Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sink or Swim

What does it take to win swimming gold?

There's no doubt that representing your country at the biggest sporting competition on the planet is a rare honour. Winning an Olympic medal is the achievement of a lifetime. These two-and-a-bit weeks in London is the time when every member of the team should achieve their dreams.

Somehow, our swimming team failed to make those dreams a reality. Post-race media included speechless disappointment, tears and embarrassment.

Already, Swimming Australia has announced a review into the Australian swimmers' performances in London last week. The review will be conducted as a result of our relatively disappointing results in the pool, not the "performances" out of the pool. Frankly, I think that the two are inextricably linked, and to investigate one without the other is to do half a job and sabotage whatever recommendations are made.

The public face of the Inquiry will be retired swimming champion Susie O'Neill who was the expert commentator on Foxtel's Olympic swimming coverage. Ms O'Neill made headlines late last week when she publicly questioned the work ethic of the Australian swimmers, and suggested that they would have been more successful if they'd worked harder. That ballsy comment may have risked her relationships with some influential people within Australia's swimming community. I think she's going to test those relationships further over the next weeks and months.

The question of work ethic leads us to the question of payment, particularly in light of last night's 7:30, which focused on changes to how we - humble tax-payer/spectators - pay our Olympic swimmers. I'd never considered it before. The basic change is from a salary or allowance, to a system of payment based on merit, where merit equals medals. Swimmers who failed to make a final at the Olympics receive no payment; a gold medal is worth $35,000. The change to the merit-based rewards system was apparently made with little consultation with the swimmers themselves.

Medal winner Brenton Rickard talked about worrying about the paycheque and other extraneous crap (my word, not his) during the lead-up to the Olympics, and how that could be a distraction during the time when they need absolute focus. There was an atmosphere filled with friction, distrust and frustration around the swimming team, and a proven inequality in the way our Paralympic swimmers are treated. Non-swimmers can sympathise. Who hasn't had unwelcome concerns about their private lives crush into their work time and distract them, or tried to block out the office politics while existing in the midst of someone else's battles?

Numerous studies have found that money does not motivate performance, but if our athletes would benefit from a different pay structure, why not treat them as we treat our tertiary students? A HECS-style debt for elite athletes might allow our governments to offer more assistance to more athletes, across a range of sports.

But is distraction an excuse for a team performance that is below expectations?

That's the key word: expectation.

What did we expect from our Olympic swimmers? What should we expect from our Olympic swimmers? And what should our Olympic swimmers expect from the government? What should they expect from themselves and each other?

Former Vice President of the IOC, Australian Kevan Gosper, thinks Australia has fallen behind our traditional competitors in terms of public funding for athletes. That doesn't necessarily mean athlete's "wages"; it could also mean school programmes, sports science, facilities, coaches and support crew. The Sydney Morning Herald reported

Kevan Gosper said on Monday that Australian athletes had been hampered by a lack of public funds and government focus and said more money needed to be spent on top-level coaches and elite athletes.

"We've been down on the sort of financial support that we were accustomed to when compared with the financial support that's coming through from other countries, particularly here in Europe," he told ABC radio from London.

"The fact is you do need more money in international sports and preparing if you're going to compete with the world."

It's Swimming Australia that has commissioned the Inquiry, but as the organisation that directs swimming in Australia, it should not be excluded from the scope. It's been noted today that the Board of Swimming Australia is an all male board. More importantly, there are no current of former internationally ranked swimmers on the board: it's entirely made up of directors, sports administrators, and marketers.

Swimming Australia has a three-point strategic plan for 2011-2016, and I'd encourage the Inquiry to look at both the structure of the organisation, and at the Strategy document. While "Performance" is one of the three pillars of the strategy, the first interim measure - London Gold - was not met.

Meanwhile, there were those tears, there were those near-silent emotion-filled post-race moments. There was the still-contentious inclusion of bad boy swimmers Nick D'Arcy and Kendrick Monk, and Stephanie Rice's shoulder surgery. There are plenty of people who are happy to label this Olympic Swimming Team as lazy brats with huge egos and a sense of entitlement. That's both harsh and inaccurate.

Emotional responses have been all the rage, and not restricted to Aussies: American sprinter Tyson Gay was in tears after finishing 4th in his race, and an American gymnast was sour and spiteful after winning Silver. Bridget Foster Hylton's tantrum after her heat on the track is reminiscent of a toddler hurling himself on the supermarket floor and screaming when he doesn't get his lolly.

What kind of human support is available for these athletes? James Magnusson did not live up to anyone's expectations, including his own, but who was around to support him? Who knows what was going on inside the head of a young man, a world champion, at his first Olympics? Does the swimming team have a specialist sports psychologist with them? What kind of media training is provided? Is our selection process correct? In the wake of this swimming meet, are our swimmers receiving appropriate emotional counselling?

As for those expectations, I think we all want the same thing, all expect the same thing: we simply want our athletes to do their best; their Personal Best, when it matters most. Our athletes need much more than being trained to swim fast. The fact that so many of our swimmers failed to swim PBs at the London games suggests that we've got the swimming right, but we failed to prepare our people for the Olympic Games.

No comments:

Post a Comment