Gary Hall Jr.’s Vision: The Future of the Olympic Athlete

By Gary Hall, Jr. with David Arluck

ISLAMORADA, Florida, May 14. SWIMMING is my line of work – only it really doesn’t pay very well.

In 1999 I was told I would never compete at an elite level again because of the diabetes I was diagnosed with. Because I learned to manage the disease that could kill me and because of sponsorship support from diabetes-focused companies, I was put in a position that enabled me to win four more Olympic medals and today I remain among the fastest swimmers in the world. Ironically, if it weren’t for diabetes, I wouldn’t be able to continue swimming today.

Most swimmers stop competing because they can no longer financially afford to stay in the sport or their shoulders were blown out by overzealous college or age group coaches. Fact is, all people are physically (barring injury) and mentally stronger at 30 than they are at 20. If swimmers and other athletes are given a chance to swim to an “older” age they will certainly compete at a higher level. I actually believe that a new crop of champions will blossom.

USA Swimming, like most other National Governing Bodies (NGBs) is a not-for-profit organization chartered with encouraging more kids to join swim teams. The organization competes with Little League Baseball and Pee Wee Football. For years I thought it was USA Swimming’s and FINA’s responsibility to professionalize the sport: to put on match races, meets with significant prize money and visibility. I was wrong. It is not their responsibility. It is the athletes’ and their representatives’ responsibility.

I have also realized that no one athlete is able to accomplish this on their own. Swimmers must work together to make this happen.

The NGBs should be commended for the work that they do on an amateur level, the events that they put on, and grassroots programs they have developed. Elite athletes need to continue supporting their work. If we begin making more money directly through the sport we will have an easier time doing it. Through a professional circuit we will also help popularize the sport. I see professional swimming being more like boxing and tennis than pro soccer or baseball (at least initially). I see less emphasis on relays and teams and more emphasis on individuals and personalities.

If swimmer X is the defending World Champion in the 50-meter freestyle, I believe that a challenger needs to beat that swimmer X at a date and time of mutual agreement in which the participants would be shaved, tapered, and prepared for peak performance. Swimmer X holds the title until someone is able to take that title from him/her. Swimmer X should have a certain amount of time (I’d suggest eight months) to defend his/her title. The amateur bodies can have still have their World Championships swim meets and the elite athletes should determine whether they want to defend their title within that format or a different one.

Star athletes are in a position to dictate how championship events are managed. Swimmers should band together to create new events that are promoted differently, provide larger exposure for sponsors and reward the swimmers on a higher level. I’d venture to bet that a proposed “World Sprint Championships,” a one-day televised event would do a whole lot better in the television ratings and deliver larger returns for sponsors than a 7-day televised traditional Championship swim meet.

There’s good reason that most pro sports competitions are not on national television – only a very small portion of games over an entire NBA, MLB, or NFL schedule actually sees that exposure. I actually think that “World Championship” swim meets can be held on separate dates for different strokes/events. Revenue from these events would not replace what sponsors are currently spending with the amateur bodies. It would complement it. A pro-swimming circuit could help the NGBS in a very similar way that the NBA helps USA Basketball and to popularize grassroots efforts around the world.

There should be less focus on world records and more focus on the races and personalities themselves. Most NASCAR and horse racing fans probably have no idea what the course record is in any particular race, but the races are still relevant and exciting when the stars of the sports get together to compete. Swimming on a professional level is not about Australia versus the USA; it's about key races between individuals. Here are some races I’d pay to watch:

1) Mark Foster, Roland Schoeman, Sabir Muhammad, Ian Crocker, Fred Bousquet, me or any number of swimmers- head to head in a round robin elimination match in the 50 SHORT COURSE METERS freestyle.

2) Alex Popov versus me: head to head in the 50 LONG COURSE freestyle. Popov has the world record in the event and did it in a time trial – in an empty pool. I have the American record and the second fastest time in history… and the fastest time in competition. (I put forth the challenge to Popov right now, calling him out on this one.)

3) Anthony Ervin versus whoever wins the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. The gold medal isn’t going to motivate Anthony. Maybe being able to beat the champion on a big stage where the reward is monetary will motivate one of the most talented swimmers in history to get back in the water.

4) Nick Folker versus Lyndon Ferns. Nick was left off the South African Olympic team despite finishing fifth at his country’s Olympic Trials. Instead they are taking their sixth finisher in the 100 freestyle (Ferns) because he swam a faster time four months before the Trials. Isn’t the Olympics all about getting it up when it counts? Ferns choked at Trials and I’m sure the experienced Olympic veteran Folker will prove any time, any place that he can whip Ferns in a head-to-head battle. This race would make a great under-card to the round robin elimination races described above.

5) Jenny Thompson versus Inge De Bruijn head to head in a 50 Long Course meters freestyle.

6) Fernando Scherer versus Sabir Muhammad in the 50 free or fly, long or short course. These guys are two of the most entertaining swimmers in the world. Put this race on the under-card for the race between Popov and me.

7) Peter Van Den Hoogenband versus Ian Thorpe in the 200 freestyle. Two legends going at it in an exciting race.

8) Michael Phelps versus himself in the 400 IM.

9) Ian Thorpe in the 400 freestyle racing a fast women's 4×100 or 8×50 relay.

The top athletes from around the world should get together and be creative. The Race Club is a company that we created to promote swimming and seeks to facilitate this process. We need contributions from all swimmers, agents, promoters, and those that love the sport.

This doesn’t mean competing with the NGBs. This doesn’t mean not going to the Olympics or other high profile meets. It simply means setting ourselves up to stay in the sport longer and creating opportunities for sponsors to realize significant ROI and to earn a living by delivering exciting COMPETIONS to a broader audience than the swimming community currently addresses.

We need to position ourselves to deliver a return on investment for prospective sponsors. It is our responsibility. Here are some suggestions for how the National Governing Bodies can help us accomplish these goals:

* All NGBs that send athletes in any sport should have to abide by certain common, core rules. This would eliminate problems such as barring the fastest ranked swimmer in England, who has four Olympics already under his belt, from competing in the Olympics just because he is currently ranked 12th in the world.

As Ian Thorpe said, “Defending Olympic Champions should get an automatic Olympic berth as long as they can accomplish the Olympic “A” time standard as dictated by FINA."

I would go one step further and say all Olympic medalists should have this honor.

*One false start rule to be changed. We saw the problems that this rule caused with Thorpe's 400 free false start. We want to see the fastest swimmers swim, bottom line. (There was also a problem with this in the 100 meter dash at the last world championships for track and field.)

*Athletes with seniority (let's say four years of National Team status) and still competing should have a vote in regards to the board of directors for the NGB, the president, national team director, and coaches. This is not to suggest that I am unhappy with anyone in these positions. I’d be sure to say so if I were. We just need to have a voice in the process. A similar committee should be established on an international level to work with FINA as well.

*Athletes should be able to wear sponsor logos at the Olympic Games and major FINA events. We have such limited exposure outside of the Olympics – we may as well be given a chance to earn money when the opportunity is there. Twenty percent of individual sponsorships at the Olympic Games would go directly to the International Olympic Committee, to be fair. Which leads me to my next rule…

*“Fast suits” are ridiculous and their evolution needs to be controilled. Races should never come down to who can afford the faster suit. The senior elite swimmers of the world should have a say in the extent to which
“technical” advancement is allowed in the sport: it would level the playing field of competition and help maintain the credibility of the sport’s historic records. Imagine if major league baseball allowed aluminum or corked bats.

*Active elite athletes should help determine when the Olympic Trials are held in conjunction with the NGB. It is very difficult to peak for Trials then maintain that peak for one month for the Olympics. It is too long to maintain a taper and not enough time to get back in, train, then taper again.

Many top athletes try to cut short their taper for Trials. While this may sometimes work, it also will guarantee that someone will "miss" the taper and the Olympic team. It would be much better to peak for Trials, wait three to four months and then peak again. Many countries including the Australians do that. I know some people may feel differently, but at least the athletes should be able to be heard and make the decision through a vote. This issue is a perfect example of why athletes need a common voice.

Additionally, sponsors need time to budget their spending. One month is not enough time to develop any strategic relationships with sponsors – and/or shoot commercials. Plus, we are whisked away after the Olympic Trials. There is no time to go out and make money.

I know there is an opposite argument for this, but still the athletes should have a say. After the Reebok Dan O'Brien disaster – remember the Dan versus Dave campaign?- where Dan failed to make the Olympic team after Reebok had invested millions into this campaign, sponsors won't make that same mistake. A sponsor won't invest big money into an athlete that isn't a guarantee. By the time our Trials are over, most of those sponsorship dollars have been taken by the athletes of other sports that have their Trials before ours.

Swimming is my line of work. I want to continue doing it for a long time to come and so do a lot of other athletes. We need to leverage the sport’s popular events and package them for the general public to enjoy. Everyone involved with the sport today including FINA, the NGBs, the sponsors and athletes will benefit.

I guarantee that membership on age group swim teams will increase around the world.

This is The Race Club vision. We’ll see you at the US Aquatics Sports Convention in September and around the world in between and beyond.

–With permission from The Race Club