The Plot to Kill the Olympics
When Konstantin Grigorishin—über-wealthy Ukrainian businessman, aspiring philosopher, former pal of Russian oligarchs—introduced the upstart International Swimming League in 2019, he made the first move in an ambitious plan that could blow up Olympic sports and usher in a new era of athlete fairness. He also commenced a game of chicken with some of the world’s most powerful and dangerous men, including Vladimir Putin. And he just might win.
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Last fall Caeleb Dressel, the world’s fastest swimmer, sat in a hotel coffee shop on an island in the Danube in Budapest, sipping water from a bottle and trying not to think about a world without the Olympics. This was not easy. The 24-year-old from Florida was in Hungary’s fairy-tale capital of castles and grand hotels, along with 300 other Olympians, for the second season of a new competition, the International Swimming League (ISL), whose regard for the Games and their domination over watersports was summed up by its slogan: “This. Is. The. Revolution.”
Dressel was doing much to stoke the rebellion. A year earlier he’d won six golds and two silvers at the World Championships in Kwangju, South Korea, signaling his potential to match Michael Phelps’s all-time record of eight golds at a single Olympics. When the pandemic forced the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games, Dressel came to Budapest, where during six weeks of racing he broke four world records in seven days. That, plus five more world records set by other swimmers in Hungary, suddenly made the league, not the Games, the place where sports history was being made. That in turn made Dressel and his left-arm sleeve tattoo the icons of an Olympic sport fast evolving beyond the Olympics.
Dressel wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He had built his entire existence around the Games. “My whole life,” he said, “you hear swimming, you hear track, you hear gymnastics, you think Olympics.” But in the league, he said, he had discovered “what swimming should be.”
Dressel’s dilemma had its roots in an old paradox. In public, the mythology of the Games—the Olympic ideal—makes them the world’s most prestigious tournament. Backstage, however, athletes despise the old men who run them, for their long and dismal history of corruption, and for allowing and even profiting from the financial, sexual, and pharmacological abuse of Olympians. The establishment’s latest ignominy concerned the coronavirus. Last March, epidemiologists said they couldn’t imagine a better superspreader event than gathering together several million people from every country on earth, then dispersing them back across the planet two weeks later. The International Olympic Committee’s response—that it couldn’t imagine the Games any other way—made clear that it valued schedules and bottom lines above global health. After weeks of refusing to back down, it agreed to a one-year delay only after Canada pulled out and Australia and Britain threatened to do the same.
But for once, the IOC’s arrogance had cost it. Just as the pandemic inspired political and social change the world over, so, during the course of 2020, did many of the bigger Olympic sports experience a quiet remaking. By arranging COVID-safe bubbles or going virtual, most major competitions in track and field, basketball, soccer, cycling, tennis, and marathon running went ahead, prompting a string of editorials wondering if the Games were even necessary. “Cancel. The. Olympics,” demanded one in The New York Times.
Leading the charge was the ISL. It’s not often that someone sets up a new Champions League. But over nine months in 2019, Ukrainian multimillionaire Konstantin Grigorishin did just that. At 55, Grigorishin has a trim physique and a shaved head that suggest a muscular efficiency; in another life as a Soviet cosmologist, he spent his days imagining new galaxies. Grigorishin’s vision of a better world for swimming involved a professional league of city-based teams made up of elite athletes. He argued that waiting four years for a big race didn’t celebrate the sport so much as stifle it, and pointed up another Olympic conundrum: why the world’s most popular participatory sports—running and swimming—were among its more obscure spectator ones. His competition would be structured as an annual season in which swimmers faced off in weekly meets. To ensure that it was free of doping, any violation would mean a lifetime ban. Unlike the Olympics, the league would pay its athletes: Grigorishin pledged a 50 percent share of revenues. His big promise to swimmers was that by combining continuous competition with arena-rock production, he would make them stars. The ISL’s first season, in 2019—seven meets between eight teams from the U.S. and Europe, which drew stadium crowds and an online audience of millions—proved that he was onto something. The second season—expanded to ten teams, and staged in a bubble thrown around 300 swimmers, 1,000 support staff, and three adjacent hotels and a natatorium on the river in Budapest—replaced the Olympics as the biggest sporting event of 2020.
Dressel shifted uneasily in his seat. “It’s really hard for me to say, ‘Yeah, Budapest is how it’s going to be,’” he said. “I don’t know if it’s up to me. I don’t know what even I wish it to be.” Something in Dressel’s tone suggested that he was less spooked by the idea of Olympic decline than by talking about it out loud. We spoke about other subjects for a while: growing up in a family of swimmers, how he might have been a wide receiver, the beauty and spirituality of water. Then Dressel said: “At the end of the day, there’s a lot of baggage that comes with any sport. You’ve got to have people run the meets. And, you know, there might be some things that maybe I don’t want to know about.”
Which people? What things?