2020s Vision – Athlete-Voice Lessons From Pro-Sports As Swimmers Frame Their Future

ISL: energy-standard-
The Athlete Voice - in the pool, for performance - and beyond it - Energy Standard on their way to ISL victory - Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/lapresse

2020s Vision – The Pro-Athlete Voice: The New World On The Swimmers’ Horizon

The first theme of 2020s Vision, a year-long look at the challenges for swimmers and swimming in the decade ahead, is The Athlete Voice. In our opening look at the topic, we spoke to Matt Biondi on what the International Swimmers’ Alliance, what swimmers are asking for and why he sees Adam Peaty as the mature-athlete role model  he leads might do with its voice and representative status:

We also heard from coach Jon Rudd, driving force behind the reforming and establishment of WSCA (Europe), a group that will represent coaches and bring “the voice of experience, reason and quite often objectivity” to the table in the interests of their profession and when it comes to shaping the future of aquatic sports.

The Athlete Voice and Swimming Culture, the first two themes in our year-long look at the challenges for swimming in the coming decade, will be the key red threads in our library of thought throughout 2020.

Biondi referred to Adam Peaty as a mature model of the athlete. In the context of swimmers standing up for their rights, you bet he is, complete with the likes of – “We’re not going to be bullied … we’re going to stand together. If they want to ban me, I’d like to see them try.” – from a man who says what he means and means what he says.

Konstantin Grigorishin, the founder of the International Swimming League, is another who  has encouraged swimmers to speak freely about matters outside their own lane, politics and all. He says:

“They can then show they have a personality, show the fans that they are thinking human beings, not just people [breathless] behind a cap and goggles.”

As we ponder what swimmers will ask for with a voice grown more powerful, it is already clear (see below) that the International Olympic Committee’s ban on ‘political protests’ has set up a flashpoint with athletes heading into Tokyo 2020.

Alexander Popov involved with Rio Olympics

Rio in Olympic mode – Photo Courtesy: Swimming World

At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, most days of the swimming events were accompanied by the sound of booing and jeering from the athletes’ stand and they and coaches, some of the public joining in, let their feelings be known about the presence of rivals towing doping records to the blocks with them.

It was a first in swimming history and a sign of a tide turning long before the ISL added a significant power supply to the wiring of the sport. Even so, much protest in the pool has been about how an issue, a circumstance directly affects the swimmer: having to race enhanced rivals to asking for a fair share of revenues from the show they put on.

What is less clear, so far, is where the journey into professional sport will take the talk among swimmers. Below, we leave the pool and consider three examples of the Athlete Voice from sports much further up the food chain of finance and attention than swimming.

The link with swimmers as Tokyo 2020 approaches is summed up by this from Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. soccer captain as she rejects the IOC’s plea for political neutrality an Instagram post:

“So much being done about the protests. So little being done about what we are protesting about. We will not be silenced.”

That sums up the on-the-record feelings of athletes far and wide across many sports, swimmers included, at a time when the red thread of their Voice sounds like: Stand Together – ban one, ban all, Game(s) over.


Federica Pellegrini – Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Worth noting, before we come to those three examples from other sports, that Peaty, Katinka Hosszu, Cate Campbell, Federica Pellegrini, Tom Shields, Michael Andrew, Mack Horton and Duncan Scott, among others, are still competing; plus, they have traditionally – stemming back generations in the pool – have had, or claimed for themselves, far less clout than that enjoyed and claimed by the characters involved in challenges brought by stars  from three professional sports at the high end of the sports economy – money, fandom and media attention.

In other words, from realms that may not have all the solutions that suit swimming (the sport must find its own path, commensurate with the best of its nature, culture, traditions and the unique and special skills it brings to the smorgasbord of sport) but have many lessons from which swimmers and swimming can learn at the start of the Pro-Team era.

1. Court Vs Tennis Court At The Australian Open

A day after record-24-time grand slam champion Margaret Court was honored at the tournament on the 50th anniversary of her calendar Grand Slam, fellow tennis legends John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova highlighted the generational divide of a changing world in areas that sport cannot ignore.

Navratilova and McEnroe unfurled a banner calling for the Margaret Court Arena to be renamed in honor of fellow Australian tennis ace Evonne Goolagong.

After the conclusion of her veterans doubles match, Navratilova climbed into the umpires’ chair to address the remaining crowd only to have the television feed cut off as she was speaking:

That followed McEnroe’s mocking of Court in a Eurosport segment entitled “The Commissioner of Tennis“, during which the seven-time grand slam champion – dressed as a doctor at his desk in a lab coat, a stethoscope around his neck – calls on 23-time grand slam winner Serena Williams, who was knocked out in the third round of the Australian Open, to better Court’s number of major titles:

“Serena, do me a favor. Get two more grand slams this year and get to 25 so we can leave Margaret Court and her offensive views in the past where they both belong.”


After her veterans match ended at the Australian Open, Navratilova addressed the crowd: “I’ve been speaking out about an issue for a while now and John McEnroe is here to join me and push the conversation forward…”.

She got no further before the feed was cut but she and McEnroe refused to leave it there, and continued their protest against Court’s views on LGBTIQ matters, holding aloft a banner which read “Evonne Goolagong Arena”.

Court, who was presented with a trophy by Australian great Rod Laver in Melbourne today, is now a Pentecostal pastor in Western Australia. She has  likened LGBTQ teaching in schools to the work of “the devil” and referred to tennis as a sport “full of lesbians”.

In a statement, Tennis Australia said of the protest:

“We embrace diversity, inclusion and the right for people to have a view, as well as their right to voice that view. But the Australian Open has regulations and protocols with respect to how any fan, player or guest can use our facility, the event and the global stage it provides. This is to ensure the integrity of our event. Two high-profile guests have breached these protocols and we are working through this with them.”


The Olympic Flag – Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia

A tricky exercise, give that of the three legends in dispute, it is Court who has tested the key Fundamental Principles of Olympism in the Olympic Charter  to shaking point:

No 6. The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

In a letter published on tennis.com, Navratilova said the arena should be renamed after Goolagong, describing the seven-time grand slam champion as the “embodiment of what a role model or hero truly is”.
The letter from Navratilova points to some fundamental challenges ahead for athletes and those who govern sport:

“When airports, buildings, streets or stadiums are named after particular people, it is done, or at least should be done, to honor exceptional human beings — our heroes. Think Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, Rosa Parks. Would it not be appropriate if the Staples Center were renamed as a tribute to Kobe Bryant?

“Such luminaries excelled in their fields and transcended them; they made a positive contribution to mankind; they led by example. And, perhaps most of all, they were on the right side of history. But Margaret Court does not belong in that company or category. Nobody disputes her achievements on the tennis court, and her place in the sport’s history remains as distinguished as it gets. Nobody wants to take away or diminish her career, least of all me. Margaret, Billie Jean and Rod were my childhood heroes. I wanted to be like them.

“So, it pains me to say this, but Margaret Court Arena must be renamed. As a worthy replacement, my vote goes to Evonne Goolagong. Evonne is the embodiment of what a role model or hero truly is. Her heritage, her success against the odds, her Hall of Fame career and her exemplary life off court, in which she has given so much of herself to so many causes, are all attributes we can celebrate wholeheartedly.”

Questions for swimmers: did you spot the difference in the treatment of Horton, Scott, Navratilova and McEnroe?

The clue: “Two high-profile guests have breached these protocols and we are working through this with them.” In other words: no new rushed-through codes, no official warnings, no threats, as Peaty put it “to gag swimmers”. No ban on ‘political statements’ that unfolded underneath the biggest political banner of all at the World Championships in Gwangju: FINA and Korea’s motto – Dive Into Peace, at a championships void of North Koreans.

There are reasons for that difference. Can you identify them?

2. Kobe Bryant – Mourning For A Man With A Complex Legacy

“Would it not be appropriate if the Staples Center were renamed as a tribute to Kobe Bryant?” asks Navratilova.


Kobe Bryant, with (l-r) Olympic swimming champions Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt – Photo Courtesy: Katie Ledecky, Twitter

Yes, is the answer you will hear from just about every quarter, especially just two days after the retired basketball ace died in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. To vast numbers of people, including many swimmers – and understandably so – Bryant was not only a great player but an inspirational one, a man who now passed is generating many fine memories and tales of “the moment when I met…”, including this from John Naber:

My favorite Kobe Bryant Olympic story: at the 2008 Games, as Kobe and the US Basketball team was preparing to enter the stadium, Terry Schroeder, the US Water Polo superstar and 2008 team coach was nearby. When a crazed fan jumped over a barricade and tried to rush Kobe for some unknown reason, Schroeder lowered his shoulder and knocked the attacker on his keister, and the attacker was quickly taken away by the authorities. Kobe wanted to thank Schroeder for his help, so he removed one of his trademark diamond stud earrings and placed it in Schroeder’s hand with a simple, “Thanks, Man.” After some serious deliberation, Schroeder decided he could not keep it, so he returned the stone, and Kobe smiled and said, “Okay. Thanks, anyway.” Simple, thoughtful, grateful. Both of them.

The nature of misdemeanours admitted and the timing of apologies, reconciliation, rehabilitation matter much. When such processes are brought to a halt by the kind of tragedy that unfolds on Sunday in California, the outpouring of grief, of find memories, of plaudits from public, peers and pundits is to be expected. Less awaited, less welcome in general are immediate recollections of the errors and weaknesses of the human who just lost their life.

When Felicia Sonmez, a reporter on the Washington Post, tweeted a link to a Daily Beast article about the 2003 accusation of rape and sexual assault against Bryant that led to a criminal charge, she was suspended. The timing of raising the errors in a life just as that life is lost in tragic circumstances played a key part in the decision.

The criminal charge against Bryant was later dropped. The player went from a denial of having had sex to the act having been “consensual” and an an eventual apology and an out-of-court settlement beyond this statement: “I now understand how she (his victim) feels that she did not consent to this encounter”.

Bryant settled a civil suit with his accuser for an undisclosed amount of money and paid $4m for the diamond ring he gave to his wife as an apology for his adultery. He also lost endorsements campaigns.

All of that barely made a footnote in the vast wave of understandable mourning and plaudits for the man in the first 24 hours after the accident. The Washington Post’s Molly Roberts yesterday penned a far more balanced piece than most  under the headline “The Worst way Too Handle the Kobe Bryant rape case”

The headline was explained in the conclusion to the piece which reads:

“Kobe Bryant was singular, and singularly special to those who adored him. But the test he sets is universal. How do we treat the bequests of big men accused of doing horrible things? Is it possible to make recompense on your own terms when a judge hasn’t ordered it — just by living well as a husband, a father or simply a person? Those questions are difficult to answer, but the worst thing we can do is allow ourselves not to ask them at all.”

After the Post suspended Somnez, the paper’s leadership was criticised.

Those same leadership figures guide us to a significant point that makes the worlds of sport and its business and the wider world of business, including media companies, so different: although they suspended the reporter and defended that action, they also allowed, under prevailing protocol and codes of practice that have to be honored, an opinion piece headlined: The Post’s misguided suspension of Felicia Sonmez over Kobe Bryant tweets

In the context of the Athlete Voice, among questions arising:

  • When and in what forums should athletes raise contentious but important issues about fellow athletes, even when those athletes have earned huge accolades in sport?
  • Have athletes understood the important difference between the governance practices to be found in their realm and those highlighted by the open, balanced treatment of complex and controversial issues and responses to those at the Washington Post?
  • What do they learn from the protocols and practices and the transparency therein (mistakes and hard discussions included); what do they learn from the fact that a harmful chapter in the life of a man hailed and widely regarded as a hero history was widely overlooked until reporter Felicia Sonmez raised a flag?
  • That is their view on that reporters’ life being threatened by people thinking toxicity the solution to toxicity.

The day after the tragic helicopter crash, Outsports.com highlighted this story of mistakes, acknowledgment, redemption and betterment in Bryant’s story: “When Kobe Bryant apologized for calling an official a “fucking faggot” in 2011, he vowed he would start advocating for the equality of LGBTQ people.

Though Bryant’s original apology was filled with justifications — he said his homophobic language “should not be taken literally” and was “out of frustration during the heat of a game” — he went on to participate in an anti-discrimination public service video for GLAAD and promised he “planned to do more.

“Bryant backed up his words with actions. His evolution represented a seismic shift in terms of LGBTQ acceptance in the testosterone-filled world of male professional sports.”

Safe-sport advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the 1984 Olympic 100m freestyle champion-turned-lawyer and CEO of Champion Women, wrote a public post on Facebook to explain why that Outsports article “crystallizes the problems I have with Kobe Bryant and figuring out his legacy.” Hogshead-Makar explains her thoughts here.

The Outsports article includes a photo of Bryant with football star Megan Rapinoe, which takes us to our third example:

3. Megan Rapinoe – No Anthem Sung Since 2016


“We will not be silenced” – How Mega Rapinoe greeted the IOC warning against ‘political protest’ – Photo Courtesy: Megan Rapinoe Instagram

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced this month that it will not tolerate political protests or statements at Tokyo 2020 “to avoid turning the Games into a political tool”.

Enter Megan Rapinoe, U.S. soccer team captain. She is not only a monument to the protests she chooses to make but also to systems political and cultural that allow it and appreciate why that makes them stronger.
Rapinoe has refused to sing the American national anthem before every match since 2016 and has taken that stance in support of compatriot Colin Kaepernick, who takes the knee during the national anthem to protest alleged racism and police brutality in the US.

If Rapinoe gets to Tokyo 2020 and refuses to sing the anthem, that would constitute a political protest, some media have suggested. It is likely to take much more than that for the IOC to act: many swimmers do not – some cannot manage to – sing their way through medals ceremonies either. Nor is it expected. To stand in silence is an act far more likely to upset some sectors of the American audience than the IOC.

That said, Rapinoe is not one to hold back if she feels a need to make a gesture in support of human – and athlete – rights. Nor will she likely to be put off making ‘political protests’ just because the IOC tell her she can’t. After all, Olympic soccer (which sets an age limit of 23 for men but no limit for women, is not the pinnacle of a player’s career in the way it is for the swimmer.

Rapinoe, who will be 35 in Tokyo, already has Olympic gold in her collection, from London 2012. She may not have many designs on Paris 2024 – and any threat to bar her if she did choose to protest in Tokyo would surely feel like the approach of a paper tiger to her.

All the more do given a statement from World players’ union FIFPro today that it will stand by players if they make a political statement in Tokyo.  FIFPro secretary general Jonas Baer-Hoffmann slammed the IOC ‘anti-political protest’ warning as “absolutely unacceptable”:

“We feel very strongly that the players’ freedom of speech and the freedom to express themselves on political issues need to be protected. We will certainly support any players who feel they want to express views and they want to be part of a social movement for change. If the IOC decides to discipline players on this occasion, we will certainly stand by them to defend them. Their freedom of expression overrides any other interest that may be in play here. They are trailblazers but, on the one hand, they are being welcomed by people to take this forward and make sport appear as a change agent in society. And, on the other, now we have a hypocritical rule that says if you do it in our venues, we think this is a sanctionable offense. This is absolutely unacceptable.”

As Rapinoe put it on on Instagram:

“So much being done about the protests. So little being done about what we are protesting about. We will not be silenced.”


Mack Horton – Rio victory – Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Back in Rio, Mack Horton was given a standard ovation by fellow sportsmen and women in the Athletes’ Village canteen not just for his 400m freestyle gold for the Gold and Green but for his stance on Sun Yang and others who fall foul of doping rules. Thos who stood and applauded had all understood that Horton had spoken up not only for himself – but for them and all who want Fair Play and clean sport reinforced by the guardians of sport.

In Tokyo this July, Horton and Co will also have footballers, with nothing to lose (their status and money and power come from elsewhere) from any Olympic disciplinary action, by their side delivering a growing force for change at the Games as we approach Tokyo 2020: powerful solidarity and cross-sport advocacy for the betterment of  Olympic governance and the lot of athletes.

That message is holding hands with another, one that speaks to the red threads of culture that run through the work of Dr. Shane Gould: athlete agency. Who provides it? Do official, in-house-organisation athlete commissions provide it?

Now that swimmers have joined the sports that want direct representation, what will become of retired athletes steeped in the official organisations they appear to represent more than they do the views and wishes of athletes.  This piece at Medal Count under the headline There is no Defense for the Actions of Mary Lou Retton highlights the issue starkly.

What Will Swimmers Think; What Issues Will They Raise?

The three examples of the Athlete Voice in full swing beyond the water highlight rattling stances that raise serious issues. That path is not an easy one but it does come hand in hand with the long-term meaning of what it is to be a professional athlete and how that plays out in lives beyond days of peak performance.

The stances taken by Navratilova, McEnroe, Hogshead-Makar and Rapinoe above deliver headlines, profiles and ensure that sportsman and/or woman are bigger than sport and help to change attitudes and cultures beyond their own lane and performance.

Athlete Agreements, which will will consider in this series, include policies that require athletes to speak only off their own performance and in positive ways about their team and team-mates as whole. That is understandable, division in the ranks in the pressure-cooker of an Olympics the stuff of defeat. But another use has been made of such controlling agreements, the kind that speaks to what the IOC seeks in Tokyo: no politics, no controversy, no off-message word.


Matt Biondi, the director of the Athletes’ Union, with Adam Peaty in London – Photo Courtesy: Craig Lord

Biondi notes that the International Swimmers’ Alliance is about “what we’re for; not what we’re against”. The context in which he spoke must be understood: in these early days of pro-team’s arrival in the pool, his primary task is to seek fair pay for fair play from the likes of regulatory bodies such as the IOC and FINA. He will be talking to other event organisers about new competitions and formats and ways athletes can earn a living.

In the three cases above, however, the protests highlight what the athlete is clearly against as well as what the athlete is for.

Swimming’s Pro journey is in its infancy, experience from other sports much further down the road offering useful lessons for swimmers and swimming about the scrapes, scars and rewards of advocacy and agency.

We’ll take a look at some of the questions athletes are asking and others they intend to ask later in the series. Meanwhile, what questions do you think swimmers should ask as their voices grow stronger and the support for their stance grows wider within the Olympic Movement?


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