The world of international swimming could be about to change with the imminent launch of the International Swimming League, backed by Ukrainian multi-billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin — and could prove the single greatest weapon against doping in swimming.
The latest doping controversies at the world swimming championships in South Korea have to be viewed in the context of the ISL, which has pre-banned swimmers who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, before it starts in October.
The recent refusals of Australian swimmer Mack Horton and Brit Duncan Scott to share a world championship podium or even acknowledge prolific Chinese medallist Sun Yang took place with the ISL as a backdrop — a new league which has far-reaching possibilities for the athletes and sport.
It's a breakaway from world swimming body Fina with three elements at its core: money for the athletes, consistent global exposure and drug-free competition.
Regular readers of this column will recall past (and fruitless) calls for drugs cheats in sport to be banned for life — and here is a new organisation putting that stake in the ground.
Many of the world's best swimmers will compete for US$7 million in ISL prize money (from a total budget of US$20 million). This is a bit like the genesis of World Series Cricket, masterminded by Australian billionaire Kerry Packer in the 1970s and which, once assimilated with the game's official ruling body, indirectly led to that glorious Cricket World Cup final earlier this month.
Grigorishin made his money in metals and energy; he is a keen swimmer and swimming fan. He maintains the ISL is about player power and "the right of professional swimmers to make the living they deserve and to have a greater say in the way their sport is run".
That's a direct slap at Fina and the way the world body runs the sport behind what many say is an opaque wall, interested only in preserving the status quo.
It is also directed at swimming's lack of a consistent global audience — except once every four years at the Olympics and lesser recognition at the world championships every two years.
Injury-prone SBW and the tough questions ABs must answer
Paul Lewis: The NZ changes needed to beat England
Paul Lewis: The rugby club no NZ player wants to be a member of
Sun, a three-time Olympic gold medallist, has ended up perhaps the slightly unfortunate focus of all this — although he had undeniable form even before the latest controversy involving a drugs test where Sun allegedly refused to supply a urine sample and had a vial of his blood smashed with a hammer by a bodyguard. A Fina panel (anonymous, of course) found Sun was correct in claiming the test was not conducted properly.
The case will now go before the Court of Arbitration for Sport after the World Anti-Doping Agency took up the cudgels, upset Sun had been allowed to compete in South Korea.
Top swimmers have been active in outing those they claim to be drug cheats — a refreshing departure from the three monkeys tactics usually adopted by individuals and sports bodies.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Horton labelled Sun a "drug cheat" before beating him to gold in the 400m Olympic freestyle final (Sun beat him in South Korea this week).
Sun had served a three-month ban imposed by the Chinese Swimming Association in 2014 after testing positive for the stimulant trimetazidine.
They accepted Sun's claim he had been prescribed the drug for a heart condition, unaware it had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list less than five months earlier.
American Lilly King also weighed in on drug cheats at Rio; French swimmer Camille Lacourt said at the time swimming was becoming as tainted as athletics, with "two or three doped in each final. Sun Yang, he pisses purple," he told a French radio station.
Sun seems highly unpopular with his peers. Horton received a standing ovation from a room full of the world's swimmers when he turned up at the athletes' cafeteria in Korea after blanking Sun publicly.
The ISL's emergence prompted Fina to begin its own Champions Swim Series, offering the most prize money in the body's history. Athletes' travel costs were covered and they received appearance money for racing in China, Hungary and the US in April and May.
But the ISL's bigger purse and relationship with the athletes could hold sway. Its season involves teams of 24 (12 men and 12 women) competing in short-course sprint, relay and skins races for team points — and individual and club prize money, plus appearance money for clubs.
In its first year, there will be eight ISL teams — franchises, really, as although there will be four teams from Europe and four from the US, the swimmers can be selected from all over the world.
Big names who have signed include Adam Peaty of Britain, US stars Katie Ledecky, Nathan Adrian, Lilly King and Natalie Coughlin, South African Chad le Clos, Australians Emma McKeon, Cate Campbell, Kyle Chalmers, Bronte Campbell, Mitch Larkin and Ariarne Titmus, Hungarians Katinka Hosszu and Laszlo Cseh, and Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden).
King and Cseh were among those who swam at the Champions Swim Series, as did Sun.
However, it appears Sun, among others, will not be appearing in the ISL as long as it sticks to its rule that no swimmer previously banned for doping can compete.
A new world order indeed.