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A Quick and Free Review of the Australian Swimming Team

There is no doubt that the Australian swimming team performed poorly as compared with a number of previous Olympic campaigns. Those events we were expected to win, we either got painstakingly close, or our swimmers fell in a heap. Similarly, some of those swimmers that did not face a burden of expectation broke through to medal, at times in events you would’ve been excused to think we never had any hope in.

Our performances in the pool, which usually get us off to a strong start in the medal tally and up there with the best countries just didn’t happen. This has sparked a much publicised review by former Olympic champion swimmer Susie O’Neill and experienced swimming coach Bill Sweetenham.

The idea of a review of the sporting performance of our swimmers is not new. As Head Coach Leigh Nugent has pointed out, the swim team is always subject to a performance review after every major meet and well, the Olympics is up there with the major aquatic events that exist.

There should be absolutely no doubt that each individual swimmer and their respective coaches trained to exactly the same level they ordinarily would. This means intense and event targeted training for the whole time each swimmer remained with their local club’s before heading overseas for the pre-Olympics swimming camp and then London.

Tapering too would not have proved an issue and would have been closely supervised by the elite coaches travelling with the Australian swimming team in the weeks before London 2012. It is just too ridiculous a proposition to think that such high-level experts would have got the tapering of any of the athletes wrong.

Last night the ABC’s program 7.30 weighed into the debate with a report on the discord between the swimmers, their families and Swimming Australia. The story reviewed a shocking level of disdain for the athletes in one of our most successful sports at the Olympic level.

Daniel Kowalski, a former swimmer who now represents the Australian Swimmers’ Association said that just before the London Olympics commenced, while some Australian swimmers were in training together overseas, pay arrangements were changed. The pay scale was changed to a “high-performance model”.

In this model all of our swimmers were to be paid a small base rate with a significant performance bonus, if, and only if they received gold, silver or bronze from their respective events. The performance pay would net gold medal winners $35,000 and those who made the final but came in last $4000 for each event. But if you swam in a race and didn’t progress into the final, no dough.

Ordinarily, performance pay is a brilliant concept, providing that it doesn’t detract from a base wage. Much more importantly, bonuses for strong performances are an excellent idea providing you don’t do as Swimming Australia did and foist it upon athletes so near to a major competition, especially the highest of events.

Now, you might be wondering how this would impact on performance? The answer is quite simple. If you are worrying at the last minute before you’re expected to perform strongly in your chosen profession about how much money you might be taking home and it could affect how much money you have to pay bills, you’re not going to be thinking of your race so much.

There’s also another not so insignificant factor which may have impacted on our performances. That is the incredibly poor decision of the swimming team to not take a psychologist with them to the pre-games training camp and then into the Olympic village. There was nobody there that swimmers could trust, especially in light of Swimming Australia’s decision on pay, to air their concerns and emotions. This means there was nobody in London with the squad that would have been able to respond in a properly trained and professional manner to the worries that might distract the attention of athletes.

Another factor that cannot be discounted and which could have been more significant than any other factor in the sub-par performance of our swimming team is the performance of other countries. It’s not as if we didn’t contribute significant funds to our Olympians, we did. The strong performance of swimmers from other nations was probably unexpected. It should have been figured into the equation as a real possibility given the changing state of our swimming team, with past champions suffering from injury and others who were set to retire after London.

It’s clear that the cultural issues within the peak swimming body which undoubtedly flowed through to the swimming team were a major distraction for our swimmers. The significance of this was accelerated by the inability of members of the team to access professional psychological help while overseas.

There was certainly no problem with the workload of our athletes before the Olympics and the tapering while overseas clearly would not have been an issue either.

It is also undoubtedly a strong possibility that our swimmers were also outperformed in their events.

Clearly there are a number of things to work on before the next major international competition, the FINA World Championships in Barcelona next year, most within the control of the governing body for swimming in Australia. Some brutal honesty and soul searching is required during the upcoming review.

If You Build It He or She Won’t Automatically Come

There’s no denying we’ve not lived up to expectations as far as gold medals go at the London 2012 Olympic Games. So far we’ve won two golds, with another assured in the sailing and Sally Pearson looking very good to take top spot in the 100m hurdles tomorrow Australian time. Other teams and individuals are also chances in the remaining days of competition of winning gold for Australia. Our performance, which was looking like being about as bad as the 1988 Seoul Olympics is now on track to at least equal that, perhaps go a bit better.

Our swimming team which normally leads the charge hasn’t been as dominant in the first week of competition as they traditionally have been and that has led to us being behind the eight-ball. We could quite easily have been two or three medals up on our current tally of two gold medals had all gone to plan at the aquatic centre.

It is the performance of the Australian Olympic team, initiated by our swimmers in the pool that has sparked intense political debate from within the media, the sporting fraternity, government, interest groups and the broader community about different ways to ensure the lacklustre performance does not occur again in the future.

This has ranged from “stop funding our athletes” or “fund them on a performance basis” to “they’re doing well, just look at how many silvers and bronze they have received”. There have also been cries of “we need much more funding” from Olympic officials.

The below par efforts of our aquatic stars has also sparked a thorough review of the way we performed in the lead-up to and during the London Games and will be presided over by Bill Sweetenham and recent swimming critic and former superstar, Susie O’Neill.

But it is the entry into the debate of former New South Wales Premier, now Basketball Australia Chief Executive Officer, Kristina Keneally that is the latest in the argument over what needs to be done to improve our sporting prowess in the future.

The former politician turned sports administrator advocated in an interview on the ABC’s The World Today program for more participation in sport in primary school years for children.

This is certainly an enviable aim where teachers and parents should be both encouraging participation at an early age and also providing, where possible during a crammed school curriculum, for more sports-based educational opportunities. The benefits of this would be fitter and healthier children with the potential to develop their sporting abilities much further in the future.

But by far her most important overall point was that more sporting facilities need to be provided in Australia and that existing venues need to be brought up to a better standard. This is problematic. Indeed it is too simplistic an argument to say “if we build it, he (or she) will come.”

It is true that better sporting facilities, that is improving the ones that already exist, will mean that sporting clubs and venues better accommodate the needs of participants. We owe it to our kids to have better facilities for them to participate in but whose role that is, whether it be state or federal government or clubs or charities or a combination of some or all of the above is up for debate.

But it is not true or a given to say that improving sporting facilities will lead to increased participation by young people in the various sports that are played, particularly of a weekend on ovals, fields and courts and in pools around Australia.

It is even less the case that Kristina Keneally’s point about providing more facilities for sports will mean that people of a young, indeed all ages will want to participate in sport outside of school hours any more than they already do. New sporting facilities will only be filled if there is a demand for them and that partly goes back to schools and parents and the active encouragement they give their children as far as involvement in sport goes. Even then increased supply of sporting facilities would not necessarily lead to full venues.

It is only worth building extra facilities if it is a certainty that the increased numbers of sports fields will actually be utilised and not find themselves in a rundown state like some of the overused facilities.

What generally seems to work in regards to increased sporting participation is when there is an increased profile of particular sports and then with others that have been popular for some time like cricket, rugby league, rugby union, AFL and netball.

Encouragement of the young and impressionable is the key to greater sports participation and performance in the future, but that has to be balanced with parents and educators not placing unrealistic expectations on their children. What is certain is that new facilities will not automatically translate into new participants. If you build it, don’t automatically expect them to come.

It’s The Olympics, Who’s Really Putting the Pressure on Whom?

The London 2012 Olympic Games are now in full-swing. The early hiccups in the weeks prior to the games have been put behind them and the Brits are putting on a great show, albeit with crowds that have more holes than a sieve. Not all sports have started, with events like track and field and cycling yet to come where we’re in with a real shot at a number of medals, some of them quite possibly golden. The swimming, a traditional strength of Australia’s has begun though, with our athletes coming out with less of the prized gold than we’re used to and expectations dashed in some cases. We have though won silver in bronze in events we weren’t expected to with up and comer’s and dark horses stepping up when it counts.

Anyway, our performances and the reactions of varying degrees of the athletes making the massive efforts in competing at the Olympics has sparked a rather vigorous debate on social media and the opinion pages. Are we as Australian’s, are the media placing such high expectations on our athletes that they feel crushed under the pressure to deliver for a medal-hungry Australian public? Or are the athletes themselves the ones that are expecting too much of themselves? Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above?

So far Australia has won 1 gold, 6 silver and 2 bronze. So six people have come very close and further two near winning a gold medal. Our one gold came courtesy of the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay. Once again our female swimmers are the ones that are far performing their male counterparts in the pool as competition at the aquatic centre nears an end for another Olympiad.

This is the first Twitter Olympics really. Well not the first one since the social media platform has been around, but the first one where so many athletes have taken to using the medium to pass on their thoughts as the prepare to and while they compete during the London games. Twitter users have undoubtedly been putting some pressure on our athletes, sending messages to them like “go for gold” and “you can smash ’em”. So it would be easy for our athletes to get caught up in the hype and get nervous about their performances.

Although the Olympics is supposed to be about and was all about amateurs performing at their peak, these days the men and women competing are nearly all professionals competing in their chosen sport full-time. They should know or have access to tools which help them shut out the thoughts and comments of those sending messages to our Olympians, much of which is actually just hero worship, the idolising of people by the masses who’ve inspired them.

Many of these athletes have performed very well in the past to get them to the highest level of competition. A small number of them performing well enough in the lead-up to London 2012 to have that expectation of medalling, even winning put on them by all and sundry.

Are the media placing unrealistic expectations on our athletes? For the most part, no. The media have generally given athletes the “favourite” tag only if the individual athletes have performed over and above their peers in the lead-up to the event. That doesn’t excuse the over the top commentary which at times appears to shame our athletes who’ve in the eyes of the media “failed” by winning a medal of a different colour, or not at all when they’ve been expected to win a gold. Any medal, indeed just to be there is a massive effort in itself.

Could the athletes themselves be placing amazing levels of stress on themselves, such extreme expectations that they are exhausted by the stress of trying to live up to their own expectations? The answer here is likely yes. But the athletes placing such high expectations on themselves are generally those that have performed so well in the lead-in events, the heats and the semi-finals.

All athletes too expect to do their best. Those competitors that have done well at national and international events in the years and months before the Olympics will always have immense hopes for their Olympic experience. They will inevitably expect that to continue when they come to the once in four year event that is the Olympic Games. Let’s face it, with the event being that rare and the effort needed just to be able to participate in such a high level of sport being above and beyond 99.9% of the population our athletes are bound to break down to some degree if they don’t live up to their high hopes.

Truth be told, no one group is putting expectations on our Olympians above and beyond any other group. Australian’s are generally putting some level of hopes on our athletes based on past performances and the media hype. Are the media wrong in saying “hey, they’ve performed very well, they’re a great chance of a gold medal”? No. Our participants themselves are also responsible for the strain that they put on themselves knowing full well what is required and what might happen in their events.

Therefore, it seems all parties are in some part to blame for the expectations put on our athletes including in large part the athletes themselves. Much of the expectation is based on very impressive past experiences. How we as viewers and the media respond to performances which don’t live up to expectations, well that’s a different story entirely.

A Slow Lead-Out, But It Just Wasn’t the Day For Our Men’s 4x100m Freestyle Relay Team

The Australian Men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team had an off day in the pool, no doubt about that. The team went into the race hot favourites after speeding into the final with the fastest time of all the countries contesting the event. They deserved their ‘favourite’ tag with former champion and world record holder Eamon Sullivan and current world champion and holder of the fastest time this year, James ‘Missile’ Magnussen in the team. The team also contained the not inexperienced Matt Targett and James Roberts who stormed onto the team for the individual event behind Magnussen with a time in the high 47 seconds.

But ultimately, the also fast and favourites until Australia stormed home in the heats yesterday morning, the French prevailed in a time of 3:09.93. They came home 0.45 of a second ahead of the United States of America (3:10.38) and the also speedy Russians who managed to edge out Australia for third in a time of 3:11.41.

It wasn’t poor preparation that brought the team undone. They’d had just as much time preparing for the race as the Olympic champion women’s team did the day before. They completely smashed it, with anchor Melanie Schlanger storming home for Australia to take the gold. They put a great race together with all firing just when they needed to and that translated to the first gold medal of the 2012 Olympic Games for the Australian team.

It was certainly not a lack of potential for speed with two of our swimmers, the two James’ swimming times of 47 seconds this calendar year. Both did that at winning the trials in Adelaide just a matter of months ago, with Magnussen finding himself just outside the world record. Eamon Sullivan too has shown himself capable of swimming a time in the range of 47 seconds. Sullivan broke the world record twice, first at 47.24 and then took it back from fast Frenchman Alain Bernard with a time of 47.05, the latter a time .05 seconds faster than Magnussen’s best time of 47.10.

The decision for Magnussen to swim both the morning heat of the race and the final was at the very least an interesting one. Usually the fastest in the team are omitted in the morning to save them for the evening, but James Magnussen opted to swim in the heats to “blow the cobwebs out”. Swimmer’s at the top level should be able to back-up and swim a faster time in the evening finals than in the heats.

Another interesting decision was for ‘the missile’ to lead out the team in the final overnight. The fastest swimmer in the team is often used to anchor the swim so that they can swim over the top of other competitor nations if they are ahead of them.

Instead the strategy was theorised as the fastest swimmer going out first and going out hard and getting the team a sizeable lead for the weaker swimmers to defend in the final three legs of the relay. But that lead never materialised and there were teams ahead of us with Magnussen swimming a very poor opening leg of 48.03, almost a second outside his best.

Australia was behind from the get-go and never recovered with the slower of the swimmers, not slow by any stretch of the imagination unable to cut the deficit left after the first leg.

But it would be wrong to think that the fourth place was because of those two decisions. It simply was not. While they were strange decisions, Magnussen could just as easily have swum the same time in bringing the Australian relay team home. We won’t ever know, but it’s entirely plausible.

It’s also wrong to focus all the blame for the race on Magnussen. Being about one and a half seconds off the pace it was more than down to the slow Magnussen swim. It would have been much closer were James able to swim at his best, with a medal a certainty had he swum his best time, but not the gold. The others were responsible for the remaining gap of about half a second from the gold medal time.

Put simple, it just wasn’t the day for the men’s 4x100m relay team. They were probably partly a victim of their own high expectations, but elite athletes can and should know how to deal with this, especially with the support staff on offer. The team just didn’t perform and James Magnussen should not be too hard on himself. We need him back and swimming like a torpedo for the individual men’s 100m freestyle.

But really, a key reason Australia didn’t do so well? France, the US and Russia took advantage of the situation and swam better than our team.

The Mad Scramble is On, But the Show Will be Good

There are now only 8, yes EIGHT days left until that massive sporting event the London Olympics kicks off with what is sure to be an amazing opening ceremony  followed by two weeks of great sporting feats. Moments of sporting brilliance and achievement will abound. Until recent weeks and months it has been a good lead-up with the Brits looking more than ready to host such an epic sized event.

But then in recent times we’ve seen basic security cock-ups, the acknowledgement that all tickets were not and would not be sold, including football tickets no less. The arrival of the first athletes has seen the operation of Olympic only lanes commence on the roads, complete with a lost driver and traffic snarls. Then just yesterday an acknowledgement that one part of the opening ceremony act would need to be dropped to facilitate spectators making the last transport services of the evening. Oh and then there’s the weather. Finally, overnight came confirmation that airport border security staff would strike the day before the games begins.

But despite the scrambling things will be fine, there might be some hiccups along the way but all in all the show, including the bookend ceremonies will go on and will run smoothly.

The venues for one are finished and will be able to house the sports and events trouble free for the entire period of the Olympics. There won’t be any holes in the track, bumps where there should not be bumps or poorly designed stadiums.

The security shortfall caused by poor coordination on the part of G4S, the company contracted to provide basic security in the Olympic precinct and event locations will likely be fully plugged. The shortfall will likely be made up by police and defence personnel who will be redeployed from their regular postings to make up for this awful mistake, but it will happen, it has to.

The customs strike will cause some serious gridlock and delays at the airport and is an arrogant and calculated move attempting to embarrass the government. Above all though, people will still get to the Olympic events even after annoying delays which could have been postponed to a time where it wouldn’t result in negative perceptions from the all important tourist market.

All tickets will not be sold, that is a given. There will be numerous venues operating below capacity. But this won’t matter too much, except for the bottom line of the organisation behind the games. More will be given away and there will be a mad scramble to sell as many tickets as possible, even to the bloody football in England for goodness sake. That will surely cause some embarrassment for a soccer, sorry, football loving nation like Ol’ Blighty.

Traffic snarls will cause some headaches for the English people and Londoners with athlete only lanes in operation around and between venues. This will also lead to increased pressure on the public transport network which will be at peak capacity, even overflowing from now until the last of the athletes and visitors depart the nation.

The organising committee can only hope that all other drivers other than one this week actually know where they’re headed, but surely they do and in any case that is a pretty trivial example of an “issue”.

An act was dropped from the opening ceremony overnight, just over a week from the extravaganza commencing. That will be annoying for that act, who were undoubtedly excited to be playing their part in such an historic event. It will also be a tad embarrassing for the artistic director and the organisers who will not have wanted to come to that kind of realisation so close to the beginning of London 2012.

The weather might keep some of the spectators away but the large international contingent and the absolute Olympic fanatics are likely to still want to venture to events. In any case, many events take place in covered facilities anyway.

But these issues, save for likely gridlocked transport for regular Londoners and the broader English population and the serious, but likely to be overcome security shortfalls will not impact negatively on the running of the actual events. There may well be some holes in crowd shots at some of the events because not all tickets were sold and the weather might be a bit shite, but all are likely to go ahead with a level of ease, even if some have to be delayed because the weather is a bit dreary. Embarrassment might just be the worst outcome, along with a bit of a hit on the bottom line.

Some Thoughts on a Monk and a Not So Classy D’Arcy

You’ve all seen the photo by now I’d say, put first on Facebook, but now all over the internet and in newspapers across the country. It’s a photo showing Kenrick Monk posing with two guns across his torso, two very high-powered guns in fact. Beside Mr Monk in the photo was a young man, also no stranger to trouble, Nick D’Arcy. The photo has since caused a storm of debate and threatens to end the Olympic hopes of both D’Arcy and Monk, with our London Olympics Chef de Mission Nick Green not ruling out throwing the two swimmers off the Australian team for bringing the sport and the team into disrepute.

But is this such a hideous breach of standards of decency and sensible behaviour to warrant such strong action against the two Queenslanders? It was certainly silly, but it seems much of the media and the public, for the most part don’t particularly care so much to take any action against the two men who were in the USA training at the time.

First, a bit of context, guns, pretty much any of them are so incredibly legal and easily accessible that you can pretty easily get your hands on just about any firearm you can think of, regardless of how much it may be overkill for the way in which you choose to use it- I don’t need to say I’m only talking about the legal methods.

So really, it’s not unusual in the first instance that D’Arcy and Monk were able to go somewhere which sells guns and pick up, for photographic purposes two powerful weapons perfectly legal in America.

The major issue with the photo for me too is not the fact that the photo was taken, but rather the nature of the photo. Frankly it just looks incredibly stupid. The way the guns are crossed across Monk’s body looks very hillbilly, very redneck, like they are at least inadvertently glamourising the gun culture in the US, a nation with an incredibly high number of gun related deaths in any given year.

The two Australian swimmers are both from Queensland so this too will inevitably lead to yokel jokes abounding from south of the border when it clicks with the do-gooders from southern states. Equally too, we could blame the chlorine for sapping their brain cells. I have, as a former swimmer myself used that excuse for stupidity before.

As was mentioned earlier, these two gents do not have a great history in the eyes of the law and this has inevitably clouded the way in which they are being judged for their actions this week.

Monk confessed to lying about being involved in a hit-and-run accident when he had indeed just fallen off his skateboard and hurt himself and Nick D’Arcy, well he went to court for giving former swimmer Simon Cowley an almighty whack at the end of the 2008 Olympic trials, an act which saw him booted off the team not all that long after being named in it.

So in the scheme of things this was a minor infraction from two young men who have done much more stupid things. Yes, they may well have breached social media policy for the team, but with the public reaction seeming to be restrained  for the most part in response to this act of stupidity could it really be argued strongly that their actions brought the sport and the team into disrepute? Yes, it got published in the media and there was a wave of attention brought toward D’Arcy and Monk and the team for stupidity, but the wider commentary seems to be, why the big deal?

So for that reason alone, little or no action should be taken against both Kenrick Monk and Nick D’Arcy over their little brain fart and hick-like error in judgement.

Whether or not they should have been present in the team in the first place or whether they will continue to make silly decisions is another story.

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