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Ripples Of Aussie Scrutiny Roll On

Mar 25, 2013  - Craig Lord

Australia's swimming legacy and reputation for a winning team culture has been destroyed, Sydney 2000 Olympic medallist Geoff Huegill told the media Down Under this past weekend.

With two reviews done and changes both made and on the way, a head coach gone in the mix, inquiries continue and repercussions loom as large as the world championships at which swimmers and coaches, against a backdrop of inquisition, will be judged once more. Were the problems of London 2012 a blip or a long-term decline from high standards?

As events unfold, it is hard not to ask the question: how could the work on culture put in by Don Talbot, Bill Sweetenham and others on the long road to Sydney 2000, a great home Games, and a follow-up 2001 world championships at which Australia topped the US with the greater gold count, have been so easily lost? 

Beyond the Stilnox saga, Swimming Australia is looking into two investigations into alleged "inappropriate behaviour" towards women on its Olympic swim team last year, while coaches stand accused of having broken one of the most fundamental rules on Aussie teams: stay dry on official duty. 

"The upsetting part is (the damage) to the sport we spent so much time building and creating, not only the culture but the brand the sport represents," Huegill told Jessica Halloran at The Sunday Telegraph Down Under. "When I speak to the guys I used to swim with in 2000 and 2004, that's the part where we all shake our heads and say, 'What the bloody hell is going on?' The kids today, and the management, and the coaches, have destroyed what was built and the credibility and the hard work that was built from that era." 

The paper reveals that Swimming Australia has drawn up an "ethical framework", or code of behaviour, that swimmers will be required to sign it if they make the world championship team. Of course, such codes have long been in place - and one was in place for London 2012 but did not prevent bad behaviour. 

The code, says the paper, was designed by swimmers and officials, a key recommendation in Pippa Grange's Bluestone Edge Review into swimming post-Stilnox, post-London.

Matt Targett, one of the sprinters at the centre of the storm Down Under, urges swim bosses to invite "parents to public and sponsors, to swimmers of varying ages and abilities" to contribute to a new code. "We could at least listen to those who are invested in and judging our short time as members of the Australian swimming team," he adds.

The issue of short-term thinking that he highlights is one that will be received with many a sage nod. There may also be those who note that Australia got it right a decade and more ago without consulting a much wider market of people who may not know much about how winning teams are built, without knowing much about what it takes to take on the US when the water boils. Perhaps it would be wise to ask those who lived through "the golden age part X" to have a say, too.

Questions of image and/over substance remain - and only time will tell whether the changes now in train will lead Australia back to a getter place. 

That Australia has a high-performance, world-class swim team is not in doubt - and you can guarantee there is world-class work underway every day as troubling events unfold and time gets ever tighter - but was the class of Alicia Coutts and Co let down by poor management, questionable strategy and an lack of the kind of experience required if you are to race in waters alongside the overwhelmingly dominant force that the US proved itself to be last year, across the bulk of Olympic events, men and women? Clarity, responsibility and accountability are part of the aftermath but were they part of the preparation? If those issues are not addressed in Australia's gnashing-of-teeth process, much will be lost.

Meanwhile, swimmers have been interviewed by Australian Olympic Committee legal eagle and Sydney barrister Bret Walker on the subjects of Stilnox, inappropriate behaviour towards women and much else.

Talk is of stripping any found wanting of medals money, with AOC chief John Coates in no mood to be soft, reports suggest, at a time when the media is reporting that "several coaches" drank while on official duty last year.

When Talbot was at the helm, breaking the team code would have resulted in a roasting at the very least, while an early ticket home would have been part of the response.

Australia is now in an odd position of looking beyond its own country as it contemplates what kind of coach will be its next head. Britain's former performance head, Australian Michael Scott, is back home and tipped for the performance role Down Under. 

Whoever the head coach may be, he or she needs to be in place fast, says former boss Alan Thompson. "There's a need for a very strong leader and there's a very short space of time for that person to be appointed and to step up," he tells the ST. "The [world championships] trials are in four weeks. On the last night of the trials there is a meeting of the team, somebody really needs to try to really build that team to move on to the next period ... When you come from behind the eight ball, you can't afford to waste any time."

Meanwhile, Huegill concluded: "... action speaks louder than words. The guys have got no credibility. They have got nothing. Their reputation, their credibility is shot. Fundamentally if anything it is the best time the team can come together - 2013 is a new year, new challenges, new competitions and new goals."