The International Swimming League is trying to forge a new path for professional swimmers. But it is working with an authoritarian country.

by Matthew Hodler and Johanna Mellis

The International Swimming League (ISL) begins its second season today at 10:00am ET and it will conduct its meets in a Budapest, Hungary “bubble” until November 20, 2020. In the face of the ongoing pandemic, severely restricted international travel, and the Summer Olympic Games’ postponement—the sport’s premier event for swimmers to compete and hope to earn money off of post-Olympics sponsorships—the ISL has chosen to work with authoritarian Hungary to undertake a compacted second season. 

On the surface, the ISL’s decision to work with a state like Hungary may seem like the run-of-the-mill protocol for international sports’ organizations. After all, in 2019, International Olympic Committee official Gian-Franco Kasper admitted that, “Everything is easier in dictatorships.” Yet from the outset, the ISL, funded and founded by Ukrainian billionaire Konstatin Grigorishin, has been explicit about its goal of challenging the dominance of contemporary models of international sport governance more broadly and the International Swimming Federation (FINA) more specifically by serving as “a complete break with the period that came before it.” 

One way the ISL is achieving the goal is by providing more and equitable financial and sporting opportunities for elite swimmers. The ISL understandably sees its prioritization of gender equitable financial and leadership opportunities as both a point of pride and good marketing. But in the world of global sporting capitalism amidst the pandemic, the ISL has specifically chosen to pursue its aims of athlete equity by following in the footsteps of the very monopolistic organization it is claiming to supersede by collaborating with an authoritarian regime whose discriminatory language and legal restrictions curbs dissent and citizens’ freedoms. As such, the ISL’s decision demonstrates the promises and perils for international sports organizations trying to emerge and change the structure of global sporting capitalism. 

Professional swimmers’ opportunities to support themselves financially are limited and often dependent upon media attention. The best and most famous can earn money through Olympic medal bonuses or winning the currently-suspended FINA World Cup racing series or by being on a national team, as well as good money through sponsorship deals and appearance fees. However, for many elite swimmers – some of the best swimmers in the world don’t medal at the Olympics – it can be quite difficult to make money as just a swimmer. The costs of training and support are high, ranging from at least $30,000 annually according to David Marsh, LA Current coach and former NCAA and USA coach, to the $100,000+ that US five-time Olympian Dara Torres spent in her 2008 comeback.

This is why the ISL’s prioritization of gender equity and athlete financial empowerment is a genuine break from what came before and something to be lauded. Every team’s roster is made up of 12 men and 12 women and the two team captains/vice captains need to be split along gender lines. Both men and women score equally for their teams and the meet schedule includes gender mixed relays. Additionally, there are equal opportunities for financial rewards for both men and women. Last year the overall season MVP – and the $50,000 bonus that comes along with it! – was Swedish Olympic and World Champion Sarah Sjöström, while the US’s Caeleb Dressel had the best one-meet financial windfall with his performance in the ISL Finals in December.

Due to the ongoing pandemic and postponement of the Summer 2020 Olympic Games, professional swimmers’ financial opportunities have been greatly reduced. The ISL’s recently-announced Solidarity Program will help bridge these gaps for many Olympic-caliber swimmers. The program supports athletes with monthly payments of US$1500 from September 2020 until June 2021. Comparably, US national team swimmers can earn monthly stipends starting at $1000 and topping off at $3500 until the 2021 Olympics depending on variables including NCAA and high school eligibility, world rankings, and agreeing to make appearances for USA Swimming, the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee and their sponsors.

The ISL’s decision to pursue its laudable efforts for professionals by collaborating with authoritarian Hungary exemplifies the limits of its “new path.” The Hungarian state is one of many nations who have tried to use sport mega events to “sportwash” its discriminatory policy and “illiberal” political system. Sportwashing refers to the process by which sporting events operate to provide a flattering event/story for the media and as a “means to launder a national government’s global image and reputation.”

Since returning to power in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has significantly curtailed basic freedoms to boost his control—such that the think tank Freedom House downgraded its assessment of the nation as “partly free” resulting from “sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions.” The authoritarian ruler has attacked its democratic institutions by nationalizing most of the domestic media sources, rigging the court system, and severely limiting NGOs’ important work. The state simultaneously curbed academic freedoms while also spewing racist and transphobic ideas by kicking out Central European University, attacking its founder, George Soros, with virulent anti-Semitism, and outlawing Gender Studies programs that taught about gender equity, for example. Orbán’s state launched a horrifically racist ‘anti-migrant’ campaign against the refugees, and holds them in refugee camps, to the extent that the Hungarian Helsinki Committee in 2019 reported that the state was denying food to refugees to whom the state denied asylum, calling it “an unprecedented human rights violation in 21st-century Europe.” Sportwashing, then, for Orbán, is an attempt to paper over his discriminatory rule.

The ISL’s season is not the first time that Orbán has attempted to sportwash, and we do not presume it will be his last. Since 2010 the nation has helped funnel millions of taxpayers’ money into sport endeavors, mainly football stadiums, to fuel Orbán love for the sport and his unrealistic aim of boosting the nation’s competitiveness. For example, one of the many stadiums that have been built or upgraded includes Pancho Arena 20 yards from his country home, which has a seating capacity double the population of the surrounding village of Felcsút. The implementation of the TAO program in 2011 allowed Hungarian businesses to make tax-deductible contributions to sports in lieu of paying those monies to the state. In 2016, sports organizations received an equivalent of $344 million through the TAO program from businesses. From 2011-2017 about 13.5% of corporate tax revenue had been redirected to sports through the scheme, and as of October 2019, about $1.5 billion had been diverted from the state’s tax coffers. Hungary has also hosted numerous international sporting events, mainly related to aquatics such as the 2017 FINA World Aquatics Championships, the 2019 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships, and the European Water Polo Championships in 2020. Sportwashing attempts are old hat for the authoritarian regime.

We’d be remiss to overlook the horrendous conditions of the nation’s medical facilities and Covid-era restrictions. At the major Honvéd Hospital in Budapest—the host city for the ISL’s 2020 season—in 2019 the emergency department had 25 doctors instead of the necessary 50, 14 beds for intensive care instead of 40, and was underfunded by $1.8 million. Doctors worked upwards of 300 hours a month and patients’ wait time topped a whopping 10 hours. State doctors and hospital directors were barred from speaking out about problems, and this was in in 2019 before the pandemic hit. When it did hit Hungary, the nation’s Parliament voted to allow Orbán to rule by decree in March 2020 to “fight the virus,” passing legislation that imposed jail sentences of up to five years for spreading false information about the virus (this in a state where the government controls nearly all media and state doctors and hospital directors already could not speak out). He also used the opportunity to ban changes to people’s gender identity on legal documents. Though Parliament voted in June 2020 to end the state of emergency and remove Orbán’s rule of decree capabilities, a law still leaves open the possibility for him to declare another state of emergency and receive extra powers once again. 

In late August 2020 the Hungarian government announced that it was closing borders to foreign citizens on September 1 to halt the spike in Covid-19 cases. The ISL’s swim season is one of many exceptions that the authoritarian state is making to their rule. Nearly 750 coaches, athletes, staff from over three dozen nations are entering Hungary for the ISL’s second season. 
While it purports to offer a new model of international sport, the League’s decision to partner with Hungary shows that the ISL is making similar blunders as FINA, the international swimming federation it claims to supersede, and other international sport governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee and soccer’s FIFA. It demonstrates how it is following in the path of its contemporaries by collaborating with, and contributing to, an authoritarian leader’s discriminatory rule. We certainly applaud the ISL’s demonstrable support for its athletes in light of Covid-era restrictions. However, in the context of the resurgence of athlete-activism and global awareness of the human rights’ needs of minoritized communities worldwide, it is important to ask international sport organizations difficult questions regarding the impact of their decisions on others. By holding its season in Hungary, the League is also showing that its equitable aspirations might just end with its treatment of its athletes.

Dr. Matthew R. Hodler is an Assistant Professor of Sport Media & Communication at the University of Rhode Island. His research focuses on global capitalism, race, gender, and nationalism in sport, particularly international sport structures and governance, swimming, and internet memes.

Dr. Johanna Mellis is an Assistant Professor of World History at Ursinus College and a co-host of The End of Sport podcast. Her research focuses on athletes and authoritarian sport, especially during the Cold War in Communist Hungary compared to the US. She has co-written pieces for The Chronicle of Higher Ed, The Guardian, and Jacobin.

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