a march on her rivals from the get-go.
The first season she did it was novel and eye-catching. The sport was told, not just by the swimmer and what she was doing but by FINA officials, ‘see, you can compete far more often and prosper’.
In the second season of Hosszu’s marathon racing, interest remained but there was no hint of the rest of world swimming following her model. Indeed, some stated that they did not know how it was possible and would not be going down that path, their programs set on the big showcase moments, the Olympic Games the priority target.
In the third season of Hosszu’s marathon racing, interest waned dramatically, coverage of her eternal winning of races and money in a way no others appeared to want to even try to emulate dropped from a headline to a round-up and then out of sight in many key media outlets that cover swimming around the world. Winning was not only taken as a given but the Hungarian was able to emerge the winner on many occasions without needing to get anywhere close to best. Entertainment value? Low.
Swimmers themselves joined the chorus of voices in coaching, media and even among some officials complaining that the cup was not working. Cornel Marculescu, the FINA director, asked key athletes to gather views on what was not working and how improvements could be made. Hosszu was not among those consulted, it seemed, possibly because she was and was seen to be the biggest beneficiary of all that was.
That research effort has not been published but SwimVortex is aware that the latest FINA changes to the cup reflect a very small number of issues of concern raised and fall well shy of the kind of model swimmers would like to see if they are truly to be seen as professional athletes in a professional sport.
One of the complaints that made its way back to FINA was loud and clear: the winner of the women’s competition will be Hosszu for as long as she is there because not a single other swimmer in the world wants to race (nor is capable of racing) on all strokes and medley, all distances, with every passing round, notching up wins at a pace that has varied from world-class to well shy of top pace at some rounds of the cup that have been reduced to largely domestic affairs, so poor has the number of international entries become.
Now, Hosszu seeks to set aside those concerns by shouting back at the sport and effectively saying ‘you’re wrong, I’m right – you all need to be racing far more and doing what I’m doing’.
In an open letter on social media, Hosszu states:
“Dear Fellow Swimmers, You might be reading these words in the middle of the night or just before dawn. I am not sure when you find the time, but what I do know for sure is that from all of the elite athletes in the world, swimmers get up the earliest and go to bed the latest. This isn’t exactly by choice. Most of us have to live two lives. While we strive for greatness in the pool, we must also manage our lives outside the pool.”
The appeal to shared hardship done, the medley ace then launches an attack on FINA that many will find both reasonable and unreasonable all at once.
The reasonable and understandable is the general view she states: “If swimming is still not a professional sport, then that is a reflection of the work FINA has been doing for the past few decades, not a reflection on the sport that is one of the fundamentals of childhood athletic development. There is a reason why many children do not stick to competitive swimming; it is extremely challenging. If you want to be a swimmer in 2017, you can know one thing is for sure, if you are not in the top 5 in the World, you will invest more than you will make. Does it sound attractive? Not really. Could we make it more appealing? I am certain that we can, so long as FINA helps us, instead of holding the best athletes back.”
So far, so good. The next paragraph opens the door to questions similar to some raised when she challenged Tamas Gyarfas, FINA vice-president and long-time head of the Hungarian Swimming Federation in a campaign that led to him stepping down from his domestic role.
Hosszu states that athletes were not consulted. That is not the case, though it is true to say that she was not consulted nor was there any transparency of process in an effort that would have needed to be far wider and more scientific than a director simply seeking some private feedback; a director who then forms opinions based on that before a decision is taken that changes a format of a whole tour without proper discussion and debate across the whole range of commissions and committees of experts the FINA leadership has access to, from athletes to coaches, media and more.
Calling FINA’s world-cup changes “destructive and hypocritical”, Hosszu then sinks into a poor choice of what are likely to be interpreted as self-serving words as she states: “Everyone thinks that the new World Cup rule changes are against Katinka Hosszu. That can be partially true, because they definitely screwed me over. Imagine, I’m like one of those students that got straight A’s in every class, plus took-on drawing and chorus as extra curricular activities. Then, the next year I’m told I cannot do extra curricular activities because my success was bothering the rest of the students. The real truth, however, was that it was only the teacher who was bothered.”
Not true, according to feedback SwimVortex has seen but is not at liberty to publish at this stage. The truth is that many swimmers are also troubled by the Hosszu model, their concerns stretching along a spectrum of, in the words of one world-class swimmer “we have no idea how she can do this because we work extremely hard and compete as often as we can but would not get anywhere close to being able to be as fast as she is in nearly every event, all strokes” to, in the words of a world-class coach to champions, “we have other priorities and the world cup doesn’t offer a model that would fit into our training nor our lives in general”.
Hosszu, as a champion, can get a wildcard straight to finals under the new FINA World Cup format of many problems. She doesn’t want one. Good for her, many may well say. Just why that measure was taken is something of a mystery though it is believed that those who put that rule in place for the coming season thought that it would helpt to attract more from the large pool of world-class swimmers who simply bypass the World Cup altogether.
Another of Hosszu’s concerns is the change that means each passing meet will feature a different race schedule. Hosszu complains:
” … a top German swimmer might not compete in his own country because his main event (or events) will only be offered in Moscow or Eindhoven, but not Berlin. Why does FINA make rules that are harmful for the athletes, the organizers of the competition, the World Cup itself and swimming as a whole? These rules are risking the future of our sport, which I am not willing to support with my silence.”
She is silent, however, on the problem with her example of that German swimmer. If the cup is to work as a cup and a tour – it has to find a model, say critics, that make the whole thing compulsive viewing because there is a genuine race to find the best cup swimmers. Under the model that has made Hosszu a winner – and a rich woman – that German swimmer would have to cast out of his or her mind the idea of “main event”: any German woman with a hope of muscling in on the serious money would have to be able to be world-class in distances 50m to 1500m on freestyle and 50 to 200m on all others strokes, 100 to 400IM beyond that. That is why Hosszu is the biggest winner of what was. No others had a hope of getting anywhere close. As one critic put it:
“If you know who’s going to win the $100,000 at the start of a tour over four months spread across the world, you’ve lost your audience right there.”
Hosszu then touches on the models that do create very wealthy athletes at the helm of a sport and many others able to earn a living as well.
Neither the current nor the past World Cup models in swimming are likely to get swimming anywhere remotely close to the things Hosszu describes as she writes:
“How can a sport label rules “innovative” when they are actually destructive, limiting the participation of the sport’s top athletes? Will the NBA limit one of its biggest stars, LeBron James, in his eighth participation in the big final next year? Will the ATP try to remind Nadal and Federer that their time is over? As one of the current faces of swimming, I should be focused on preserving and extending my career by not taking on too many events and not having my image being overused. Instead, here I am fighting to be allowed to swim as much as I want and to continue to popularize my sport.”
The words “preserving and extending my career by not taking on too many events” have been met with howls of laughter in some swimming circles, one leading coach to Olympic podium placers telling SwimVortex:
“Katinka Hosszu and her coach Shane Tusup have set about getting very rich by racing just about every race, stroke and distance meet after meet for months a now years on end. No-one else has been able or willing to do that – and now she talks of ‘preserving and extending my career by not taking on too many events’? These positions don’t stack up.”
Hosszu then accuses FINA of seeking to destroy the world cup in order to keep alive the status of the World Championships as the main showcase of the sport.
She writes: “They are desperate to keep the importance of the World Championships alive and thriving – an event in which the revenues and profits do not get shared with the athletes – by destroying the World Cup, an event that could be in the future a more lucrative opportunity financially for many swimmers. FINA clearly sees that they could loose their complete power over the sport if even a few of the athlete’s images were to grow bigger than FINA’s.”
Hosszu then appeals to the wider swimmers’ community by stating ‘it’s not about me’: “My story is not about Katinka Hosszu but about all the professional swimmers who have already realized they have enough power to influence the sport’s future.” Hosszu adds:
“I strongly believe that swimming can be a real professional sport, but for that we need to break the sport’s previous decades long mentality, which is based on the idea: everyone is equal, but among equals there should be more equals.”
Her words are nor without issues when it comes to Hosszu herself and how the old model of the world cup has served her very well. The fact is that the Hungarian did not say any of what she is now saying during the four years she ammassed well over $1m in FINA prize money, at a time when the vast bulk of world-class swimmers were bypassing the event and at a time when the format, race schedule and prize money, did not favour all but a handful of participants.
Hosszu then leans on a dodgy prop when claiming phenomenal popularity for swimming. She cites FINA’s ludicrous statistic of “6.8 billion. According to FINA this is how many times people switched to the TV broadcasts of the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia” as evidence that there is money to be made in swimming.
That swimming could and should find far more professional models, of governance and competition structure is widely supported but using viewing figures that count invisible people who “might” have been watching the news when a 10sec clip showing the end of the race in which swimmer X from nation Y won a medal, doesn’t cut the mustard and is unhelpful if swimming wants to be honest about its appeal and then use that as a base on which to build.Hosszu raises an old issue when she notes that swimmers must wear the name of FINA’s sponsors on their caps and kit and cannot wear their own sponsors. Her point, echoing many similar ones made down the years by the likes of Amanda Beard and others, is dented by her own experience, one she does not point out: on world cup tour, she was allowed to wear caps and baseball caps with her own Iron Lady brand in official photos of cheque presentations and much else. Try something similar, all you swimmers heading to Budapest for world titles next month, and we know what will happen: you’ll be asked to remove the offending article or leave the meet.
Where Hosszu will find widespread support is in the following words:
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that FINA is in chaos. There is the lack of transparency in the financials, the constantly changing rules, and leaders with no vision.”
All of which will make the atmosphere at her home world titles in Budapest next month even more charged than it already is, what with a presidential election pending and the FINA first vice-president, Husain Al-Musallam, a member from Kuwait, a nation suspended by the IOC and FINA (without that affecting the incumbent blazers – jus the athletes who cannot compete under their national flag), cited by the U.S. Justice Department as a co-conspirator in a guilty-plea bribery case involving payments of almost $1m.
Hosszu is keen to note that in the “NBA, the league has to give more than half of the yearly Basketball Related Income to the athletes; exactly 51% goes to the athletes as salary, not more, not less”.
She talks of the pioneering efforts required to highlight the plight of swimmers but fails to mention the enormous efforts this website, among others, have gone to over many years to highlight the fact that swimmers receive less than 5% of FINA’s cash pile in prize money each year while professional sports spend more than half of their money on … athletes – and not themselves.
Though she has not once during all that time made contact or sought to back moves to improve the lot of swimmers, she now wishes to champion the cause of swimmers but in a way that appears wedded to a desire to make the world cup or similar the highlight of the sport.
Apparently unaware of moves by coaches, athletes and others already well underway to form professional bodies that will challenge FINA’s status as the governor of world sport, Hosszu appeals to fellow swimmers to join her in the club of “pioneers” and advocates mutiny as she recalls the history of tennis:
“In 1973, Nikola Pilic, the best Yugoslavian tennis player of his time, was banned by his federation because instead of playing for the national team for free, he participated in a Canadian prize money competition. When the organizers of Wimbledon told Pilic that because of his sanction he couldn’t compete, he was furious.
Tennis was on its rise at this time: businessmen, agents, and broadcasters were all waiting to come in for their cut of the big money that the players could make with their performances. The athletes knew that they had to be prepared for this change, so a year earlier they established ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals). Pilic told the president of the players association about his ban, who then convinced almost all of the 50 top tennis players to sign a petition which said, If he won’t play, we won’t either.”
“The international federation, the media and the public laughed at the athletes for their weak attempt unify and everyone was sure that when the biggest tournament was about to start the athletes will change their mind. On the day of the draw, out of all the biggest stars, there was only one English and four East-European players set to compete. (The English player was there for patriotic reasons and the other four players because of their communist country’s pressure.) The other 81 players left united. And what was the result? The most awkward sporting event of all time, where the 300,000 fans could watch amateur third class players compete. It became clear, even the biggest, most prestigious event is worthless without the best athletes.”
That message is one this author first wrote about 22 years ago and has not failed to mention in any passing year since. Good to see Hosszu finding time to catch up. Hosszu advocates boycott as she writes:
“We must learn from the boycott of Wimbledon. Their message is crystal clear: we have to stand up for ourselves, we don’t have to let them decide without us, when and where we compete and for how much money. If the rules – which they create without asking for our opinion – are harmful, illogical and pointless, we have to stand up for what we believe in because that’s our responsibility!”
Hosszu speaks out at a time when a change of rules directly affects her lot. Where, critics now ask, was her voice when FINA stated that facilities rules designed to protect athlete safety, health and welfare (like preventing kids from smashing their skulls on the bottom of pools too shallow, for example) don’t apply when world records are set, even though the World Record Application Form clearly requires the referee to confirm that “ALL FINA RULES” have been complied with?
Hosszu appears to expect the criticism of “self-serving”: she raises the issue herself several times in her long letter, including: “I’m 28 years old. I’ve won 21 gold medals in the Olympics, World and European championships, and I’m sure I am already in the back half of my career. I could put my head in the sand, compete a little longer and then live comfortably for the rest of my life. Believe me, I am not writing these words for myself, but for the younger swimmers and those generations who come after them.”
Good to see a world-class swimmer feeling empowered enough to speak up and call for change. Great to see a world-class athlete advocating moves that will be required if swimming’s status quo wins the day again when blazers vote in Budapest next month. Time for change. On that score Hosszu joins the club of many who feel the same way.
She raises, possibly without realising it, some of the very issues at the heart of Paolo Barelli‘s challenge for the FINA presidency against the status quo and on a ticket of greater transparency and a promise to engage coaches and swimmers in the deep debate about how FINA must change for swimming to reach its enormous potential.
All that said, pats on the back achieve far less than facing the shallowness (and in some sense misguidedness) of argument in what Hosszu states so far. There are several downsides to her exercise, including her apparent ignorance of the fact that the protest and alternative movement she advocates is already alive and kicking in the form of two bodies, the fledgling World Swimming Association and the Professional Swimmer’s Association, that are working on a new model for the future of swimming in consultation with athletes, coaches, officials, media and others.
It is unlikely to be the case that Hosszu has not heard of these things – so why not get in touch with those already well down the road to reform … her one-woman protest is far less likely to lead to the kind of outcome her one-woman show enjoyed on world cup tour.
Hosszu concludes her letter with these words:
“The opportunity has always been right in front of us. But it is up to us to take the chance. Just like in any performance, we all have to start this together, but instead of us competing against each other, this time we have to fight together as one.”
No, Katinka, not start. The start has already happened. Set aside your own agenda and ask those who have already started what you can do for the common cause. Speaking out as you have but as part of a much bigger body would be hugely more powerful.
Professionalism means speaking out, too, when decisions DON’T affect you directly but do affect the sport as a whole and your peers. Lone wolves don’t change sports. Try telling Phelps, Ledecky and Peaty (who had this to say about world cups), among many, many others who never went on a a full world cup tour that racing entire world-champs schedules at every passing two-day meet at with travel across three or four continents a time of intense training is a model to follow. They won’t do it. No-one is doing it either – for it constitutes overkill. Less is more.
Your strength would be to add your voice to the discussion going on with others to find a better way. Your strength would be to back calls for high throughput testing and the upgrades to anti-doping systems that athletes and coaches are calling for. Will you add your voice to that Katinka Hosszu?
And if you should join that group, then use it as a chance to strength your moral compass. With professionalism comes responsibility. Qatar – accused by Amnesty and other human rights organisations, of a form of modern slavery in which their have been deaths on building sites specifically linked to the building of sports facilities as the country seeks to raise its status as a host – is on the World Cup circuit you race on.
Should it be there as a swimming host in the desert, with no world-class home swimming program to boast of and a record beyond the pool that is highly questionable even though FINA awarded its highest honour to politicians there?
Professionalism also means answering questions from world-class reporters such as Karen Crouse at The New York Times. Sulking and refusing to answer reasonable questions in a post-Olympic-race press conference, regardless of how uncomfortable any reasonable coverage (as that was, particularly against the backdrop of wider events in the sport and many others sports) may have felt to you, speaks not of new starts but the stuff of FINA mentality and the leadership’s refusal to answer more than 100 questions from this website alone since last 2014.
Together, says the swimmer. One of the other downsides of her call is that its timing and the basis on which she takes her stance do indeed sound self-serving. Beyond that, her focus on ‘world cup’ good, world championships bad is nothing more than a surface argument that has failed gto think more deeply about the richness of potential in the pool.
This is about so much, much more that the world cup, its poor past and poor current. It, the world cup, is not the future of swimming. Best focus on the things that could be if Hosszu is serious in her call for reform.
She raises Wimbledon. It was 20 years ago when I first took a message to FINA to offer its leaders a tour of Wimbledon’s media operation, courtesy of the find folk who run a magnificent annual show there. The offer was not taken up. More’s the pity.