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Aussie Relay Pranks "Damaged" Team

Sep 12, 2012  - Craig Lord

Members of Australia's Olympic men's 4x100m freestyle team today stand accused of engaging in pranks that damaged their efforts at the London Games and contributed to undermining morale.

Australian swimmers had a good Games relative to many other nations in the pool but the one gold, six silver and three bronze medals - no solo gold for the first time since 1976 - marked the nation's worst Olympic showing since Barcelona 1992. 

A review was launched, with Bill Sweetenham and Susie O'Neill at the helm of the inquiry. Australian media reports have now hinted at some of the issues that may have contributed to Australia winning less than it wanted to. 

"Insiders" told reporter Nicole Jeffery at The Australian, that "transgressions by the world champion men's 4x100m freestyle relay team were overlooked because of their so-called special status".

The Australian media dubbed a quartet led by James "The Missile" Magnussen and James "The Rocket" Roberts, the Weapons of Mass Destruction. Magnussen was swamped by Nathan Adrian, of the US, on the opening leg and the weapons from Down Under fizzled out in fourth place, a "sure-fire" gold gone on day 2 of the meet. 

There were, says The Australian, "persistent reports" that some members of the six-man relay team were involved in an initiation ritual in the days before the Games which involved taking Stilnox - a sleeping medication banned by the Australian team.

The report notes that the 'bonding' night also including the swimmers upsetting some teammates and coaches by prank calling and knocking on their doors late at night at their camp in Manchester, two days before the team went to London. Several of the six relay swimmers confirmed they had misbehaved on the night, although none would admit to taking Stilnox.

However, one of the final quartet, Matt Targett, told the paper: "The prank calls did happen but we weren't under the influence of anything.

James Magnussen's manager Mark Jones admitted that the relay team had "acted up a bit" but denied any use of sleep-aid medication banned by the Australian OC. "They knocked on some people's doors and made prank calls but at absolutely no time was there any use of Stilnox or alcohol or any other substance," he added.

Head Australia coach coach Leigh Nugent refused to comment on the allegations until the review had published its final report.

Meanwhile, Australia is mulling over the fact that its once rock-solid team culture broke down in 2012, with some on the team pursuing, papers reported, "their own aims, rather than those of the team".

Targett acknowledged that team culture had changed in the six years in which he had been racing in Aussie colours, the loss of giants of discipline Grant Hackett ["my heart leaps out of my chest for my team" he once said] and Ian Thorpe.

Hinting at the need for a firm hand when some of the team big guns were getting out of hand, Brenton Rickard, president of the Australian Swimmers' Association, told ABC that he has lost confidence in Nugent.

"Leigh's a great guy. I think some of these things are probably ... he's getting blamed for but are out of his control," Rickard, 28, said. "Other things are definitely in his sphere of influence."

Asked whether Nugent still enjoyed his confidence, Rickard replied "no, unfortunately … There's been a few times where he's needed to show leadership and he just hasn't. I think he's a great swimming coach. I think he's done a great job in the past but when things needed a firm hand it was probably lacking a little this trip."

Rickard believes Australia's entire management structure should be subjected to a post-London review. The same has been said in Britain but there is little appetite for accepting the kind of responsibility that would lead to a blazer falling on a sword, as some most surely should.

"I think other management will be under close scrutiny. I think the whole high performance unit structure will be under scrutiny," Rickard said.

"We need to stop, as a sport and have a good look at everything that went on before the games in terms of swimmers' preparation, management decisions ... all of those things. Because ultimately they all played a role in our performance," he told ABC.

Rickard pointed to unhappiness over funding, saying: "There was a decision by Swimming Australia to completely change our funding model three weeks before the Games. That probably had a divisive effect on the team because it worked well for some but was a great handicap for others."

The breaststroke ace also noted that focus purely on the medals count can be unhelpful. "We as a team probably didn't perform as well as we would've liked. That's got nothing to do with the medal tally," Rickard said. "That's got to do with about three-quarters of the team swimming quicker at our trials than at the Olympics. If you're not swimming your best swims at the Olympics then you're not going to get the best results."