Molly Hannis (left) and Maddy Banic of the International Swimming League
Molly Hannis (left) and Maddy Banic of the International Swimming League
Molly Hannis (left) and Maddy Banic of the International Swimming League (Photo: Peter Fisher)

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?

Caeleb Dressel
Caeleb Dressel (Peter Fisher)
Dressel midrace in Las Vegas
Dressel midrace in Las Vegas (Peter Fisher)

Vladimir Putin’s biographers cite his love of judo as evidence of a calculating mind. His publicists hand out pictures of him hunting, horseback-riding, or fishing bare-chested as evidence of great pecs. But in truth, the Russian president’s sport is swimming. His morning routine, at any of his dozen palaces, is comparable to that of an Olympian in training, an exhausting regimen of two hours of vigorous freestyle and butterfly.

For Putin, the benefits are mental as much as physical. “This is where the political assistants suggest he gets much of Russia’s thinking done,” wrote Ben Judah in Newsweek. Putin is also setting an example for a nation known for heavy drinking and smoking, and one of his presidency’s great achievements is that it appears to be working. Under him, Russian life expectancy has risen from 65 to 73. Two million Russians have even taken up the presidential hobby of ice swimming.

Putin’s enthusiasm for sports reflects his past in the KGB. Behind the Iron Curtain, sports, especially Olympic sports, were controlled by the security services. The Soviet Union was admitted to the Games in 1952, the year Putin was born, and during the Cold War the Olympics became one of the few arenas in which East and West did open battle. Tasked with producing West-beating Olympians, the Soviets overachieved. In the 1970s and ’80s, the USSR dominated medal counts, while Soviet satellites like East Germany and Romania ruled swimming and gymnastics. To communist leaders, the Olympics were proof, like Sputnik, Cuba, and Vietnam, that the righteous underdog could win. Behind the scenes, the Soviets used the Olympics to spread influence and ideology. Their success can be measured by how the KGB apparently considered that it had an asset in Juan Antonio Samaranch, IOC president from 1980 to 2001, and how Soviet sports bureaucrats were able to rewrite the Olympics’ founding creed of elitism, imperialism, and individualism into a more socialist one of egalitarianism, internationalism, and mass participation.

Putin came to power promising to resurrect Russia from the humiliation of Soviet collapse. Somewhat confusingly, he has pursued that goal using many of the techniques of Soviet rule. His inner circle, the siloviki, is almost exclusively ex-KGB. Like the USSR, his state tries to merge all nodes of power in one hierarchy, which in modern Russia means government, business, the security services, and organized crime.

Putin has also revived the state’s connection with sports. In the past decade, Russia has become the world’s busiest host, welcoming the World Athletics Championships, Formula One, the World Swimming Championships, the soccer World Cup, and the Winter Olympics. As in times past, the regime once again recruits from the sporting world. “The situation is no different from the Cold War,” says Yuri Ganus, former head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada), who was sacked last August after speaking out about drugs. “Our leading athletes are politicized, controlled. Look how many of them have seats in parliament.” A measure of how personal these sporting ties are to Putin, 68, can be gauged from his romance, since his divorce in 2014, with gymnastics gold medalist Alina Kabaeva, 37.

Today, Russian sports once again mirror the character of the Russian state. To the extent that Moscow has been able to revive its influence with Olympic officials—by, say, supplying the Norwegian head of biathlon’s governing body with bags of cash, hunting trips, and prostitutes, according to an internal inquiry—Olympic sports also often seem to reflect the same values. That was on full display at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. The Russian team’s dominance was a testament to doping. The outlandish sums spent on the Games—totaling $51 billion, making them the most expensive Olympics in history—were explained by state directives to certain oligarchs to lavish money on the event; by construction contracts worth billions handed out to others; and, according to Russia’s opposition, by a festival of embezzlement and money laundering amounting to $30 billion. Sochi illustrated the Olympics’ other uses, too. It provided patriotic cover for the siloviki’s venality. Among the wider public, it inspired the kind of patriotism normally reserved for war. In the years since, the Games’ importance to Russia has been further underlined by death threats directed at athletes who testify about doping, and the mysterious demise of at least one disloyal Rusada official. None of which has prompted IOC president Thomas Bach to revisit his closing-ceremony remarks that Sochi was “amazing” and Russia’s performance there “remarkable.”

A member of the ISL team Energy Standard diving in
A member of the ISL team Energy Standard diving in (Peter Fisher)

To make Russian sports great again, the Kremlin set up a range of supervisory bodies staffed by leading regime figures. The 105 medals available in swimming’s 35 Olympic events mark it out for special attention. At the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, the 17-member board of the Russian swimming federation included seven oligarchs. Among them: Oleg Deripaska, once Russia’s richest man, now sanctioned by the U.S. for wiretapping, extortion, racketeering, and threatening to kill rivals. Overseeing them as board chairman was Sergey Naryshkin, U.S.-sanctioned former Kremlin chief of staff, keen amateur swimmer, and, since late 2016, director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Russia’s CIA.

Exploring the bond between Putin and the pool one snowy February day in Moscow, I visited Alexey Vlasenko in the gray concrete block on the banks of the Moskva River which houses Russia’s Olympic administrators. Vlasenko, 55, is Putinism personified. He graduated from Moscow’s university for sports, once the engine of the Soviet Olympic effort. Today he’s head of three Russian aquatics federations (water polo, diving, and artistic swimming) and a member of Russia’s Olympic committee. In politics, he’s a member of the Eurasian Peoples’ Assembly, an international forum set up by Putin to counter the Western bias he perceives in global institutions. In business, before it was sunk by money laundering and embezzlement in 2015, he was chairman of Russia’s MAST-Bank. (Vlasenko was not among MAST-Bank managers prosecuted for stealing $90 million.)

Vlasenko turned out to be a jovial, portly man who fed me giant slices of chocolate cake and presented me with a pair of skintight purple water-polo trunks. On the walls of his office were two photographs of Naryshkin, one of which showed him conferring with Putin. When I asked how Russia’s top spy assisted the nation’s Olympic ambitions, Vlasenko was candid. “I go to Naryshkin and I say, ‘This is important for the country.’ One phone call, tick, it’s decided—the money is immediately found. I have three sports. I feel support on every level, at every step. Any question, whatever I need, it’s decided immediately.”

Part of Vlasenko’s job is to promote Russian interests and influence overseas. This he does through positions in the Olympics’ two big swimming subordinates, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) and the European Swimming Federation. Vlasenko has been especially successful with FINA, forging a close relationship with its 85-year-old president, Julio Maglione of Uruguay, and its 79-year-old chief executive, Cornel Marculescu, a Romanian former water-polo player who assumed the job in 1986, near the end of the Cold War. In 2014, before MAST-Bank went bust, Vlasenko struck a deal for the bank to sponsor FINA’s World Cup. He has also facilitated a friendship between Putin and Maglione. In 2014, Maglione presented Putin with his organization’s highest honor, the FINA Order, declaring Russia “one of the most important and major powers in world sport.” Maglione has since become a regular companion of Putin’s, sharing the stage with him at FINA’s 2015 World Championships in Kazan, in central Russia, accompanying him at international sports conferences, and attending his third presidential inauguration, in 2018, at his invitation. When I asked Vlasenko about the warmth between the two men, he beamed. “Our president adores him,” he said of Maglione. “He loves him.”

The regime’s affection for FINA is matched by its fondness for swimming. Under the guidance of a president who was “so sporty and always in great shape,” Vlasenko said swimming had become the siloviki’s preferred pastime. “Half of our government swims!” he said. He described an annual gala at Moscow’s Olimpiyskiy pool, attended by Naryshkin, his daughter, Veronika, and other ministers and officials, pictures of which have been distributed to the Russian press. Vlasenko presented this vogue for the pool as good for the leadership’s health. But he was also describing a curiosity of the regime: that to say ministers, spies, billionaires, and gangsters swim in the same waters in Putin’s Russia is not a mere metaphor, but a literal account of how power works.

Think of it as the Kremlin Swim Club.

Konstantin Grigorishin
Konstantin Grigorishin (Shamil Sakhavatov)

ISL founder Konstantin Ivanovich Grigorishin was born in 1965 in Zaporozhye, an industrial city on the Dnieper River in the rolling, black-earth flatlands of southern Ukraine. Russia has never accepted Ukrainian independence—1,000 years ago, Kyiv was the capital of the original Mother Russia, the Rus empire—and Grigorishin’s parents were children in the early 1930s, when Stalin tried to eradicate even the idea of Ukraine, starving up to 12 million people to death in the Holodomor genocide. Today the city still remembers the “paradise evening” in May 1933 when party bosses in the Intourist Hotel drank champagne and watched women dance naked on the tables as, outside, tens of thousands ate the flesh of horses and even one another.

Stalin decreed that from this cleansing catastrophe a new city would arise, embodying the enlightened modernism of the Soviet Union. Within a few years, Zaporozhye was transformed from provincial backwater into workers’ paradise, a city of square housing blocks, giant industrial plants, and generous public parks, arranged on the longest central avenue in Europe, powered by its biggest hydroelectric dam. Grigorishin’s parents designed jet engines for Antonovs and Yakovlevs. The arrival of a son allowed them to move from a communal apartment into their own two-bedroom, opposite a state sports academy to which Grigorishin was sent at the age of six. Today Grigorishin recalls the school as the origin of his love of Olympic sports. Yet his lawyer, Ekaterina Slivko, says that his attendance indicated his gifts not as an athlete but as a rebel. “The sports school was a bit stricter, for kids whose parents couldn’t handle them,” she says. “You can still see that mischievous boy who upset the entire world.”

Grigorishin’s contrariness sprang from an unyielding intellect. At 12, he was transferred to a school for children who excelled in math and science. By age 19, his ability to “think around corners,” as a friend put it, had taken him to the Nobel Prize–winning Landau Institute of Theoretical Physics in Moscow. When Communism collapsed, Grigorishin watched hundreds of colleagues depart for research positions overseas before deciding to apply the scientific method to the new world of capitalism at home. He would pick a sector, research it, propose a new hypothesis to explain it, then start a company to apply his theories. On enough occasions, his ideas turned industries on their heads and made him outrageously rich. By 2014, his business group, Energy Standard, had holdings in power distribution, manufacturing, ports, and oil and gas logistics worth nearly $6 billion. “Big money is made by playing against the rules,” he said in a 2008 interview.

With his family—wife Natacha, daughter Jane, and sons Ivan and George—Grigorishin enjoyed his wealth. There was a 200-year-old mansion in central Moscow, a cellar of Bordeaux and Burgundy to match any in the world, an art collection that included a Munch, a Bacon, a Lichtenstein, and a Miró, and three interconnected chalets in Courchevel, in the French Alps. But in other ways, Grigorishin didn’t act the billionaire. He took the train. He dressed in sneakers, gym shorts, and old Pink Floyd T-shirts. For Grigorishin, the joy of money was the freedom it gave him to pursue a life of the mind. Delegating oversight of his empire to managers, he spent months reading postmodern philosophers who argued that after progressing from medievalism to modernity, humanity was on the cusp of a new era of multiple, subjective truths, some beyond rational understanding. Grigorishin described this evolution as “religion, science, magic.”

Once, in a pre-air-travel era, limiting Olympic competition to one climactic tournament every four years made sense. Today that restriction merely illustrates the Olympic establishment’s success at crushing potential rivals.

Inevitably, Grigorishin’s pursuit of metaphysical truth colored his earthly behavior. He tolerated the kind of corruption needed to operate a business in the post-Soviet world—paying bribes to bureaucrats, making alliances with gangster-politicians. But he saw no point in making billions only to remain in hock to some “corruptioner,” and would publicly call out the kind of kleptomania that ate whole countries. “Freedom is very important to me,” he told me. “If somebody tries to restrict my freedom, immediately they are my enemy. I want to do what I want, say that Putin is stupid.” It was an attitude that stood out in the creeping authoritarianism of his environment. When he met Grigorishin in 2003, his general counsel, Maxim Markov, said that he had no intention of leaving a career in international finance to work for some Ukrainian billionaire. “Then, in one meeting, I really fell in love with him,” Markov said. “He never lies. That’s his principle. Even if it is so bad for us as a company.”

It wasn’t great for Grigorishin’s personal safety, either. In 2002, after he fell out with the pro-Moscow government in Kyiv, the Ukrainian police bundled him into a car outside a restaurant, planted a pistol and a bag of cocaine on him, and held him in jail with three convicted murderers for ten days, threatening to drive him out to the woods and bury him alive. Grigorishin’s response upon his release was to move his family to Moscow, detail his treatment in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, then, from 2004 to 2005, spend $35 million bankrolling the pro-democracy, pro-Europe Orange Revolution, which overthrew the Ukrainian government. Within a few years, however, Grigorishin was complaining that the new leaders were as bad as the old ones. That earned him the disapproval of several Western ambassadors in Kyiv who backed the new regime. An equal-opportunity provocateur, he angered Moscow by opposing its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Grigorishin found respite from the turmoil of his professional life in the Olympic ideals of his youth. “Why do I love sport?” he asked. Because in its highest expression it was like fine art. “The beauty of the body, the beauty of motion, the chance that you will see something extraordinary.” His interest narrowed to swimming when his son Ivan showed early promise as a butterflyer. In a few years, Grigorishin progressed from funding training camps to founding a swim club, also called Energy Standard, based in Moscow and Kyiv.

But just as Grigorishin couldn’t help sounding off at oligarchs and politicians, he was soon berating the Olympic coaches and officials they employed. They were pushing the kids too hard, he said. Russia often triumphed at the junior world championships but hadn’t won gold in the Olympic pool since 1996. Why? Because by the time its swimmers were old enough to compete, Grigorishin said, they were burned out. Russia’s Stakhanovite sports culture made doping all but logical, he added, something confirmed when, in the run-up to the 2012 London Games, Rusada turned itself into a pro-doping test-evasion authority, distributing drugs to athletes and swapping out dirty samples for clean ones. Oligarch cash provided more incentive to cheat. Former national head coach Andrei Vorontsov, now at Bath University in southern England, says that in London, the reward for “a gold medal was 4.5 million rubles [then $140,000], plus scholarships, salaries, the keys to a new car—maybe Mercedes, maybe Audi—houses or flats, bonuses from local governments, and an increase in your pension.” To Grigorishin, the pressure to win amounted to state-sponsored child abuse. “Kids are very fragile,” he said. “Their bodies are not ready. Their brains are not ready. So many talents have been destroyed because of that.”

After London, Grigorishin decreed that Energy Standard would be everything Russia’s Olympic sports world was not. No doping, no medal targets, no gifts of cars or luxury watches. Grigorishin’s instinct was that relaxed swimmers were better swimmers, their minds not objects to be suppressed but assets to be harnessed. Gratifyingly, results came quickly. By 2016, Energy Standard had several Olympic prospects, and its enlightened methods were attracting world champions like Sara Sjöström of Sweden and Chad le Clos of South Africa. Within a few years, almost by accident, Grigorishin found himself owner of the best, most progressive swim club in the world.

Florent Manaudou
Florent Manaudou (Peter Fisher)
Lilly King
Lilly King (Peter Fisher)

Part II

The first time Grigorishin was extorted was in 2013. The phenomenon of using the state to intimidate or steal businesses had become so common in Russia that it was given a name: reiderstvo, after the English phrase “corporate raider.” Grigorishin had always resisted. But this time he was persuaded to pay by the stature of his adversaries: an oligarch with close ties to Putin, a lieutenant general in the state security services, and Russia’s two most notorious warlord-gangsters, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov and his right-hand man, Adam Delimkhanov. Kadyrov in particular was a caricature of a playboy-tyrant who, when he wasn’t wrestling his pet tiger or shooting a gold-plated pistol or hosting Elizabeth Hurley, Gérard Depardieu, or Mike Tyson at his palace in Grozny, liked to electrocute his enemies or beat them to death with a shovel. Putin used the Chechens for bloody, deniable operations like assassinations or the invasion of Ukraine, and with them, Grigorishin knew, violence was not a threat but a promise. Still, even as he transferred $100 million—to a security-agency slush fund, the oligarch’s soccer club, and a fund to build a mosque in Chechnya—he understood that he was inviting the cabal to return one day.

In December 2015, while Grigorishin was in Kyiv on business, a dozen plainclothes officers carrying machine guns and wearing balaclavas kicked open the front door of his Moscow home and detained Natacha, Ivan, then 17, and George, 5, threatening to hold them hostage until Grigorishin signed over his entire empire. With the raiders camped out on their doorstep, the family made two unsuccessful attempts to escape in the days that followed. Finally, they snuck out of an unguarded back door one night and raced to the airport, where, taking advantage of a public holiday when most officials with the authority to stop aircraft would be unavailable, Grigorishin had arranged for a private plane to fly them to Europe. The price for their freedom? The house ($60 million), the art in it ($300 million), a dacha near Putin’s residence in Rublyovka ($5 million), and two apartments, plus cars, furniture, jewelry, and a property empire in Crimea worth $400 million—a total of around three-quarters of a billion dollars in assets, most of which was seized by the state the next day.

Grigorishin still had Energy Standard, the business group, mostly based in Ukraine. But after settling his family into a life of exile in London, he decided that he needed a new plan. He was tired of all the threats and corruption, and ashamed that his business had endangered his wife and children. Watching the Rio Olympics on television that summer, Grigorishin saw one of the great swim performances of all time. American Anthony Ervin had first won gold at 19, in the 50-meter freestyle in Sydney in 2000. Then he dropped out of the sport, auctioned his medal for charity, joined a rock band, and fell into drinking, drugs, depression, and homelessness, before returning to swimming as a children’s coach and then a competitor. For his finale in Rio, at the age of 35—making him the oldest male swimmer to compete in the Games since 1904—Ervin won a second 50-meter gold by beating French world champion Florent Manaudou by one hundredth of a second and surpassing his own time in Sydney, 16 years earlier, by more than half a second. This was not sports as a metaphor for life. This was life itself, at its most miraculous—or, as Grigorishin saw it, magic. “Such a great story,” he said.

A month later, when Energy Standard’s Italian head coach, Andrea di Nino, announced that he was quitting swimming because he was bored with such a “gray sport—no heart, no crazy fans,” Grigorishin held up his hand. “Stay with me one year,” he said. “We’ll test some new ideas.”

Adam Peaty
Adam Peaty (Peter Fisher)
Sara Sjöström
Sara Sjöström (Peter Fisher)

It was symptomatic of what the Olympics had become that Ervin’s win wasn’t the big story at Rio. Attracting far more attention were stories from outside the competition, such as how Brazilian organizers had paid millions in bribes to secure the Games, sex abuse in U.S. gymnastics, the arrest of an Irish IOC member for reselling millions of dollars’ worth of tickets, and the worst doping scandal in sports history.

Two investigations by the World Anti-Doping Authority conducted in the lead-up to Rio confirmed media reports that Rusada had comprehensively drugged the Russian team. WADA recommended banning the entire squad. Rather than act decisively, however, the IOC punted, asking individual sports federations to rule on each athlete’s admission one by one.

In years past, that might have been all the reassurance Moscow needed. A linchpin of its doping program until mid-2015 was Lamine Diack, Senegalese president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), who took bribes to cover up Russian cheating. (In 2020, Diack, 87, was jailed for two years for accepting $3.8 million for his services.) But the athletics body had a new president, British former Olympian Sebastian Coe. Days before Rio, Coe disqualified 67 of Russia’s 68 track-and-fielders.

By contrast, FINA responded as a loyal Kremlin Swim Club ally. Maglione rushed to Russia’s defense, complaining to the Russian news agency Sputnik that the anti-dopers had “exceeded their powers.” And while FINA did initially ban seven Russian swimmers named as dopers, Vlasenko protested, after which FINA allowed them all to compete, on the grounds that they had appealed.

That was too much for many in Rio. Three of FINA’s eight anti-doping officials resigned. The crowd booed Russia’s pool star Yulia Efimova, one of the named dopers, as she approached the blocks. After 19-year-old U.S. breaststroker Lilly King beat Efimova in the 100-meter final, King declared her gold medal a “victory for clean sport” as Efimova looked on. John Leonard, head of the American Swimming Coaches Association, one of the few independent bodies in swimming, explained FINA’s behavior to The Guardian. “They are getting paid by the Russians,” he said, adding that FINA didn’t “give a crap” about doping. “As cynical as you can possibly be about this,” said Leonard, “that’s correct and accurate, I believe.” (Neither FINA, nor its chief executive Marculescu, nor the IOC responded to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story; an IOC spokesperson stressed by email that the organization was “fully committed to protecting the integrity of sport.”)

A relay start
A relay start (Peter Fisher)

FINA’s conduct shocked the world. But, in many ways, it was behaving as it always had. When files on the East German Stasi were opened in the 1990s, they confirmed that the GDR’s dominance of world swimming in the ’70s and ’80s relied on doses of steroids and testosterone so large that several athletes died or suffered organ failure—or, if they were female, experienced changes in sex characteristics. The organization did nothing then, even allowing the program’s sadistic lead scientist to keep his silver FINA pin. Today, with Marculescu still at the helm, things have not improved. FINA has been sluggish on athlete abuse, staying silent about several instances of sexual assault involving coaches, most recently in the U.S. And while there are few studies on the prevalence of doping in swimming, the athletes themselves acknowledge that it’s common, and a 2017 survey found that a quarter of elite swimmers who were polled were either willing to dope or considering it.

Such readiness to cheat is facilitated by FINA’s tolerance of it. At the 2019 World Championships in South Korea, FINA allowed China’s most famous Olympian, Sun Yang, to compete, despite previous doping bans and an incident in 2018 when testing officials came to Sun’s home to take a blood sample and he smashed the vial with a hammer. (After WADA appealed to the Court for Arbitration in Sport, Sun was banned for eight years. In late 2020, a Swiss court set aside that ruling, clearing the way for Sun’s return to competition.)

But if it’s soft on cheats and sex predators, FINA is hard on money. In that it follows the IOC. Though Olympic officials admitted professional tennis, basketball, and soccer players in the 1980s and ’90s, they oversee a regime of low pay or outright amateurism in the sports they control, such as track and swimming. Since they run all the major competitions in both of those sports (in swimming the list includes the Olympics, the World Championships, the World Cup, and the World Swim Series), they enforce this creed by threatening to ban from the Olympic circuit any athlete who takes part in better-paid, nonsanctioned competition. This intimidation explains the peculiarity of the Olympics’ uniquely vulnerable quadrennial calendar. Once, in a pre-air-travel era, limiting Olympic competition to one climactic tournament every four years made sense. Today that restriction merely illustrates the Olympic establishment’s success at crushing potential rivals.

The IOC defends this practice as a noble stand against commercialism. But as the Games have become big business with the growth of television rights and sponsorship, it looks more and more like greed. In the 2013–16 Olympic cycle, the IOC’s income was $5.7 billion. Of that, it paid not a cent to the athletes whose sweat it was profiting from. Instead, according to its 2016 annual report, it reserved 10 percent for itself, contributed $2.4 billion to the cost of the Sochi and Rio Games, and sent $1.7 billion to other Olympic sports bureaucracies, leaving it with a bank balance of $2.1 billion.

So it is with FINA. In 2013–16, it earned $200 million and paid none of it to Olympic swimmers. It did pay out prize money in its other tournaments—a total of $25.8 million, including $20,000 for a gold, $15,000 for a silver, and $10,000 for a bronze at its World Championship in Kazan. During that same period, however, FINA spent $22 million on salaries for its few dozen staff, $20 million on travel and per diems, $18 million on travel for other swimming bureaucrats, and $19 million for the purchase and expansion of a château in Lausanne, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, to serve as its headquarters, with living quarters for Marculescu. The trickle-down of Olympic income distribution—from the IOC to FINA to national sports bodies, and finally to competitors—means that pen pushers make several times more than star athletes. In 2017, British Swimming paid its 69-year-old chief executive of 23 years, David Sparkes, $258,155 in salary and pension. That same year Briton Adam Peaty, the world’s fastest breaststroker, received a stipend of $39,527, revocable if he earned $91,759 or more from sponsors (which Peaty did).

At the 2016 Games in Rio de janeiro, the 17-member board of the Russian swimming federation included seven oligarchs. Among them: Oleg Deripaska, once Russia’s richest man, now sanctioned by the U.S. for wiretapping, extortion, racketeering, and threatening to kill rivals.

The difference between officials and swimmers is never starker than at a meet. The bureaucrats fly in all-expenses-paid, VIP style and stay at the best hotels. Swimmers, some of whom work a second job or sell their medals to pay their way, get cattle class and sleep two to a room in the athletes’ village. “We’re always prepared for the worst when we get to a meet,” says Lilly King. “No air-conditioning in our rooms, a hard bed, no pillow, having to walk eight miles a day in the village to get food.” At the 2019 World Championships, swimmers arriving at the dining hall in Kwangju were greeted with a sign that warned of a diarrhea outbreak. No alternatives were suggested: “Just ‘Heads up! You might be throwing up after this meal!’” King says.

Hungarian Katinka Hosszu, 31, one of the greatest swimmers of all time, with 26 Olympic, World, and European golds in a 17-year career, and the only swimmer ever to earn $1 million from racing, recalls a conversation with Marculescu a few years ago in which he asked her how to go about popularizing the World Cup. Perhaps if he treated swimmers better, she suggested, more would come. “And he said, ‘Look, swimmers are swimmers, Katinka. Swimmers come and go. Swimmers don’t matter. The fans come out for FINA.’” Hosszu realized that Marculescu was letting slip a truth. “They don’t care about swimmers,” she says. “They don’t like swimming. Swimming is just a tool to make money.” Grigorishin agrees with that assessment. He cites the fate of the American open-water swimmer Fran Crippen, who died of heat exhaustion 500 meters from the finish in the United Arab Emirates in 2010. FINA had ordered the race to go ahead despite concerns that the water temperature was too high. “They are using these athletes, poor kids, like slaves,” Grigorishin says.

Away from the pool, the snapshots of FINA that have emerged in media stories and court cases raise questions over not just what kind of sports authority it is, but what kind of organization. What to make of the 2016 arrest of Kenyan FINA member Ben Ekumbo for the theft of Olympic gear or the 2017 arrest of Brazilian FINA member Coaracy Nunes for fraud? What to think of an organization that elected Husain al-Musallam of Kuwait as its first vice president in 2017 and now backs him to succeed Maglione, despite a U.S. indictment for paying bribes to fix elections to FIFA, the world soccer authority, and a 2017 video in which he’s seen telling a Chinese sponsor to pay him 10 percent of any FINA deal?

And really, what does it say about FINA that it kept Hungarian Tamas Gyarfas, 71, on its executive board after police charged him with ordering a mob hit on a business rival who was shot 19 times in his car in Budapest in 1998? (Gyarfas, who denies any involvement in the murder, is currently on trial.) Gyarfas was president of the Hungarian swimming federation for 23 years, until Hosszu forced his resignation in late 2015, accusing him of stealing funds. Her courage in standing up to a man of Gyarfas’s reputation caused a sensation in Hungary. “Everyone was really scared,” says Hosszu. “They knew who he was. They knew what kind of things he does.” So what conclusion are swimmers to draw from the fact that, as Hosszu says, Gyarfas and Marculescu are “huge friends”? King has no doubts. “FINA’s corrupt,” she says. “I have said it before. I’ll say it again.”

Russian State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin in Italy
Sergey Naryshkin (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty)
ANOC General Assembly - Day 2
Alexey Vlasenko (Matt Roberts/Getty)

The case for remaking swimming was undeniable. By the middle of 2017, Grigorishin was convinced that it was urgent, too. As was his habit, he had buried himself in research, digging into FINA’s and the IOC’s accounts and talking to managers of professional sports. He emerged proclaiming that there was no time to lose. If doping and gangsterism weren’t enough to sink the Olympics, the Games’ astronomical costs meant they were running out of willing hosts. Meanwhile, a rise in the average age of the American TV audience, from 45.5 in 2000 to 52.4 in 2016, something Grigorishin ascribed to a tired format, suggested that they would one day also run out of spectators. He predicted that, without reform, the Games might carry on for a decade or two as a prestigious sideshow, as they had become for tennis, soccer, and basketball. But it was also possible that “the Olympic Games has no future,” he said.

Grigorishin’s central contention was that the term Olympic sports was a misnomer. Swimming and running, even beach volleyball and BMX, were some of the world’s most universal sports, practiced by billions, accessible to anyone, owned by no one. His plan to save swimming centered on his assertion that, with the right competition, swimmers could be as big as other professional sports stars. Accordingly, out would go the endless prelims and the tedium of racing against the clock. In would come meets between teams that would build fan bases in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Paris, Rome, Budapest, and Tokyo. As in other professional leagues, during the preseason those clubs would be free to recruit and trade the world’s 300 best swimmers. Meets would pit four teams against one another, with two swimmers from each team spread across a total of eight lanes. Points awarded for finishes would go toward a cumulative score. The action would peak at the end of the first day of racing with relays, and at the end of the second with a skins competition—an edge-of-your-seat knockout contest in which eight swimmers race, then the fastest four, then the final two. Points for meet results would go toward a season total to determine which teams progress to the semis and the final. Without prelims, every race would be like an Olympic final. Stoking the competition further, the prize purse would be $6 million, an average of $19,000 per season per swimmer, though a Dressel or a King could expect to win $300,000. Finally, Grigorishin was determined that his contest should be a show. Each meet would feature a poolside DJ, neon-lit dugouts, hundreds of stage lights, and a space-age jumbotron. The broadcast would be heavy with underwater cameras, on-screen animation, and the kind of shots that make the most of swimming’s particular visual appeal. As Grigorishin said: “It’s very rare in sport that athletes show up almost naked.”

Natalie Hinds
Natalie Hinds (Peter Fisher)
Marie Wattel
Marie Wattel (Peter Fisher)

But however spectacular Grigorishin’s innovations, in 2017 no swimmer would risk a ban from the Olympics in order to take part in a new league. To fill his teams, Grigorishin needed a deal with FINA. The prospect of negotiating one neither thrilled nor daunted him. “In my imagination it was a voluntary organization, maybe some corruption,” he said of FINA. “A very small mafia. Not too serious.” Reaching out to a fellow Russian, Grigorishin asked Alexey Vlasenko to set up a meeting. A few weeks later, word came back that Marculescu was ready to see Grigorishin in Lausanne in September 2017.

Discussions went nowhere. Marculescu habitually digressed into details, such as the name of the ISL, which he proposed changing to the World League Swimming Clubs Association. He sulked about Grigorishin’s friendships with swimmers. At one point, the two sides produced a memorandum of understanding proposing that FINA and the ISL “enter into a cooperation which will be mutually beneficial for swimming.” But in early 2018, Marculescu became increasingly unavailable, and Grigorishin concluded that FINA wasn’t interested in an agreement.

By then, Grigorishin had other reasons for feeling disquieted. He says that Olympic officials he met often assumed that since he was Ukrainian and rich, he was “like them, fully corrupted.” They would hint at how much they were making from money laundering or embezzlement, then “immediately start to negotiate about some kickbacks.” Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Grigorishin heard that Maglione had come visiting, looking for kompromat: dirt. Email from the time between Marculescu and FINA’s American vice president, Dale Neuberger, reveal that they saw the ISL’s challenge to FINA as existential. “We must win, we will win,” wrote Neuberger. Marculescu wanted to punish swimmers who swam for Grigorishin. Neuberger preferred to go after national officials. “Hurt them badly,” he wrote of one country federation, adding of its chief: “We must kill him … suspend him for years.” At one point, Grigorishin received an anonymous text that read: “Konstantin can have everything for $150 million.” When Grigorishin’s new managing director, Ali Khan, asked officials in Europe and the U.S. for help in talking to FINA, he found them terrified. “In some instances, it got down to one individual saying, ‘I don’t want this to cost me my job,’” Khan said.

Khan, a London investment banker, was amazed by what he was discovering. “I didn’t realize how much sport stinks,” he said. He was struggling even to characterize the organization in front of him. FINA was not a “professional governing body that’s going to bring swimming into the 21st century.” Though the IOC claimed to be a nonprofit committed to “world peace, bringing the world together, and the good of mankind,” in reality “there’s billions of dollars changing hands.” Fear, threats, an obsession with loyalty to the swimming “family,” and “a black box of billions of dollars,” Khan mused. There was only one way to describe that type of organization. Grigorishin concurred. He had recently dispatched Dmytro Kachurovsky, former Olympic coach for Ukraine, to Florida to set up the ISL’s U.S. office. Kachurovsky reported back that, on a tour of Miami with another investment banker, the man began pointing out new apartment blocks, saying, “That was Sochi, that was Rio.” Grigorishin said: “I recognized that it’s not a small corrupt organization, but a big corrupt organization.” And if FINA was following the standard mafia M.O., then Grigorishin knew what to expect. First FINA would create a crisis. Then it would offer a solution—for a price.

Manaudou (Peter Fisher)
Dressel signing autographs
Dressel signing autographs (Peter Fisher)

The crisis came on June 5, 2018, when Marculescu tried to shut down the ISL. In a letter to all 209 swimming federations, he forbade them from taking part in the “so-called international competition ‘International Swimming League,’ which FINA does not recognise.” Any swimmer or federation that participated, he implied, would be excluding themselves from the Olympics.

Next came the solution. It began with an anonymous e-mail forwarded to Maxim Markov, Grigorishin’s general counsel, claiming that Vlasenko had been shortchanged by the lack of any deal between FINA and Grigorishin. (In Russian business, sensitive negotiations are routinely conducted via messages passed on by an intermediary, disguising their author and preserving deniability.) “Actually, [Grigorishin] should have established a company, and 14% of this company was meant to be owned by Alexey Vlasenko,” read the message. The logic eluded Grigorishin, and he was inclined to ignore it. Then he says Vlasenko contacted him directly. “I can help you solve this problem with the [security services] and the Chechens,” he said. “Because I know them. But you have to give something.”

This was astonishing. Even if, as Grigorishin believed, Vlasenko was offering a genuine mediation (for a fee), his suggestion that he broker a deal with Grigorishin’s extortionists was unusual. What was extraordinary was what Vlasenko seemed to be revealing: that he, an Olympic swimming official, had links with some of the biggest gangsters in Russia. Grigorishin needed to know more, and one evening in October 2018, following several more weeks of indirect negotiation, he dispatched Markov to an apartment in Baden-Baden, Germany. There, Markov had been told, he would meet a gentleman who, to protect Markov from reprisal, we will call Yevgeny. Yevgeny turned out to be “an enormously fat man with a little Porsche, living with his mother in this nice apartment,” Markov said. Yevgeny introduced himself as a close friend of Maglione’s, and then he launched into a tirade. “What is Konstantin doing in this world?” he shouted at Markov. “He does not know what he is doing! He is destroying the whole thing!”

After working himself up, Yevgeny needed a drink. He yelled to his mother to bring brandy. “Not that Armagnac,” he shouted when she returned. “The other Armagnac!”

An exasperated Yevgeny then turned back to Markov. “Grigorishin promised something in 2013 and he did not deliver it,” he said.

Here it comes, Markov thought.

Yevgeny now claimed that Grigorishin’s $100 million payout had not reached the right recipients. All he was asking, Yevgeny said, was that Grigorishin pay again. “We just need him to pay something,” he said. “Maybe $20 million.”

Hungarian Katinka Hosszu, 31, one of the greatest swimmers of all time, realized that FINA’s director was letting slip a truth. “They don’t care about swimmers,” she says. “They don’t like swimming. Swimming is just a tool to make money.”

When Markov recounted the meeting, Grigorishin’s first reaction was to laugh. Of all the shakedowns he had faced, this was possibly the most amateur. But when he considered the situation, Grigorishin became unsettled. Vlasenko held positions in FINA and with the Russian Olympic authorities. Yevgeny said he was close to Maglione, and records showed that he had also worked with Igor Putin, a cousin of the Russian president, at another bank shut down for money laundering. A third man who had set up the Baden-Baden meeting was a lawyer for Adam Delimkhanov, one of Grigorishin’s nemeses in Chechnya. This was the nexus of power, crime, and sports that defined Putin’s Russia. This was the Kremlin Swim Club. Nor did Yevgeny’s clumsiness make him any less dangerous. As Markov said, even inept gangsters have one undeniable power: “They can kill you.”

Still, Grigorishin refused to pay. The threats began within days. “You do not know what is going to happen now, [but] you will be responsible,” read a new, anonymous text. Another announced: “Due to inadequate behaviour, a concerted tough scenario was conceived on all fronts. Start: next week. Once it starts, it will be useless to appeal. Because so many active units are involved, the process will be impossible to stop.”

Exactly what that meant became apparent on November 1, 2018, when Russia issued sanctions against 322 figures from Ukraine. Number 66 on the list: Konstantin Ivanovich Grigorishin.

When Markov phoned with the news, Grigorishin sighed. “I am in a fight with Putin,” he said.

The ISL 2019 Las Vegas Finale
The ISL 2019 Las Vegas Finale (Peter Fisher)

Part III

Grigorishin had tried to escape his old life. He wanted to protect his family. He hoped to be measured by something more than accumulation. Now, in swimming, he was confronting the exact same enemies, and the exact same dangers. He realized with a start how unsafe he was in London. ­Russia had murdered 14 people in and around the British capital since 2003, according to an investigation by BuzzFeed News. There was also a British precedent for the danger Gri­gor­ishin was in. Seb Coe, head of the IAAF (now renamed World Athletics), had re­ceived death threats from Moscow for his stand against doping. “Taking on the Russians,” said a colleague of Coe’s, “let me tell you, it’s fucking scary.”

Holed up in his central London apartment, Grigorishin’s confidence began to ebb. One careless action, one loose word, and he would “pass the point of no return” and be classed as “straight-out attacking the Kremlin.” That would be “very dangerous,” he said. Kachurovsky, the ISL’s manager in the U.S., said that his boss was confronting his “biggest risk”—it all depended on him. The ISL didn’t exist without “his energy, his vision, his finances, and his bravery.”

Meanwhile, the Olympics were pressing their advantage. A week after Russia imposed its sanctions, IOC president Bach gave a speech to fellow officials in which he warned that the work of “millions of volunteers” was under attack from a new wave of commercial tournaments that “just want to harvest the fruits of the trees you have planted,” a clear allusion to the ISL.

FINA seemed determined to squash the league before it could launch. Grigorishin had planned a trial meet to familiarize swimmers with the new format, but FINA’s threats persuaded USA Swimming to pull out of hosting, then British Swimming, then the Italian equivalent. Other national federations warned their athletes not to take part. At a FINA World Cup meet in Beijing, Marculescu confronted Hosszu’s coach on the pool deck as she warmed up, saying that FINA would exclude its three-time Swimmer of the Year if she swam for Grigorishin.

By late November 2018, before a single swimmer had left the blocks, the league seemed dead in the water.

2018 FIFA World Cup Football Park opens in Kazan, Russia
Julio Maglione (Yegor Aleyev/TASS/Getty)
FINA Olympic Games Synchronised Swimming Qualification - LOCOG Test Event for London 2012: Media Day
Cornel Marculescu (Tom Dulat/Getty)

There was another way to look at Grigorishin’s predicament, however. On reflection, he realized that he now had a chance to hit back at the people who had held his family at gunpoint, taken his home, and condemned him to a life in exile. Revenge wasn’t something to base a business on. But in the Kremlin Swim Club, Grigorishin had a chance to take on the people who had perverted everything he once loved about the Olympics, and even the Soviet Union. That had a magnitude Grigorishin found irresistible. “I like the big-scale projects,” he said. “And this is something inside myself. This is my own justice.” Besides, his enemies had overlooked something. By already taking everything he had in Russia, they’d made sure he had nothing left to lose. “These people don’t recognize that I am free,” he said.

Reasoning that FINA could ban a few swimmers but not all of them, since that would kill their own competition, Grigorishin set about organizing a rebellion. In December 2018, he invited the competitors from his canceled trial to a two-day meeting at Chelsea Football Club in London. He issued more invitations to other swimmers, coaches, trainers, athletes, and journalists. His message: if you have something to say about the future of swimming, be there.

Thirty of the biggest names in swimming descended. Among them were Adam Peaty, Chad le Clos, Sara Sjöström, and Katinka Hosszu. The mood was mutinous. When Grigorishin said he had calculated that the IOC had earned $6.6 million in broadcasting rights and sponsorship from Sjöström’s gold, silver, and bronze in Rio, she shouted out that she hadn’t made a tenth of that all year. When Hosszu talked about Tamas Gyarfas, there was an uproar. “We don’t even know our own sport,” exclaimed one voice. Peaty summed up the feeling to reporters. “The International Swimming League [is] exactly what the sport needs. The whole sport needs to change.” Swimmers needed to take a stand, he added. “I don’t care, ban me if you’ve got to. I’m not bothered, because at the end of the day they know they can’t.” Watching from the sidelines was Jon Ridgeon, Coe’s number two, making plain that he understood the implications for all Olympic sports. “The whole world is talking about this,” Ridgeon said.

Within weeks, the revolt had grown to 200 of the world’s best, including—to Grigorishin’s delight—several independent-minded Russian athletes. To show that he wasn’t trying to be the new power in swimming, but was transferring power to the swimmers themselves, Grigorishin proposed an independent union led by U.S. Olympic legend Matt Biondi, 55. Biondi’s story was a cautionary tale about the dangers of challenging swimming’s status quo. After winning five golds, a silver, and a bronze at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he tried to turn pro, only to have USA Swimming—in its role as amateur-athletics enforcer—shut him out of the team and force him to train alone, on his own dime. Following a disappointing 1992 Games, Biondi quit, spent a few years giving speeches on the rubber-chicken circuit, and ended up coaching high school swimming in Hawaii for $12,000 a year. When Grigorishin called him to ask if he might return to the sport to campaign for swimmers’ pay and conditions, Biondi just about bit his hand off. “I am ready to fight,” Biondi said.

A third element in Grigorishin’s strategy was legal. For some time, he had been talking to Neil Goteiner, a San Francisco class-action litigator. Goteiner said that, according to his reading of U.S. antitrust law, FINA was an illegal monopoly. In Europe, the legal precedent had already been established. In 2017, the European Commission ruled that the International Skating Union broke the law by threatening to ban two Dutch skaters who wanted to take part in non-Olympic events. Goteiner said that FINA had behaved exactly the same way with the league.

On December 7, 2018, Goteiner filed two suits in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco—one for the ISL, and one a class action on behalf of all swimmers. In his complaint, Goteiner wrote that FINA’s threats were evidence of a monopoly doing “whatever it takes to protect its stranglehold.” This “complete control, by unlawful means, over the promotion and organization of international swimming,” he added, constituted unlawful exploitation and restraint of swimmers “on whose bodies FINA’s income and power depend” so as to “keep for itself the lion’s share of profits.”

Predictably, FINA fluffed its response. In late December, Maglione issued a statement claiming that his concern had never been money, and that “supporting swimmers has been my life’s work.” This spurred a dozen more outraged athletes to join the ISL. A few days later, Maglione announced the FINA Champions Swim Series, an obvious ISL rip-off that Peaty called “embarrassing and offensive.” Then, on January 15, FINA blinked. A fresh statement from Maglione insisted that while FINA’s “principal concern” remained the sport and the “well-being of our athletes,” he was happy to clarify that “FINA acknowledges that swimmers are free to participate in competitions or events staged by independent organisers.”

The Olympic swimming monopoly was broken.

In October 2019 in Indianapolis, Energy Standard, by then based in Paris, won the first competition of the ISL’s debut season. Then, days before it won the final, which was held in December in a glass-sided pool in Las Vegas, San Francisco District Court magistrate Jacqueline Scott Corley ruled that Grigorishin and the swimmers had established a prima facie case that FINA was operating “a global anti-trust conspiracy.” The judgment established the principle that any Olympic body operating in the same manner was breaking U.S. law. Since that was all of them, the court had effectively ruled that the Olympics were an illegal monopoly, and potentially liable for tens of millions of dollars in compensation for lost earnings to athletes.

Since wrapping up the ISL’s second season last November (won by Dressel and King’s team, the Cali Condors of San Francisco), Grigorishin has been working on a third installment to start just weeks after Tokyo. He has other plans, too: the installation of hundreds of pools in the developing world, a new cryptocurrency called Sportcoin, and a multisport competition combining swimming with track or cycling.

Perhaps Grigorishin’s biggest achievement has been to prove his central thesis: that some of the world’s greatest sports stars have been held back by swimming. There may be no more awesomely consistent competitor in all of sports than King, 24, who won 30 league races in a row. There can be few harder-working ones than Katinka Hosszu, 31, or Sara Sjöström, 27, who habitually swim half the women’s races at a meet. There are few finer-looking figures in sport, or even humanity, than Dressel’s great rival Florent Manaudou, 30, whose six-foot-six, 220-pound frame makes a bow wave that could sink a ship. Nor are there many more-moving comebacks than the one made by former Olympian Tom Shields, 29, a U.S. all-arounder with the voice of Hercules and a gift for profanity who tried to hang himself in 2018 and won MVP honors in Budapest two years later. And it’s hard to think of a more graceful moment in any sport than when Dressel fishtails off a wall and blasts away into the endless blue.

Still, challenges remain. The ISL is shown on CBS, the BBC, ESPN, and Eurosport, but broadcasters and sponsors have yet to start paying, leaving the league’s annual $25 million budget to Grigorishin, a situation even his fortune cannot support indefinitely. The threat from Russia has also increased. In 2019, because of the country’s continued doping violations, WADA persuaded the Court for Arbitration in Sport to ban Russia from international competition for four years. (In December 2020, to global outcry, the CAS cut that to a two-year ban instead.) Moscow’s response to its pariah status has been to deploy hackers to attack the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, causing system failures and power outages, and to order a second assault on Tokyo, according to U.S. and British intelligence. Meanwhile, Grigorishin’s enemies are still pursuing him. Last November, he was sentenced in absentia to four years’ hard labor in a tax case that seemed designed to legitimize the seizure of his assets. Should the league become big business, Grigorishin has little doubt that his extortionists will appear again, at which point, he says, “violence is an option.”

When he considered the situation, Grigorishin became unsettled. The clumsiness of the shakedown didn’t make it any less dangerous. As Markov said, even inept gangsters have one undeniable power: “They can kill you.”

The intimidation of swimmers continues, too. The latest country to warn its athletes off the ISL is Australia, whose federation advised Olympians to stay away from Budapest. After King publicly called out doping and corruption in swimming, FINA’s officials issued her a surprise disqualification for an illegal turn in Kwangju, costing her a gold medal (which went to Efimova)—a punishment no one in swimming, and certainly not King, thinks was a coincidence. In Budapest, one multiple-gold-medal winner told me that King’s treatment warned him off attacking the Olympic establishment ahead of Tokyo, because then “they won’t let me train. I won’t be allowed to swim at the Olympics.” The same fear was behind Dressel’s reluctance to discuss the people who controlled swimming—even with the position he holds in the sport, even though “I’m in agreement with Lilly,” he said. “She’s stronger than I think I could be.”

FINA’s threats would lose their power if the Games lost their shine. For some veterans, that has already happened. Emily Seebohm, 28, a three-time Australian Olympian who defied her federation to swim in Budapest, said that when she was a young swimmer, “the Olympics was such a big deal. I used to dream of stuff like this.” But today, because of “the way we’re treated, I actually wouldn’t tell anyone to do it.” Grigorishin and Biondi predict that such sentiments will spread after Tokyo. But Grigorishin adds that the experience of setting up the ISL has shown him that the biggest obstacle to good Olympic competition is the public myth of Olympic greatness. Despite decades of scandal, the IOC still manages to present the Games as an arena for ancient values like fair play, athletic excellence, and world peace, and itself as sports’ eternal guardian “contributing to building a better world,” as it congratulated itself in its 2016 annual report. And every four years, at the first shot from a starting gun, 3.2 billion of us tune in to what we obediently accept as the greatest sporting contest on earth. It is, Grigorishin says, the most successful exercise in “brainwashing” of all time.

Nothing would diminish the Olympic legend more than the Games’ first cancellation since 1944. Now that Tokyo is approaching for a second time, there’s a strong sense of déjà vu. Once again, the IOC is adamant that the Games will proceed. Once again, the decision may be out of its hands. The virus surged over Japan’s winter. In February, the Games’ 83-year-old chief organizer, Yoshiro Mori, resigned after remarking that women had an “annoying” tendency to talk too much in meetings. Eighty percent of Japanese now oppose staging the tournament. Moreover, as 2020 proved, there can be no Games if the athletes refuse to go. The world’s most famous swimmer is among the doubters. “The fact that you’re going to put together 10,000-plus athletes, plus all the volunteers, plus all the coaches—it doesn’t make sense to me,” Michael Phelps told CNN in December. “I just don’t see how it can happen.”

The next few weeks may determine the future of the Olympics. If the IOC tries to go ahead despite the pandemic and global opposition, that would present the plainest proof yet of its excessive power. But if Tokyo is called off and a generation of athletes face losing eight of their peak years instead of just four, a revolution of non-Olympic, alternative competition is all but inevitable.

Spend much time around swimmers and you’ll hear a lot of talk about how water is another world, a place of infinite possibility connected to something timeless and essential—the womb, perhaps, or even a primordial sea. Dressel is fluent in waterspeak. In Budapest, he insisted, “I don’t have the sport figured out. I watch nature videos—dolphins, sharks. It’s just art, a giant puzzle that I’ll never win. Every time I dive in, it’s a completely new element, just you in the water and your relationship with it.”

There are lessons here for those who have corrupted the Olympic ideal. When the world’s best swimmer describes the essence of the Olympic endeavor, he talks about humility, and beauty, and freedom.