Australian swimming needs a radical change in leadership

Image is everything. As sports become more and more commercialised, this marketing ideal is even more pertinent. Along with the right image comes sponsorship dollars, funding and most importantly, interest from the next generation of athletes who will select your sport over the plethora of others on offer.

The image of the Australian swim team has taken a nose dive since the London Olympics. Their behaviour during the games was appalling and their out of pool antics were reflected in their poor performance in the pool. Those in the sport of swimming need to stop and honestly assess their role in all of this. They also have to be aware that those of us on the outside looking in are not fooled by claims that this is all a ‘storm in a teacup’ or that these revelations have only come out of  a ‘reflection’ on events as Head Coach Leigh Nuggent has suggested.

It is incredibly clear that the bullying and harassment of swimmers is born directly out of poor leadership and we all know that leadership filters from the top down. Nuggent even laughed when it was suggested that the coaching staff needed to attend training sessions on building an appropriate working and managerial environment for the athletes and staff. He was utterly unaware of his role in developing and maintaining a professional space for the swimmers to flourish and perform at their best. With an attitude like this, I’m sorry to say, Nuggent has to be the first to go.

Bullying is such a vile act. The problem with bullying and trying to address it, is that very often those who don’t see the bullying or do nothing about, often do so because they themselves are some kind of bully. Bullying can be so subtle, that often it does go unnoticed and our attention is only drawn to extreme examples. How can a head coach, any administrator or senior member of the team, not do anything to address the obvious bullying that was occurring?

Think about it, if Libby Trickett, one of our senior swimmers is trying to address the bullying that she clearly saw taking place, wouldn’t you support her if you were managing the swim team? What, was she making it up? How can those involved in the management of the swim team in London seriously keep their jobs after this?

Now, those of you who read my thoughts on the cycling pages, will know that I’m not an ‘out to get people’ kind of a girl. I don’t ‘bay for blood’. I support people like Jonathan Vaughters being involved in cycling, even though he has admitted to doping and I’m a huge David Millar fan who was banned for two years for doping. So, let’s be clear on that, but what we are talking about here is mismanagement on an enormous scale and the kind of incompetence that should see those at the top replaced.

This is not to say that the athletes involved should not be reprimanded. The actions of those who bullied, harassed and misused prescription drugs need to be given some form of punishment. That punishment may take the form of being banned from future competitions or it could be some kind of community service. On top of that they also need to undergo some form of education about appropriate behaviour. What is important is that this education is not seen as punishment. The punishment needs to be kept separate.

These athletes must also remember that the funding they receive is from tax payers. Tax payers deserve to see their money spent on athletes who represent us in a way that makes us proud. That’s not to say that winning is what makes us proud, but good sportsmanship, hard work and good grace in winning and losing is the what the public expect to see from our athletes.

Whole scale changes need to be made to the Australian Swim Team, beginning at the top and filtering down. The bullying, harassment and unacceptable behaviour seen from certain members of the team was allowed to flourish under an environment that endorsed and condoned such behaviour.

Right now, swimming is not an attractive sport for young people to seriously pursue. Who would want to join a national team built around harassment and bullying? This does not have to be the case. With a different, more effective leadership group at the helm, Australian swimming can once again flourish.

Published on The Roar 23rd February 2013

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