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Did Britain Waste Brown's School Days?

Mar 5, 2013  - Craig Lord


British sprinter Adam Brown may have to quit the sport if he cannot find a way of paying his way. His country stopped funding him last November, the swimmer revealed on Twitter today.

At the surface, the picture is clear: disappointment in 2012, no support in 2013 after funding cuts in the wake of a missed target for the hosts in the pool at the London Olympics. There are many arguments to say that that is how it should be. Get the result, you get the reward ; no result, no reward and you either find a way to turn it round or leave the stage. That model, in general terms, has served the US well, while some with far smaller ponds to draw from note that it works well where you can more readily afford to let talent go. 

Beyond that debate are questions about joined-up thinking and the kind of support (not just pure $s) demanded by long-term process. Dive deeper and Brown's case highlights some of the things that went wrong on the path of long-term planning and goal-setting required for those who wish to compete in world-class waters, let alone win medals on the biggest of occasions.

In nations where it is rare to get someone of Brown's size not only through the door of the pool year after year in his youth and avoid him being taken by myriad other magnets to talent, you lose the battle the moment you break the support.

As a teenager, Brown was supported as a member of a talented shoal of British school boys sent to train and live on the Australian Gold Coast. Brown not only prospered in the water under the guidance of coach Chris Nesbit: his education, academic and in terms of culture and manners, flourished, too. 

When Britain decided to launch its Intensive Training Centres - one of which, Stockport, has just been closed down because of the options favoured by British Swimming in the wake of funding cuts - it closed down its offshore centre at the Southport School and severed the link to a scheme that offered so much more than honing talented swimmers. Some of what was on offer in Australia simply could not and cannot be replicated in Britain, which was the whole point of the exercise in the first place.

Brown - well-cared for by coach Nick Juba when in Britain but unable to get the facilities and conditions at home that he can get at Auburn with coach Brett Hawke - made a decision that suited him when he was forced to make a choice in the wake of the Southport closure. 

That choice has cost him support, while, as Brown makes the point on Twitter, he cannot attract a UK agent to help out, partly because of a domestic, parochial outlook: even those who make Olympic finals fall well shy of the "fame" and fortune available to those who behave badly or bizarrely on reality TV shows. Such is life.

Brown's reality is clear: to swim or not to swim because I can't afford it. No 1 in Britain over 50m free, his best effort last year was 22.36. No 2 over 100m last year, his best effort was 49.13. Brown returned to Britain for Olympic year and as such was eligible for funding. 

The system now asks: did he stack up and is he worth it? Look at his promise, look at Nathan Adrian and Florent Manaudou and the answer is that Brown fell shy. 

But it is just as legitimate to ask: did Britain genuinely make the best efforts to find the best possible support for a swimmer who it helped to identify, nurture and fund in his youth and a man who remains central to one of the core targets of Britain since not long after lottery funding started towards the end of the last millennium.

If the mantra on relays (like some sort of aquatic echo of Clinton's "The economy, stupid") has been loud and clear, then one of the biggest weaknesses identified as being in need of addressing in Britain was "sprinting", and particularly among men. Much more focus on it was required. Plans were put in place to have the London 2012 Aquatics centre become the Britain sprint base, with James Gibson as the coach leading the new programme. 

There will be no sprint centre in London for a while to come. Would Britain not do well to support talent that wants to base itself in tried and tested sprint programmes in the US (or elsewhere), some may well ask.

Gibson is not in London but he is back in Britain - at Loughborough and working with British swimmers on some of the things that helped Florent Manaudou take 50m free gold for France at London 2012 last year.

Even so, the journey, the decisions taken, could well be regarded as an admission that Britain had hardly done all it could for male sprinters in the critical years in the career of Adam Brown. It would not be hard to conclude that Britain may have even dropped the bat when it came to supporting the transition of young folk whose first serious strokes towards elite senior waters started on the Gold Coast from talent to triumph in fiercely contested world-class waters.

In the wake of efforts at a home London 2012 home Olympic Games, the national swimming federation - having missed by two medals its target (one that swimmers, coaches and officials share, that being the nature of "team") of a minimum of five medals four years after winning six at Beijing 2008 (three in the pool, three in open water) - saw its UK Sport funding for swimming cut by £4m to £21m on the way to Rio 2016.

Lateral thinking is sometimes improved when resources get tight. Brown will have to apply his brain to whatever path he follows next. Britain needs to do the same. It ought by now to have noticed that its success stories have come from many a varied programme. 

Home centres of excellence play an important part in any programme that wants success across the board and team-wide. But neither Rebecca Adlington nor Gemma Spofforth were based at Britain's intensive centres. Both have served as role models when it comes to work ethic and both have been fine ambassadors for Britain. Adlington made use of Loughborough and was funded; Spofforth made use of Loughborough too when the need was there but she was not funded because she was honed to world-champion and world-record status by a programme in Florida at which her main coach was British. If the training is good and is delivering success (clean), why should a nation worry about the geography of flourishing talent?

The main paymasters of the careers of Adlington and Spofforth? Their parents, on a long trip that transcends a few years of lottery funding at the deep end of the voyage. 

Where there is a will, there is a way. As Brown tweeted "going to be hard to keep swimming with no support!" Britain had to make choices when the funding axe fell after 23 places in finals at London 2012 converted to a silver and two bronze medals. 

The swimmer takes responsibility - and, in the case of Brown and others, the cut. But why is it that just about all the blazers who have been there throughout the entire decision-making process that governed the swimmer's career remain? For them, there is no consequence, it seems.

Brown may well ask 'why cut my funding but continue to support …' the position of a bureaucrat serving as an extra link in a chain of command between board and the brain on the deck that many in the sport regarded as wasteful, unnecessary and apt to cause ill-feeling of the kind any struggling on the conveyor belt of world sport can do without. There are other examples of questionable choice that those being cut at the coal face could point to.

To Brown, the world of swimming must seem like a very unfair place right now. He must find a way to may it work or find his way out of the sport. Still in the sport will be those who in the past 12 years:

  • hired a guru
  • created an offshore centre
  • sent a shoal of young chaps out to Australia
  • agreed to a priority of building relays
  • held a deeply disruptive inquiry into bullying
  • said that was worth it when the inquiry concurred with the majority feeling: no case to answer
  • hired a link man between guru and boss blazer as acrimony grew
  • saw the need to have a head coach and performance director only when the guru left
  • hired another guru (but he was not able to be who he was capable of being)
  • closed the offshore centre down
  • said it would not fund those who opted to base themselves outside GBR even though there was no sprint specific programme linked to college set up for men in Britain

Whether any of the above was justified or not is almost irrelevant: right or wrong, it all contributed to the result at London 2012 to some degree. That Brown's school days and all the promise that went with them should have led to this is not only down to Brown. It is also down to Britain and a system that failed to deliver just as much as any of those who missed their mark last year.