Professional Swimming Starts From the Ground Up

Let me first say that Katinka Hosszu is absolutely right. Swimming is not a professional sport. Although she herself has been able to make a profession out of it through pure prize money, and yet others have strung together enough sponsorships to stay afloat, there is nothing resembling what we consider a true professional class in swimming.

She is right to rail against FINA, which is absolutely corrupt to the core and disinterested in creating a professional sport. Likewise, we should not look to the governing bodies, who invest far more heavily in non-swimming personnel than directly funding athletes. She is right to say that "it has always been right in front of us"

Swimming is a sport where sizable amounts of money changes hands, but surprisingly very little of it gets into the pockets of the people who add the most value to the sport. The bureaucracies we have in place are designed to enrich a select few, and leave the rest fighting each other over scraps.

It's not surprising that some swimmers whined and complained for the rule changes to World Cups that hurt someone like Hosszu. They are fighting for the survival of their meager professional careers. Two things are obvious:

A swimmer of Hosszu's stature should not have to compete for prize money to make a living in the first place. She is right to be firing off at the power players in Hungarian Swimming, who have had little to do with her success but nevertheless are enriched for it while she hustles every weekend.

When I coached in Denmark, Lotte Friis, the woman who almost beat Ledecky, was barely able to sustain her swimming career to the 2016 Olympics. I helped to broker a meager sponsorship through a private donor to help her continue to train and prepare. What did we get in exchange? We got our club represented by one of the most selfless, wonderful athletes our sport has ever seen. 

Many were critical. "What a waste of money" they said. I couldn't disagree more. We should all, from the ground up, be looking for ways to support the elite athletes of our support to a manageable level. My only regret was that we weren't able to find a way to support Lotte more. Only then will we see more athletes with the security to put on a show the way Hosszu has done for so many years.

Only when we make it inevitable from the very bottom of swimming's bureaucracy do we have a chance of breaking the stranglehold of corruption that holds all of us down. We cannot wait for federations, or USA Swimming, or FINA or (ugh) ASCA.

Athletes may form a union, but that union will be useless unless the rest of us, the rank and file of the swimming world, rally behind them wherever we can. We need to see supporting the top level of swimming as valuable to every level below it, not as some petty waste of resources.


It's Our Responsibility to Make FINA Additions Work

Last week, FINA addressed a longtime wrong in the swimming world, adding the women's 1500 to the program (as well as a men's 800 and a mixed relay). But it seems many in the swimming community were less than satisfied. "Where are the 50s?" they cried.

Since then I've seen a lot of squabbling about the change. There seems to be broad consensus that adding a women's 1500 is a really good thing, especially since the original reason for it not existing was so blatantly misogynistic that it was very embarrassing to still have on the books.

Two major criticisms have emerged. One is that the distance events are not in of themselves additive to the growth of swimming, particularly pro swimming in between Olympics. The second is that the 50s would be. I think both these arguments miss the point.

Let's take distance races, for example. American audiences are never shown 800s or 1500s in their entirety on broadcast TV. I've seen worse sins in Europe, where many meets go to the extreme of droning pop music over races 200 and above. They seem to have given up on developing any true fandom with this strategy.

Why do they cut away from distance races? Because Americans find them boring. Do you know what else Americans find boring? 1-0 Soccer matches. The rest of the world, however, has managed to find them absolutely thrilling. 

We have a responsibility to educate and bring in new fans to our sport in both distance and sprint swimming. Sports are no fun when you don't know what is going on. Which is why whenever possible you should have an announcer at your meet, especially for the distance races, to give context to the people watching.

The 50s are marginally more exciting to an uneducated audience, and you can count me among the many who would love to see them on the Olympic stage. But the quick splash and dash nature only papers over the same problem we have with growing our sport- even some people who should be top fans of swimming have little context for what happens during a fifty. 

Swimming's biggest problem right now is that we are not an inclusive sport. We make many decisions without empathy for wide swaths of people involved (or potential people involved) that haven't been fully converted to rabid fandom. If we want a true professional sport, we're going to need a lot more than me and some other bloggers in the basement to do it.