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Toxic Times Reported By Aussie Review

Feb 19, 2013  - Craig Lord

A review into the Australian swimming team's performance at London 2012 has describes a "toxic" environment on the Olympic team, including what reports Down Under refer to as "misuse of prescription drugs and bullying", those charges aimed at swimmers, not coaches.

The independent Bluestone review, handed down by Warwick Smith and the inquiry panel he led, cites cases of "getting drunk, misuse of prescription drugs, breaching curfews, deceit, bullying". At its worst, the team culture became a "schoolyard clamour for attention and influence". None of that is mentioned by Swimming Australia in its statement today.

The report also concluded: "Standards, discipline and accountabilities for the swim team at the London Olympics were too loose. Situations were left to bleed with not enough follow through for fear of disrupting preparation for competition. Although few situations relating to London reported through this review were truly grave in nature, they compounded in significance as no one reigned in control.

"There were enough culturally toxic incidents across enough team members that breeched agreements (such as getting drunk, misuse of prescription drugs, breeching curfews, deceit, bullying) to warrant a strong, collective leadership response that included coaches, staff and the swimmers. No such collective action was taken."

There are moments of naivety about the report, with the term "media" used as a catch-all phrase to take in platforms stretching to forums and social media. 

The report notes: "There was a perception that SAL [Swimming Australia] was only interested in presenting the ‘big boys and girls’, the celebrity swimmers, to the media. In one 30-minute interview, 25 minutes were spent on one swimmer who had not yet raced. Some review respondents felt like this attitude was not only contrary to the spirit of the Olympics, but that it also drew more public thirst for spectacular entertainment that was then keenly unquenched. The Olympics is certainly about the best of the best, but the unchecked celebrity hype did nothing to amortize the risks of being perceived as failures if things did not go well."

I recall, as will many other journalists, attending press conferences at which "Australia" was 25 mins out of 30 mins all about Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, with less established and successful swimmers taking a back seat. None of that prevented Australia beating the USA at the 2001 world championships and achieving some of the greatest sporting results, individual and team-wide that Australian sport has ever enjoyed. 

The USA often split their conferences so that the likes of Phelps and Lochte do not overshadow the rest but even then, the rest know well where they fit in terms of media coverage when in the biggest pond of all with the biggest fish of all. They know it - and get on with it, the circus that accompanies the Games and world-class sport (one that also helps bring in the kind of attention that attracts funding) placed in perspective and secondary to the process and goals they have long prepared for. 

Selling sport on the big name while some team members take back seats has long been a feature of world sport, swimming included. It is likely to remain so for some years to come, while the reference to "celebrity" missing a trick: in a world in which it is ever more possible to be a celebrity without ever having achieved anything much at all of note, the likes of Thorpe, Hackett, Magnussen and Co, whatever the positive and negative perceptions of their personalities, worked phenomenal hard for their success and status and became well known because they were the fastest swimmers the world had ever seen at a given point in their respective events.

There may well be merit in things such as: "Consider activating the swimming brand using many characters, not just the usual suspects, with broad ranging and regular social content about the sport generally and the lives of athletes as well as performance content. Consider utilising relevant and interesting content from other sources than Australian swimming." The question is: come the Olympic Games, when the searing, honed talent and passion of Phelps, Agnel, Gyurta, Kromowidjojo and others who had adhered to a long-term process geared to singular heights of achievement, will "regular social content" truly come in to play and make Australia great in the water? We will see the answers unfold on the way down to Rio and beyond.

Read the report in detail.

Head coach to Australia Leigh Nugent came in for immediate criticism following publication of the report, head of the Aussie Sports Commission Simon Hollingsworth weighing in with: "I think it's fair to say the head coach should have oversight of the broad happenings of the team." 

Nugent hit back when he told reporters in Canberra that he will fight to keep his job. "A lot of these things [from the report] have come out in reflection," he said.

Senior swimmer and 2008 Olympic champion Libby Trickett agreed with the reports findings in so far as she said: "Definitely there were some things that were toxic … It wasn't one thing or a particular person that was toxic. It was an unfortunate series of events that led to that outcome." However, she backed Nugent too and believed he was the right man for the head coach job.

Australia's sole gold medal in the pool was delivered by the women's 4x100m free quartet, while the men's equivalent finished fourth after having entered the water as favourite for gold, with James "The Missile" Magnussen and James "The Rocket" Roberts at the helm of a foursome dubbed the Weapons Of Mass Destruction back home. Much was made of Australia's poor show, though its 10 medals,  including six silver and three bronze, knocked all but a few nations for six. 

Disappointment was relative. In performance terms, London 2012 was Australia's worst Olympics in two decades. The heart of the problem: behavioural issues and a lack of bonding on the team. Australia sat up and thought again. Change started at board level, though whether the right decisions will be made to maximise performance in the water following recommendations from two reviews, is left to the future. 

Three senior Australian coaches have contacted SwimNews in the past month to express private doubts that the right questions were asked; if not, then the right answers will not be found, they say. 

The Australia London 2012 squad has been the subject of two reviews; the Bluestone review is the latest to be released and outlines "culturally toxic incidents" and a "lack of collective leadership" in response to a breakdown in team connectivity.

If "Situations were left to bleed", as the report reads, then swimmers felt as though they had been left alone to deal with bad situations. They felt alienated, some describing their London experience as the "lonely Olympics".

The prescription drug at the centre of that line of inquiry was the sleeping pill Stillnox. On a bonding night at pre-Games camp, members of the men's 4x100m freestyle relay devised an initiation ritual involving taking the drug. It was a prank but it caused ill-feeling in the ranks just at the most sensitive time for an Olympic squad.

The spirit of "all for one, one for all" as trumpeted by former captain Grant Hackett as one of the key strengths of the Aussie team was gone. 

The Bluestone review recommends creating an ethical framework for Australian swimming, among other recommendations for multi-faceted leadership development of athletes and coaches.

In a statement, the new man at the helm on the dry side, Swimming Australia president Barclay Nettlefold, said: "Before we look at winning gold medals we want to win back the admiration of the nation, and we want to engage with our swimming community like never before at every level. It has been a time of reflection and review and a time to be honest and open about how we can make the right steps towards future success."

Swimming Australia said it would implement a 100-day plan to address the recommendations of both reviews.

"The underlying message from these two reviews is that we all have to be accountable for the future success of swimming in Australia and that starts with discipline and setting the right standards of behavior from the top down," Nettlefold said.

“We know sport is a challenging environment by nature, and there is no doubt this has been a challenging time for all of us,” he added. "It’s been a time of reflection and review, and a time to be honest and open about how we can make the right steps towards future success.”

The federation statement noted: "Both the Independent Review of Swimming and Bluestone Review into culture and leadership detail a series of recommendations to improve key areas around performance, discipline, culture, coaching, athlete management, team and organisational leadership and governance."

Nettlefold said: “We’ve been proactive and work has already started on the majority of the recommendations in these reports, including the introduction of a High Performance Director and an Ethical framework,” said Nettlefold. "The board will now implement a 100 day plan to further address the recommendations in both reviews.

A re-development of the strategic plan is expected to take eight years. A long time in the world of sport. A short time in which to get it right if sustainable success is to be achieved.