SWIMNEWS ONLINE: July 1998 Magazine Articles

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A Puzzle With Too Few Clues

Even Skilled Analysts Can't See Where The Sport Is Heading


Cecil M. Colwin

Where is swimming heading? Few people know, and even fewer seem to care. And you can't blame them because, apart from the enormously dispiriting effects of the drug problem on athletes and coaches alike, the other changes in this last decade of the century have been too insidious to be easily detectable. Suddenly the sport seems very different.

Of course, people with an analytical bent, who have studied sporting trends for years, realize that all is not well. Even these skilled analysts cannot see the sport's future direction as clearly as they thought they could only a few years ago. The path ahead seems fragmented and frought with serious challenges. Trying to analyze where swimming is heading is like trying to complete an intricate puzzle with too many missing pieces for its immediate solution.

The Drug problem

First and foremost is the drug problem. Can the drug problem be solved? There are three main factors affecting its proper handling: 1) A reluctance to offend any of the key players in the politics of sport marketing; especially the selling of TV rights, which are often at the centre of a profitable business network. 2) Fear of having to face potentially expensive litigation brought against them by accused athletes, and perhaps even by the national federations to which these athletes belong. 3) Last but not least, there are actually top officials who, in their heart of hearts, regard the drug problem as something of minor importance to be soft-pedalled for fear of attracting bad publicity that could adversely affect sponsorship. They consider this a problem only to be dealt with from time to time, under circumstances of extreme public pressure and confrontation by the media.

The "Purity" of Olympic Sport

Hardly a week goes by when there is not some new drug scandal, together with the usual accusations and counter-accusations. Probably worst of all are the bureaucrats who seem to divide their time between pulling the wool over our eyes and sweeping dirt under the rug. And still they claim to be "proud of (our) efforts…attained so far as a consequence of FINA's commitment to fight drug abuse in our sport."

Despite their claims to the contrary, persistent and continuing reports seem to indicate an unwillingness or inability by FINA to come to grips with the drug problem in our sport, especially in the matter of persistent cheating by Chinese swimmers. Will the Chinese Swimming Federation be suspended until such time as it gets its house in order?

The answer to this may well be that FINA is responsible to the IOC which, in effect, today conducts a thriving international sports-entertainment business. Their commercial instincts tell them that it doesn't make sense to ban any country, especially a very large one like China, with a quarter of the world's population and an enormous potential market.

Bearing these facts in mind, both the IOC and its marketing partners know full well that it would be sheer stupidity for anyone involved in international trade to offend the Chinese. (This fact was highlighted by a recent cartoon in The New Yorker that shows a publisher rejecting a proposed manuscript while saying to the author, "Frankly, it sucks, but at least you don't offend China.")

China, whose unusual motto for a communist state is "make a profit," is moving full speed towards a free-market economy, and the IOC's numerous sponsors want to ensure their share of the Chinese market. For example, a famous soft-drink firm, and one of sport's biggest sponsors, has opened six new bottling plants in northeast China and freely admits that China is a vital part of its long-term marketing plan.

This same firm is said to have conducted a market survey on how the public feels about performance-enhancing drugs. It is not certain whether all those interviewed were sports fans or not, but apparently most of them shrugged their shoulders in tacit recognition that "bad things happen" and what can you do about it? ("Bad things" being a euphemism for a vulgar word in common usage today.) As a result of this survey, it is apparent that sponsors aren't over-concerned.

This attitude is in strange contradiction to the view expressed by Richard Pound, Vice-President of the IOC, who said (in Sports Business, June 1998) that "The Games work because they exemplify qualities which should be transferable to sponsors' businesses. They are pure, strong and competitive, all virtues that might be attributed to products. We occupy a share of the ethical spectrum that nobody else has. All other sports are organized to make money for their owners. The Games are not like that. There is a difference of spirit which comes from the knowledge that competitors who can put it all together on the day can become an Olympic champion."

"Pure" is the last quality most people who know what is happening on the drug scene in sport would attribute to the burgeoning and booming Olympic sports industry. The most unlikely new sports are being added to the program all the time. Don't be surprised to hear soon that games such as Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, and Snakes-and-Ladders have become Olympic sports. Next time you gaze upon the Olympic flag and behold the Latin words that appear beneath the rings: "Citius, Altius, Fortius" which mean ‘Quicker, faster, and stronger," ask yourself whether the motto has not been subtly changed to just "More, more, more."

The Future Outcome of the Drug Problem?

Whereas amateurism was once the "holy grail" of Olympic sport, the word has almost faded into obscurity. Indeed, the change from amateurism to professionalism came without a murmur. Is it possible that the controlled administration of performance-enhancing drugs may actually become respectable in the next century, again "without a murmur," despite the present strong resistance to any such proposal?

There are some who claim that officially regulated doping would safeguard the athletes. But you only have to look at the East German regime that carefully regulated doping. None of their athletes ever tested positive, but the regime still failed to prevent the malignant and devastating illnesses that have affected several of their former athletes in later life.

An Increasing Gap

Money has now become the life blood of many sports and the leaders have become powerful as a result. The advent of the professional swimming circuit has already caused an increasing gap between the vastly different needs of the globe-trotting athlete and the lower-level participant, who still pursues the traditional daily routine of the amateur swimmer.

In those clubs where the head coaches tend to spend more time with their elite group, often travelling to warm-weather venues, the bulk of the club membership may feel they are being neglected. Many head coaches have been fired by their Board of Directors while away on such trips, and their assistant coaches appointed in their stead during their absence. This has become quite a common occurrence.

While we are on this topic: now that we have seen the demise of amateurism, we behold the strange spectacle of FINA, the long-time stout defender of the amateur ideal, now "owning" and governing a sport in which all the leading athletes are almost all full-time professionals. (An interesting fact is that FINA still retains the word "amateur" in its title, whereas the former Canadian Amateur Swimming Association has seen fit to change its name to "Swimming/Natation Canada.")

In this respect, there have been interesting test cases in European soccer of late, where the legal view was expressed that "sport belongs to the people," and that, in effect, the concept of "owning" a sport by any sporting body might come into conflict with laws governing monopolistic practices.

The underlying truth is that when sport involves business there can never be an entirely easy relationship with political authority. The stage may be set for a head-on collision between government and sports organizations on the question of whether or not they can actually "own" a sport.

It may come down to this: either your organization is an amateur one or a professional one, and if the latter is now the case, surely specific responsibilities and liabilities exist between you and the players you may think you own? This point could lead to an interesting debate, especially when the athlete's personal managers and agents begin to stake their own claims, based on existing contractual arrangements between them.

And, just as an aside, it has been suggested that top professional swimmers, who pay their agents the standard corporate rate of 15% commission, should also pay a percentage of their earnings to the coaches who train them, in the same way that professional boxers and tennis players, etc., pay their appointed trainers and coaches.

Surviving the Circuit

Terry Gathercole, President of Australian Swimming Inc., has commented on the effects of too much competition on the annual training cycle. The swimmers arrive home from the international circuit fatigued, and although they need to renew their aerobic base, they are soon competing in State and National Championships.

Says Gathercole, "Australia competes in the World Long and Short Course championships, the Commonwealth Games, the World Cup meets, and numerous other meets around the world. Eventually it may not be the fastest swimmers who succeed at these meets, but rather those who can survive the travel and non-stop competition, almost day after day. They may not necessarily be the fastest, but those who can handle these conditions."

Gathercole said that he was not sure that this was good for swimming. "We in Australia probably suffer more than most other nations, because everywhere we go offshore is a long way, and we have to recover from the large time changes. We have spent a lot of time working in this area to ensure that our competitors get into as good a shape as they can."

"You can't keep asking swimmers to come back and swim at a very high elite level, week after week, month after month. Now they can keep up fairly high, but may not be able to produce the really high quality times specifically when they are needed, especially in events that require endurance."

Talent Dilution

On the North American home front, there are concerns about the increasing number of swimming clubs. For example in Toronto, Canada's largest city, it is reported that there are no fewer than 43 clubs. And Murray Stephens, a leading American Olympic coach, mentions that the number of swimming clubs in Washington, DC has grown to 25. The problem, according to Stephens, is that "By my reckoning only about one in fifty coaches really have a good grasp of how to coach. Apart from knowing the basics of training and stroke techniques, the psychological handling of all club members, parents as well as swimmers, is also vital to success."

And not least of all is the need for the organizational ability to handle all the facets of operating a club, including communication, travel, finances, salaries, pool maintenance and repair, etc. Stephens feels that the large number of clubs "dilutes" the number of talented athletes available to coaches who can really do the job. For example, he says that the membership of the North Baltimore Club has actually doubled without a noticable increase in the quality of available talent.

Not only do leading coaches feel that this proliferation of programs dilutes the flow of talent at the lower levels, but they face another threat from national and regional training centres that recruit their leading swimmers. For them, this is a no-win situation because there is a talent drain at both the apex and the base of their programs.

However, this is only a problem for coaches who want to produce elite swimmers. For those who are content to regularly draw a guaranteed salary without any commitment to excellence, obviously this is not a problem.

The nub of the matter is that for future programs to achieve their goals it is necessary to ascertain not only the levels of commitment of the swimmers concerned, but also that of their individual coaches.

As I have mentioned in the past, it may be necessary to plan various tiers of competition to suit individual levels of commitment, both of swimmer and coach. How to adequately plan such a structure is a large part of a yet-unanswered problem.

Pool Space and Time

While there is no shortage of good swimming facilities in most countries, large rental fees place inordinate demands on the energies and resources of club personnel.

Perhaps clubs should build their own pools, instead of paying accumulative colossal fees in renting pool space? Shouldn't clubs be more business oriented, perhaps even to the extent of owning their own facilities? It is said that large Canadian clubs have been paying $100,000 to $150,000 per year. Perhaps, over time, they could have built their own facilities for these amounts of money!

Years ago, in Holland, there was a project called "Sportsfondbaddens" ("Sports Fund Baths") in which families bought a share in a limited liability company to build a swimming pool for the community and its local swim club. When a swimmer retired or the family moved away, they sold their share to an approved incoming member. They built 27 indoor pools in this manner.

Murray Stephens, Head Coach of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club who owns two 50-metre pools, says that coach ownership of pools is a viable proposition, despite what some may think. "We haven't missed a bill yet," he said. Stevens added that if a coach is a good organizer, conducting a self-owned pool and coaching business can prove to be a successful enterprise.

Most clubs don't have any tangible assets. In some areas of the country municipal regulations don't permit lessees of public pools to conduct their clubs on a "for profit" basis, and, similarly, many high schools do not allow private businesses to be run on their premises. This is probably the case elsewhere, but perhaps it is not always enforced.

Soaring operating costs and consequent diminishing pool time and space have placed a heavy burden on already hard-working club organizers. To meet rising costs, too many people need to be accepted into the program, making it difficult to maintain standards and give adequate attention to the more talented athletes. In addition, the influx of new club members usually results in a "mixed" membership whose goals are not always exclusively aimed at achieving excellence.

National Sport Centres

The concept of the national sports centre reached its zenith during the erstwhile East German regime, whose unofficial motto was "our athletes are ambassadors in track suits." At that time, East Germany, based on athletes per capita, was the world's leading sporting nation. They were the "gurus" of world sport. "Copy the East Germans, and you can't go far wrong" was the watchword in the West. And copy them we did, national sports centres and all.

However, in retrospect, we now know well that the main motive of the East German program was to exercise control, complete control over their athletes: control over what they thought, what they did, what they said, how to parrot the party line, whom to talk to and whom not to talk to, as well as when and where they competed. The medical staff and the coaches had complete control over their charges. "Jump now or you're out. And, while you're at it, don't forget to take your little blue pills."

Commenting on the Canadian version of the national sport centre concept, Head Coach Dave Johnson said in December 1995: "Sport Canada and the Canadian Olympic Association are moving forward rapidly to implement national sport centres. We've designed a business plan for the operation of these centres that can be used around the country, because it has enough flexibility to be used at both provincial and national levels."

One way or the other, the results of these national training centres are bound to have a dramatic effect on the future of swimming in Canada. The plan, to a greater or lesser extent, touches on every aspect of swimmer development in this country. The questions presently being asked are: "When and how will we know whether the plan has been successful? What will be the criteria whereby it will be possible to objectively assess its success or otherwise? Finally, will there be accountabilty on the part of all concerned if the stated criteria are not met? Or will we be treated to the usual bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that we have come to expect when national plans go wrong?"

Australian Institute of Sport

Asked his opinion on national training centres, a leading Australian coach, Otto Sonnleitner, said he thought that, initially, the Australian Institute of Sport "probably wasn't a bad thing for us because it exposed a lot of swimmers to various types of tests; the psychological and the physiological applications, all those sorts of things."

"But as we've grown, I really believe that there is not too large a percentage of people in this world who like to be institutionalized. In fact, I think it's a very small percentage. And, if we've got 100,000 swimmers in this country, well only a very, very small percentage of those 100,000 would ever want to be institutionalized."

"A lot of people have gone to these institutions and failed. They failed not because they're not good swimmers, or because they didn't progress, or because they did the wrong things. They just weren't suited to being institutionalized. I think there is a place for it, but I think the numbers should be restricted to people whom it suits."

Enlarging on this topic, Sonnleitner says that national sports centres would function best as resource centres. "If we're going to employ coaches with great talent, then maybe they should also be involved in observing other programs at certain times of the year, because I believe when you are institutionalised, you are apt to lose sense of what's happening in the real world."

Sonnleitner said that $800,000 a year is spent on swimmers at the Australian Institute of Sport. "It's spent on their accomodation, food, and travel. That's an attraction in itself. Now, if you look at it in terms of dollar value, comparatively speaking, you're not getting a great deal of value out of it."

Last But Not Least: Accountability

"I believe that the coaches there, Jim Fowlie, Mark Regan, Barry Prime, Gennadi Touretski, are good coaches who will attract swimmers to them. They are held accountable. Their contracts are renewed every two years, based on the results they produce."

"We would hope that the criterion of results is: who have you produced over the last two years, or over the last four years, and are they still progressing? The only way to assess whether a coach is doing his job or not is whether the swimmers are either progressing, or whether, if they go into a situation where they've been a really high standard world-record holder, they're at least holding that sort of form. If they're deteriorating, obviously the coach is not doing the job."

"After all, if we just concentrate on our elite, within a short period, four years probably maximum, we're not going to have anybody to concentrate on. There aren't going to be any elite swimmers. If we don't go out and develop young coaches, emerging coaches, coaches who are starting out and doing a job, then we're not going to get swimmers. We have to develop the people at the base of the pyramid. That's what the sport is all about."

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