Swimming: between golden prison and sanitary bubble, the strange ISL competition in Budapest

An island, called Marguerite, nestled in the heart of the beautiful gray Danube, which separates Buda and Pest. Distributed in two privatized hotels, 320 swimmers, including six French (s), immersed in a six-week closed session. The decor is worthy of a reality show, whose candidates must hold out until the final, next weekend.

Except that it is indeed real. Since October 12, the ISL (International Swimming League) has put on its masks and PCR tests in Hungary. Modeled on the NBA summer bubble, the private league funded by billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin has managed to seal the world’s best competitors to organize one of the few sporting events of the year. Between golden prison and sanitary haven of peace.

No one tested positive for the virus during the competition. / EB

“It’s really a mix of the two,” says Florent Manaudou, the Energy Standard standard bearer. We feel protected because we do tests every five days (Editor’s note: with samplers in cosmonaut outfits), we have fairly strict rules and that’s pretty good. But it is certain that when you are in a room, as beautiful as it is, for six weeks, you want to see something else. There’s a bit of that prison side to it, but would I feel better just staying at home, I don’t know. It is especially the size of the room that changes! “

“I said to myself: this is it, this is the Shining hotel! “

In his modern room on the third floor of Thermal Margaret Island, almost next to Amaury Leveaux’s (London Roar), the Olympic champion can always go out onto the balcony. His little comrades on Grand Margaret Island, located a few dozen meters away, do not have this luxury. “I admit that I had a little bit of blues when I arrived, laughs Clément Mignon (Team Iron). Let’s say it’s a little art deco … I said to myself: This is it, this is the Shining hotel! The good thing about the quarantine on arrival is that I had time to inspect the room from all angles. “

Athletes are subject to very specific regulations. They must take their meals alone, at a good distance from their teammates or competitors. At the Grand, the small tables scattered all around the buffet give the restaurant the appearance of an examination room.

Saturday morning, Florent Manaudou left at 9:22 am, for a return at 9:38 am… / EB
Saturday morning, Florent Manaudou left at 9:22 am, for a return at 9:38 am… / EB

One of the biggest distractions is to be delivered by couriers to escape the culinary routine. Daily outings are limited to one hour and thirty minutes on the island, with movements recorded on a board at the entrance.

“But frankly, I had such a presentiment that it was going to be the b… in France that I’m good here, Leveaux slips. It’s not as restrictive as you might think. “It was anyway the price to pay to have the chance to live a competition in an almost white year.

“I think we were all in a hurry and the medical protocol is pretty tough,” explains Beryl Gastaldello (LA Current). Everyone bowed to it. We are still high level athletes. We know that we have to respect the rules to be able to play. Even though a few unauthorized poker games or gatherings have taken place, no one has tested positive for Covid-19 since arriving in the bubble. A great tour de force.

“Normally, after three weeks of internship, we all start to hate each other”

“Me, what stressed me was having it right before I came,” Mignon smiled. Catching him at the last test before leaving for Budapest meant staying at home, being deprived of an opportunity to swim and especially sitting on $ 15,000! Afterwards, you are afraid of being positive when you arrive there. This was the case with someone from our team who had to stay locked in their room for two weeks. I don’t know how he managed not to go wild. Every day there was a table in front of his room with the linen, the meal tray and the PQ. With a big red sign on the door, plague type… ”

Katinka Hosszu, captain of the Mignon team and reigning three-time Olympic champion, is the instigator of the ISL’s arrival in her country after Australia’s veto. Before discussing, the Hungarian, well-established, urges us to order a coffee … to have the right to remove the mask!

A good distance from the fishermen, the Grand (on the left) and the Thermal welcome swimmers / EB
A good distance from the fishermen, the Grand (on the left) and the Thermal welcome swimmers / EB

“I was convinced that Marguerite Island was the ideal place to create a bubble, blows the one we nickname Iron Lady (the iron lady). Konstantin was less sure. But it’s perfect. La Duna Arena (Editor’s note: accessible by shuttle or a 15-minute authorized walk along the river) has all the amenities to host such an event. I am happy to have had a role in this project because in 10 or 15 years, we will remember that we were able to organize all this in the midst of a pandemic! “

The nine-time world champion in the deep end still had a reluctance. “I was still afraid on one point, she says. I wondered how we were going to resist for so long. Normally, after three weeks of internship, we all start to hate each other. So double! But there are so many nationalities that come together that it’s extremely enriching. “

“We live a real human experience”

At the pool too, there’s no question of kidding with the virus. Superheroes (the concept around which the ISL is built, with very visual codes borrowed from the world of gaming) are only in the water. No question of defying the laws of the coronavirus outside the basin. “It’s limited if you don’t have to be masked even in the water”, jokes Leveaux.

In the call room, the competitors are separated by walls./EB
In the call room, the competitors are separated by walls./EB

In any case, the “Covid marshalls” are on the lookout. Each team has its own chaperone, responsible for putting any lost sheep back on the right track. And if the swimmers receive good bonuses depending on their performance, they can also drop a few dollars in the event of a blunder …

But the most important thing is that you feel safe, that you live a real human experience and that everyone is grateful to be able to swim ”, summarizes Gastaldello.

“Actually, I don’t want it to end because right now it’s better to be in the bubble than outside,” Hosszu observes. Finally, with all the restrictions that appear every day in the world, we have even more freedoms inside… ”

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