Swimming in hypocrisy

If only the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay team had won a gold medal in London. Their victory would have spared us from the current round of chest beating and finger‑pointing surrounding their performance. Instead we have been treated to a farcical witch‑hunt.

With the news emerging that the Australian Olympic Committee has engaged a Queens Counsel to investigate the use of banned sleeping pills by members of the relay team before the London Olympics, one must wonder what's next in the soap opera that is Australian Sport?

Will John Coates and the AOC ever realise that there is no such thing as ‘Australian exceptionalism’? Or will we be treated to a show trial designed solely to protect the egos of those who maintain the status quo? Given that the public shaming has already commenced, it’s not hard to see where this is likely to end.

It’s worth noting that although these swimmers engaged in an immature and poorly‑timed act, they did not consume performance‑enhancing or illegal drugs. Although the AOC banned the use of Stilnox in the weeks prior to the Olympics, it has not been banned by the Australian Sports Anti‑doping Authority. Yet, they are being hounded by the AOC as if they are Australia’s answer to Lance Armstrong.

Prior to the Olympics the Australian public were treated to predictions of a shower of gold medals in the pool. When the team failed to live up to our inflated expectations they were pilloried without mercy. All manner of excuses have been aired, from a lack of funding to the distractions of social media. It is less satisfying, but more accurate, to pin the blame for our performance on a law of statistics: regression to the mean. Deprived of the services of ‘once in a generation’ athletes like Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, we merely met expectations, rather than exceeded them.

Against the protestations of John Coates, ploughing more money into sport will not translate into a corresponding surge up the medal table. Up to a point it certainly helps, but we’re beyond it now. Every additional dollar we spend chasing the next gold will yield a smaller return, particularly now that many of our rivals have replicated our high performance funding and training models. What we should be considering is how we can better spend our current budget in order to achieve the best return in results.  

Instead of acknowledging this unfashionable truth, Swimming Australia has presented us with the Bluestone Review. This report, which is more notable for its sound-bite qualities than substantive analysis, invites us to conclude that the swimming team’s less than expected performance had its roots in the culture of the team. 

Competitive environments with high-risks and high rewards attract people with curious psychological makeups. Compared to their contemporaries, elite sportspeople are sometimes immature, self-serving, self-absorbed and narcissistic — and that’s before we get to the fact that some are not very bright.

The body of the Bluestone Review draws heavily on unattributed, unfiltered commentary from such individuals. Nowhere here has there been any recognition that swimming is essentially an individual sport. Misguided or not, the effort to generate some degree of esprit de corps amongst members of the relay team was understandable.

The Bluestone Review also implied that the relay team’s antics affected the performance of other athletes. Its worth bearing in mind that these are young men and women who have been cosseted by their coaches, administrators and helicopter‑parents to a point where their day-to-day lives, both in and out of competition, can resemble that of an army recruit. It would be all too convenient for an out‑of‑touch governing body to place the blame for an underperforming team squarely at the feet of a select group of misbehaving athletes, and continue marching on with the inflated hype that keeps the money rolling in.

Dawn Fraser said last week that she believes the relay team should be banned for life as a result of their behaviour. As the matriarch of this nation’s larrikin athletes, she appears to have swiftly rejected their application for membership. This is the same Dawn Fraser that supported Nick D’Arcy’s inclusion in the team for the Beijing games after his arrest for assault.  

How ironic would it be that members of the relay team could potentially be banned from representing Australia at the 2013 world championships, yet D’Arcy – a convicted criminal who declared bankruptcy to escape civil liabilities – has a green light to be there. John Coates and Dawn Fraser, how do you spell hypocrisy?

Members of the relay squad are now staring down the barrel of a confrontation with the AOC’s QC. Discounting the fact that our tax dollars are funding this exercise, what we really should be asking is whether this is a proportional response to a poor Olympic performance? This is a smokescreen designed by mediocre sports administrators desperate to control the fictitious narrative that they, and they alone, hold the keys to our ongoing sporting success.  

In the mean time, it is not yet clear what the relay team members stand to lose. They could be stripped of any performance bonuses or perhaps even banned from competition, potentially ending careers. Whatever sanction they face, they are guaranteed plenty of sleepless nights in the interim. Surely they have been punished enough?

 This post was originally published on The Roar.