Three world-class swimmers have filed a proposed class action lawsuit in California against Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA). They claim the organization’s “nakedly anti-competitive” efforts to maintain complete control over the market for the promotion and organization of international swimming competitions, while attempting to ensure that “FINA, and only FINA, can determine what swimming athletes will be paid for their efforts,” clearly violate federal antitrust laws.
Filed by Olympic gold medalist Thomas Shields, FINA 100-meter gold medalist Michael Andrew, and three-time Olympic gold medalist Katinka Kosszu, the 47-page complaint describes FINA as the authorized gatekeeper to aquatic events at the Olympic Games, with the organization dubbing itself as “the world’s governing body for all aquatic sports.” The case paints a picture of FINA as a fearful organization desperate to maintain control over its swimmers—on whose bodies FINA’s income and power depend, the suit points out—and the opportunities made available to these athletes. To accomplish this, the plaintiffs say, FINA not only keeps at arm’s length other organizations that promote and run top-tier international swimming competitions, but simultaneously restricts “opportunities for sponsors, event broadcasters, licensees, and other related ancillary businesses”—anyone who could stand to make a buck from (and pay athletes to participate in) high-level swimming competitions.
For instance, when a third-party—the International Swimming League (ISL)—sought to organize and promote its own events, for which swimmers would, of course, receive compensation, FINA, according to the complaint, remained determined to prevent its rival from entering the market. From the lawsuit:
“FINA understands that a free market for top-tier international swimming competitions would preclude it from continuing to keep for itself the lion’s share of profits earned from the swimmers’ skills and efforts and the entertainment value it provides to spectators. And FINA’s power over the swimming world is so strong that it will crush ISL, and destroy the careers of swimmers who want to compete in ISL meets, absent the relief that ISL seeks in its own lawsuit against FINA and that Plaintiffs seek in this action.”
Above all else, the case says, FINA’s competition-suppressing conduct has caused swimmers to miss out on earnings they would otherwise command in a market free from the organization’s “iron grip.” Swimmers who step out of line, according to the lawsuit, are threatened with an up to two-year ban from participation in FINA or FINA-approved events, including those that determine qualification for the Olympic Games. In fact, it’s FINA’s control over entry into the Olympics, the suit alleges, that serves as the organization’s biggest weapon against both swimmers and national swimming federations.