How The International Swimming League Muscled Ahead Of World Titles In Top 10 Global Ranks Race

2021-12-23 Reading Time: 9 minutes
Britain's Ben Proud, whose season world-leading best two 50m freestyle dashes entered the all-time top 10 performances list in 2021 - photo by Patrick. B. Kraemer

The pandemic and the International Swimming League have changed the face of swimming since the last pre-Covid World short-course Championships, results at the latest edition of the global winter showcase just ended in Abu Dhabi confirm, with the FINA event playing second fiddle in the Word Top 10 Rankings for the first time since its inauguration in 1993.

It was a close swum thing but swimmers racing for Pro-teams in the new League, after just three consecutive annual seasons, placed more swims in the top 10 performers lists of the year across all individual events than those competing at World short-course titles did.

Since 1993, the FINA winter showcase, even though some of the biggest names in the sport often bypassed the meet in favour of their long-course, Olympic focus, came out on top in a count of swims that made the year-end rankings.

In women’s events across all 17 solo events swum at the World titles, swims in Abu Dhabi accounted for 72 places in the 170 top 10 places available. That compares to 77 swims from the international Swimming League, which starts with a disadvantage of its own making because it does not have an 800m for women nor a 1500m for men.

Among men, the count is 47 for World titles, 51 for the International Swimming League. The margins are fairly slim but the new showcase on the block, with far fewer swimmers but a greater concentration of the best in the world, has muscled its way to a prime position in the thread of swimming history reflected by rankings and the underrated long-term information that can be gleaned from them.

The New International Swimming League Market Share

Comparing the past three years in which the FINA winter showcase has followed an Olympic Games, the impact of the International Swimming League is stark:

By percentage, the source of all solo swims across the 170 places in 17 events on the World Rankings (including the 800m for women and 1500m for men swum at 2021 World titles but not in the League), at a time when many other meets could not go ahead, or where they did could not enjoy the usual standard of entry, the only real contenders for serious space at the helm of world pace, the European short-course Championships and World Cup rounds, each of the four big events competing for the attentions of the best but each ultimately diluted by the others:


In men’s events in Abu Dhabi, three finals produced no world top 10 times; seven events featured only two times that made the top 10; and the average hit of impacts on the top 10 was under 3 across all events. In 10 out of the 17 solo events, the medal winning times do not rank in the world season top 3, while the World champion tops the World rankings in four events.

In women’s events in Abu Dhabi, the average across all events was higher, at 4, while other measures comparable to those for men in the previous paragraph were more solid, with champions in nine of the 17 events also ending then year as World-ranked No1 and five others ranked season world top 3.

Quite clearly, the main opposition to the World titles on the rankings came from the International Swimming League.

In the depth of detail in the surface figures is significant absenteeism in racing at both the International Swimming League and the World titles. The reasons for bypassing either or both of those swimming showcases include swimmer and coach choice, not just involving long-course preference but the timing of events long- and short-course on a cluttered competition calendar that includes a World long-course championship in an unusually early slot of May 2022 and will soon come under review as part of the FINA reform process.

Number restrictions of different kinds (League, overall numbers set for a set number of teams; World titles, the traditional two per nation, with a large number of universality swimmers who fall well shy off making any impact in the realm of our focus here, the World top 10 across all solo races) are part of the picture, as are pandemic conditions that made travel all but impossible for some and shaped the choices of Australia and Australians, few of whom raced at the International Swimming League this year and none of whom were entered for the World titles.

Australia’s absence represented a big blow for the sport: the world No2 swimming nation celebrated its best Olympic Games in history on overall medal count at Tokyo202One, with Emma McKeon emerging as the world’s top woman swimmer with a record seven medals, topped by four golds.

Kyle Chalmers

McKeon managed a couple of appearances in League waters and Australians also made it to the World Cup, where Kyle Chalmers cracked the World record over 100m freestyle more than a decade after it had been established in the shiny suits saga of 2008-09.

In League waters, there were World records from Kelsi Dahlia (100m butterfly) and Ilya Shymanovich (100m breaststroke, twice), while Shymanovich matched the global 50m standard at the European showcase.

World titles were topped by World records from Florian Wellbrock (1500m free), Siobhan Haughey (200m freestyle) and Maggie MacNeil (50m backstroke).

Beyond its pace-setting sensations, the short-course season has provided a valuable race-and-train environment for swimmers and coaches, League experience showing through in many of those who have made the medals in Abu Dhabi this past week.

Ben Proud, whose sprint credentials and threat to big prizes has been well established for the past seven years, used the little pool as a springboard out of the doldrums of disappointment in Tokyo at the Olympics. He fell shy of what he wanted that week but this season he boasts the World title, after a dominant win in Abu Dhabi (one barely covered back home, the reasons why yet to be considered by reformists at FINA), and the three fastest dashes of the 2021/22 season (short-course rankings have traditionally run July to June; there are good reasons for that, regardless of them now being ignored by other collating their own rankings while letting the lessons delivered by Nick Thierry long ago pass them by).

Absenteeism & The Argument That Must Be Settled By Ruling

The International Swimming League and FINA are locked yet in a legal battle of FINA’s making, the horrid depths of which make for uncomfortable but essential reading for those who claim to love swimming, including evidence presented in court in the United States that must surely one fine day in the not-too-distant future when the Independent Aquatics Integrity Unit is in place lead to scrutiny of some FINA leaders keen to wear a reformist cloak like a mask to the wrongs of their past.

A ruling in court that forces FINA to rid its constitution of monopolistic references and tendencies that hold back reform and progress would be the best outcome, some suggest.

However it pans out, what is very clear cannot be denied: swimmers have voted with their star skills and backed the League as the new winter showcase season place to be. Teething troubles abound, among them tardy payments to swimmers, teams and professional contributors to the League.

As things stand, the state of swimming is one in which no major event beyond the Olympic Games and World long-course Championships can be said to be “best entry”. That matters, including the obvious restriction on the potential to attract the bigger sponsors and partners beyond the wash of the long-term backers of swimming who, thankfully, have been on tap for decades but do not have the financial clout to help to get swimming to the next level.

Ariarne Titmus acknowledges not the crowd, for there is none here, but the crowd of coaches, athletes and others doing their best to support each other and show appreciation for outstanding efforts – by Patrick B. Kraemer

If the League went ahead without the likes of Adam Peaty, Katie Ledecky, Ariarne Titmus and others, then the World titles went without them, the whole of Australia, Caeleb Dressel and most of the best of the USA … and so on and so forth. In many countries, there was scant coverage of the events, both League and World titles. There are clear reasons for that and it will be essential for both the International Swimming League and FINA to better understand why swimming is struggling to keep its place in and pecking order of the competitive sphere of world-class sport.

Here’s a perspective that might sharpen minds among those who understand that the biggest sports in the world are NOT just broadcast moments but attract a huge following of print and written-word online media, in its various forms these days:

  • I think there is just one full-time professional journalist covering swimming as their main occupation for mainstream media in 2021. And no, it isn’t me, for those wondering.

Why is that? And what does it mean for swimming? The answers are many, some simple, others complex. Many come down to this: swimming has sunk back to a sport that matters big time just the “once every four years”, when the Olympic Games comes round. That is the only moment you will find more than a dozen journalists from one country standing in front of a swimmer or swimmers after races that count far more than any others as a measure of the status and stature of the athlete in the moment – and in life beyond that moment.

Swimming has become a sport covered remotely, all the more so in a pandemic and in the realm of niche online coverage, bloggers and vloggers rarely seen at the big event. And some of those who do make it to the bigger events beyond the Olympics are there because a federation is funding their way, the hidden subsidisation of what might easily be described as “promotion journalism”, and in some cases pure PR, now embedded in aquatics sport.

The short-course season highlights many of the issues that swimming is grappling with, including those that speak to that reference of “status and stature of the athlete”.

Katie Ledecky, by Patrick B. Kraemer

The majority of headlines, back home and abroad, have gone to the likes of Wellbrock, MacNeil, Chalmers, Sjostrom, Kromowidjojo and even Dressel on cruise control, while some of the most extensive coverage you can find at this time of (review of the) year revolves around swimmers who did not feature in any international events since Tokyo, including Peaty and Ledecky and Titmus. What all of them have in common is clear: they are all Olympic champions.

Add Haughey and other Olympic podium placers to the heap and the short-course spin-off is one underpinned by the long-course, Olympic foundations in order to make any impact on the wider audience beyond swimming fandom.

The League set out to change that. It’s a work in progress. The FINA reform process intends to scrutinise the calendar, at long last. Both entities will need to succeed and work in harmony if swimming and swimmers are going to be the winners.

The pandemic has also reminded us all of the gulf between the elite end of the pool and the shallows of birthing pools that are the very lifeblood of the sport. The elite end has flourished and continued in the pandemic to a very large extent. The birthing pool of clubs, local programs and facilities has taken a huge clobbering. In many countries, there is financial subsidy for all manner of businesses but the “amateur” sports club is suffering, the ‘swimming economy’ on its relative knees and all the more reliant on the hidden bank of mum and dad.

Clubs are being proactive and turning to crowdfunding appeals such as this one. There’s a slog ahead.

What can swimming authorities do to help? That will be one of the big questions of 2022 as the pandemic stretches into its third year beyond a second winter of lockdowns partial and full.

Meanwhile, as 2021 draws to a close, SOS will select some highs and lows and look back at the best and worst of the 2021 season. We start with a nod to the article above on the impact of the International Swimming League and its shaping of the short-course season.

SOS Short-Course Swimmers Of The Year

With short reference to some of their achievements this year

Siobhan Haughey

Top Five Women:

  1. Siobhan Haughey – HKG – WR 200m freestyle, 100 and 200m World titles and bronze in the 400m + ISL Season for Energy Standard
  2. Maggie MacNeil – CAN – WR 50m backstroke, World titles 50m backstroke, 100m butterfly plus gold in two relays and silver in a third relay for Canada
  3. Sarah Sjostrom – SWE – 50m freestyle World champion and hauler of three medals on the last day in Abu Dhabi at the end of a year that started with a broken elbow yet still included Olympic silver + ISL Season for Energy Standard – 13 years after her first senior championship title
  4. Ranomi Kromowidjojo – NED – World title 50m butterfly in a championship record; European long-course gold 50 free in 23.97 nine Years After Olympic 50 free Gold In 24.05 + ISL Season for Iron as one of the Skins queens of the League.
  5. Kelsi Dahlia – USA – WR 100m butterfly on ISL duty for Cali Condors
Florian Wellbrock – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Top Five Men:

  1. Florian Wellbrock – GER – WR 1500m freestyle (in a four-way battle; who said 1500 was ‘too boring for TV’? I disagree) – listed here for short-course, a feat that stretches his powers from open water and the long-course pool to the confines of 25m racing: Olympic marathon crown – Olympic silver, 1500m freestyle – and a swimmer locked out of the ISL because they don’t do distance (they should – and there are ways to be smart and entertaining ways to go about it but so far they have not been explored)
  2. Kyle Chalmers – AUS – WR 100m freestyle at the FINA World Cup in between ISL duty for London Roar – and Olympic silver by a slither in a soaring match with Caeleb Dressel
  3. Ilya Shymanovich – BLR – WRs 50m and 100m breaststroke in action at European titles and on ISL duty for Energy StandardWorld title 100m
  4. Daiya Seto – JPN – five straight 400IM s/c World titles that shook off the down of a home Olympics from which he emerged empty handed + ISL duty for the Tokyo Frog Kings
  5. Kliment Kolesnikov – Team Tchaikovsky winner of four golds (50m back, 100IM, two relays) and silver (100 back) at World titles – and three golds, a silver and two bronzes at European s/c titles – and three gold and a silver at European l/c titles, Budapest 2020 held in 2021 – and on ISL duty for Energy Standard, the winning League team

More reflections on 2021 beyond Christmas – a merry one to all our readers.

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