As British Swimming bosses prepare to release the findings of the review into Britain's underperformamnce in the pool at London 2012, the head coach accepts his share of blame, says the system is not broken and urges UK not to sack coaches and throw the baby out with the bath water
Dennis Pursley, the American head coach to Britain whose contract ended with racing at the London 2012 Olympics, has accepted blame for the host nation’s underperformance in the pool, citing "poor leadership" of coaches and a “perfect storm” of events that left swimmers “just the wrong side of a fine line”.
Breaking his silence for the first time since Britain’s three medals in the pool left the hosts shy of an official minimum target of five podium places (and hopes of between seven and 12 honours), Pursley told SwimNews and The Sunday Times: “The result was devastatingly disappointing in terms of medals. The blame should be directed to me first as head coach.”
If he had failed to spark “fire in the belly” of his team, he had made the mistake of giving coaches choices where he now believes he should have “mandated matters” in the style of his predecessor Bill Sweetenham. That included telling coaches and swimmers they must show up for a domestic winter circuit of monthly clashes between the best of Britain. His plans to get swimmers race fit never got off the ground after coaches rejected the idea.
“That was poor leadership and I should have mandated it,” said Pursley, speaking from Alabama, where he now leads the Crimson Tide college team. He should also have insisted, he added, that squads stayed home “in great facilities on their doorstep” rather than use resources to go on “exotic camps”.
His views are set to be reflected in the review report due out today a week early after the Board of British Swimming met to consider the recommendations of a panel that included Bob Bowman, mentor to Michael Phelps.
While accepting blame, Pursley insisted that the system was not broken and in some respects was “the best in the world”. Listed by USA Swimming as one of the 25 most influential people in American swimming history after 14 years as manager to the national team back home, Pursley urged Britain not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” and not to sack coaches “on the basis of one result”, however big.
“At the Olympics, when we don't meet expectations there is a tendency to sack heads and start again, throw everything out of the window,” said Pursley. “That would be unfortunate and would be a complete lack of understanding of sport at that level. The fact remains that we produced more finalists and won more international medals in this quadrennial than ever before in British swimming history.”
Even so, he accepted that “swimmers were not in a state of readiness that they should have been in to take that final step to the podium when there was no room for error.”
If the review concludes that Michael Scott, the performance director who quit his job last week after he rejected an attempt to rewrite his contract, is to blame, it would be wrong, said Pursley. “Michael put together the most sophisticated infrastructure in world swimming” and his lack of permanence in Britain had not been a problem, he added.
David Sparkes, well-paid chief executive of British Swimming and the federation’s board had signed a new four-year deal with Scott, the office of the performance director accounting for more than £1m in costs during that period, before London 2012: the deal agreed to the Australian spending half his time back home Down Under. After widespread criticism of that move from outside the sport, Sparkes, who also shares his time between two countries, asked Scott to base himself permanently in Britain but the Australian, who had the support of a number of senior coaches, sports scientists and parents of swimmers who praised his work, could not agree to the new terms being proposed.
Asked to comment on the role of administrators in Britain’s results this summer, Pursley declined but agreed with the notion that big money must be matched by accountability at all levels, including a board that comes in for criticism in the review.
Between Sydney 2000 and London 2012, five Olympic sports (the open water marathon added in 2008) under Sparkes' governance in Britain have received £85 million. Of that, almost £60m went to swimming (£25m for London 2012, see table), almost £15m to diving, £6m to water polo and £5 million to synchronised swimming. The podium result in London was one silver, to Michael Jamieson in the 200m breaststroke, and three bronze medals, two to Rebecca Adlington in the 400m and 800m freestyle four years after double gold in Beijing, and Tom Daley off the 10m board.
In Britain much has been made of the success of others sports compared to swimming, the results in the pool not only highlighted by the fact that a number of other sports topped their medals tables but set to be reflected in UK Sport funding announcements for the Rio 2016 cycle due next week.
Pursley said that is was not unfair to compare sports … but it would be a mistake to base swimming decisions on what had happened in other sports.
Where UK Lottery went: Olympic Sport - London 2012 funding (four-year cycle)
On December12, UK Sport will announce where it intends to spend some £500m of lottery generated funding on the way to Rio. Mercy may be shown to swimming on the basis that its youth team, the next wave, is showing great promise and funding ought to be based on the future not only the past.
No-one should feel they were entitled to any money, said Pursley, from the land of the world’s richest and most successful swimming federation but one that does not rely on a dollar from the state. While it was fair to compare swimming with other sports that met or exceeded targets, it would be a mistake to draw conclusions for swimming’s future on that basis, he added. There were “1001 reasons” why Britain’s fastest fish were not at their best at the Olympic Games.
“It was a perfect storm of unrelated things that occurred at the Games and not a system problem”. The five-month gap between making the team and racing at the Games had proved a problem for a squad that had “no margin for error” when facing the best in the world: some coaches had timed their rest periods - taper - wrong; some swimmers had struggled with confidence; coaches and swimmers had shied away from domestic competition; and while “endless hours were wasted on recording and analysing and evaluating” passion was in short supply at critical moments.
British coaches and swimmers were “exceptional and very professional” but had not shown “real fire in the belly ... I never thought we achieved that at any point ... and I am primarily responsible for that”, said Pursley.
Pursley had read that British swimmers felt intimidate and afraid at London 2012. He did not accept that was the case, noting that the team was close knit and supportive, the synergy of the team sound, their approach to racing good. But there was a missing intangible, Pursley said.
"I have the highest level of respect for British coaches and athletes: they are exceptional and very professional, give it their all and give it their best. But rarely did I see a team coming together with real fire in the belly and that's maybe something that was missing. I never thought we achieved that at any point and I am primarily responsible for that, for bringing a team together with fire in the belly."
"The effort, the focus, were there, no question … its that intangible." He had asked for feedback on that for four years and the stock response had been that the "US rah, rah, rah approach" was not part of Britain culture. In fact, in soccer, in many walks of life, Britain behaves in tribal fashion and has no shortage of nationalistic pride and fervour. "I think that is one of the things that helps ensure that every athlete will get best out of themselves but it didn't happen," said Pursley.
Among review documents leaked to us, one witness states: “The Americans are used to words like tradition, winning, honour, and team. They respond to them very easily because they evolve in a culture that promotes that kind of environment in most sports. In Britain … the key is to recognise how to do it effectively within the British mindset or culture. The Scots have no problem with banging their drum ... the Welsh are the same way .... The English seem to be suffering from an identity crisis, and therein lies the problem."
It would help to stamp “Made in Britain” on the sport by appointing home-grown talent to the top two posts of head coach and performance director, said Pursley. He described John Atkinson, Sweetenham’s right-hand man and successful leader of Britain’s youth teams and the Paralympics squad of late, as an “exceptional and great choice”. Among those who have applied for the job are Bill Furniss, coach to Adlington, and Chris Nesbit, head of an excellence centre on the Australian Gold Coast that used to be Britain’s offshore centre.
Pursley believed that the result in London required coaches to go home, look back at what happened and tweak their programmes and preparations. It had not been "a disaster". He added: "Realistically, few athletes and teams are in that state where it comes together completel; stand [Liam] Tancock up against [Matt] Grevers; [Fran] Halsall against the Dutch girl [Ranomi Kromowidjojo] … and you know they have to be at their absolute best, there is no margin for error. I am as disappointed for the team as anyone that we didn't win more medals that we did. I had hoped for ... a much higher count.”
On early trials, Pursley went to great lengths to recount history: he was practically alone in the US when in 1992 he mandated early trials in the US. The result was good but "in the middle" of the thread of historic results and not conclusive. The NCAA season is one big reason why early trials do not work in the US, while history shows a great record of late trials followed by overwhelming success at the Games. Pursley accepted that after '92 and went with the flow, accepting that "late trials have consistently produced better results and improved performances".
For Britain early trials translated to 40 out of 49 performances at the Games that were slower than trials results. That count was truly significant to Britain's results. "We were use slightly off the mark across the board," said the US coach, adding: "When you have a small population of podium potential athletes … as in all countries other than US (and perhaps China), if you have a small group who miss target by a little bit the result is dramatic and that is what happened. To assume that there is one answer or its the system is a big mistake. I think it was just a perfect storm at the worst possible time where it was a number of completely unrelated things that occurred at that competition. Whatever it was, it was just a little bit on the wrong side of the target and not one that would warrant throwing all out of windows and all involved with it."
British swimming, he said was "populated by a large group of talented hard working people who are totally deflated right now … instead of saying you missed the target, that's unacceptable and heads should roll, effort should be going into getting the people who produced the best result in British swimming this past quadrennial to work to have them say 'we're going to work that much harder and we're going to work together to get desired results at the next possible opportunity."
British swimming had been fortunate to have the money it has had, he noted, saying that funding in swimming was "put to good use … in fact, I don't think there was a better way money could have been spent [on the performance side]". Britain had raised standards across the board and managed to focus on super-talents in "Taj-Mahal" conditions at ITCs. However, he warned: "Anyone who believes that any coach or group of athletes or system is going to guarantee desired results just doesn't know sport … sometimes you are going to miss the mark no matter what level of money you have."
He added: "It is unfortunate to judge swimming on the basis of one performance, no matter how important that performance happened to be." he suggested that british swimmers had fought hard to overcome a natural disadvantage: "When the whole British team is lined up on deck, there's a physiological disadvantage there: there are a lot of big Brits walking around out there but they are just not in the pool."
If he had his time in Britain again, Pursley said that he would, as Sweetenham had, tell coaches what to do in two key areas instead of giving them choice and watching them call it wrong.
"What I did try to do unsuccessfully in Britain - and I would have mandated it second time round had I stayed, is a winter race circuit. I do believe in the winter months it is good not to have competition every weekend but once a month during training is essential and you can do that without extensive travel and time changes. What was needed was tough domestic competition and I asked the ITCs and others to come together every month for some hard head-to-heads. The idea was to travel Friday morning to a location, have an afternoon competition, get up and have Saturday morning competition and go home. There would be minimal disruption to training but the best in Britain would go head-to-head on a regular basis. I could not sell it and I let it go. That was poor leadership, I should have mandated it."
The second thing he would change: he left it to coaches to decide where they trained on camp and then watched as some chose to move away from "an ideal home environment … to exotic places". At a time when Britain abandoned its offshore centre in Australia on the basis that it had all it needed at home, ITC programmes were off in the world. "We should have stayed home more often. We rarely had the whole team at home at the same time, which made the idea of racing together all the less likely."
Pursley believed the team got in enough international racing but some coaches believe that Britain does not take the challenge on seriously on enough occasions. As the national team prepares to head out to Istanbul for the World Short-Course Championships next week, the view from one of those with swimmers on the London 2012 squad was stark: "Will World Short Course Championships … be taken seriously by the team. I doubt it. It seems to me that if we do these things we ought to mean it and take it on, for the sake of the swimmers and the profile of the sport. The nature of the sport has changed: yes, there are times to rest and get good blocks of work in but swimmers need to race - and get used to doing that fast more often."
Another senior figure said: "Outside of Dave [McNulty] in Bath, there had to be some questions asked about how come your swimmers weren’t ready to perform and what caused the under performances etc. We give coaches a lot of money to get their charges ready, and at the end of the day, they should be held accountable. "
The questions run to specific individuals in specific programmes with specific coaches and there was no point in suggesting that the system was to blame, the source said, adding: “Why did it never come out that one of our main medal chances, Fran Halsall, got injured shortly before the Games. Her results alone would have made a big difference … we may never have been having this conversation if things had turned out differently with a couple of key athletes - and the reason why they didn’t do the job differed.”
Board expectations and its role - interference, some say - in the world of performance is also raised in the report due out today, we understand.
That a statement is due a week early will be welcomed by coaches and programmes seeking to set their training cycles on the way to Barcelona 2013 world titles next July.
One coach noted: “I notice that the world is moving on: look at the world cups, look at the time seeing done, look at the plans being made, look at the advances already in Australia in response to their own review. Britain has been invisible since the Games and I fear we are now two steps behind the rest of the world again… and we were already two steps behind coming out of a home Games…. we need decisions, bold actions and fast.”
A version of this report appears in The Sunday Times today.