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Smith To Lead Indy Aussie Swim Review

Sep 14, 2012  - Craig Lord

A independent-panel review of the Australia's swimming performance at the London 2012 Olympic Games will be led by former federal sports minister Warwick Smith.

Swimming Australia said today that Smith, also the former Australian Sports Commission chairman and a man who led a government review into Australian football last year, would chair an independent panel which will report back to the national swimming governing body and the Australian Sports Commission.

The move follows the withdrawal of Bill Sweetenham and Susie O'Neill as leaders of the first review called by Australia: both had understood that the public mood Down Under was for an independent process. The federation then sought to replace Sweetenham and O'Neill with Kieren Perkins and Tim Ford. All four of those selected are most worthy minds when it comes to  assessing swimming performance and team culture but the federation did not catch the mood until it was forced to.

Australia claimed 10 medals in the pool in London, the women's 4x100m freestyle the only gold in a count loaded with silver. Only the US had more finalists than Australia, whose swimmers produced a result that most nations would surely envy. The conveyor belt of success demands, however, self-scrutiny when a result falls shy of previous success levels, the gold count Australia's lowest since 1992.

While most nations tussle yet with the notion of how to get swimmers on to the podium, Australia faces questions over an apparent breakdown in team culture, asks why most swimmers swam slower at the Games than their season bests and is keen to find the Midas Touch that cures all ills.

Meanwhile, the SMH has published parts of documents said to have been leaked from within Swimming Australia, including notes written by head coach Leigh Nugent. The paper quotes the following passage: “It appears evident following the barrage of criticism the expectation placed on this team was based on the fantasy that the result from four years prior will automatically repeat itself regardless of the comparative world positioning. Our process is to evaluate objectively and to continue to improve from the low base we started from in 2009 and establish a higher platform to launch from in 2013. This is a time where we all need to pull together, not fall apart."

Some falling apart seems to have taken place on the Olympic team.  After Brenton Rickard's criticism earlier this week and allegations of pranks and egos getting the better of the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" 4x100m free relay that fizzled out in fourth, four-time Olympic gold medallist Libby Trickett told Fox TV: "Obviously this is the first year I’ve been on the team since 2009 and I just felt in previous years there was a more cohesive unit."

She also spoke words of team-experience wisdom when telling AAP: "I did hear about the knocking on doors and prank phone calls. I kind of look at this and think this is very childish. I'm all for having a good time and being light-hearted but I just think there's a time and place. We need to get some structure back. This is a huge learning curve. It's important to have that strong leadership."

Expectation weighed heavily on the 4x100m men, she added: "They expected they were going to win that event ... I've learned you can never expect anything. Unfortunately for the men, they let the pressure get to themselves."

Issues of funding have split swimmers this week, after comments made by Melanie Schlanger, in which she noted she received just AUS$17,000 for a 35-hr working week in this era of professional sport, were criticised by Geoff Huegill, the former butterfly ace whose own 2012 comeback campaign ended at domestic trials.

Unfortunate that swimmers should be at loggerheads, unfortunate that Schlanger should be considered worth criticising too: she did a great job in London, she delivered, stacked up, went home with a well-earned smile on her face and good-return on investment worth boasting about.

The issues of swimmer funding are complex but what is clear is that the sums add up when you get Schlanger and Co and even when you get a swimmer who finishes fourth and shows how much it meant to them. Where things falls down is in the realm of perception that is manipulated by the doctrine over how teams should "be": when I asked why so many British swimmers emerged from swims that fell shy of season best only to smile and say "I'm happy with that - I did the best I could", I was told that many of those swimmers were actually burning and in tears behind the scenes. 

So show it. Show it to those funding you: they often want to know that they paid for passion not what sometimes came across as a culture that resembled school sports day 1974.

Britain is holding its own inquiry, one that cannot truly be called "independent" given that two of the five on the panel are intrinsically linked to British Swimming. 

As has always been the case with such inquiries, what comes out will depend on what goes in, starting with the questions being asked. Ask the wrong thing of the wrong people and they'll get the wrong answer, particularly where the issues spill far and wide beyond the pool of pure performance.