Swimming stinks – let’s move on
I have no axe to grind against swimming. I spent my youth head-down, tail-up in a succession of pools following the black line all the way to the Olympics. And I liked it.
And contrary to cliché, it’s far from being a lonely sport.
Swim squads can cram up to 100 kids in suburban lanes from Perth to Brisbane, morning and afternoon.
A significant amount of training time is spent in gossip with lane mates, pretending to listen to the coach thundering down his latest edict before pushing off for the next ‘set’.
The last annual bureau of staistics figures named swimming one of Australia’s biggest affiliated sports, at around 30,000 joiners.
So when I see it sinking so quickly in public esteem, torpedoed from within by scandal after scandal, I can’t help thinking someone at the top should be announcing a great initiative to save it from itself.
Or at least be seen to be doing so. The word sorry comes to mind. Or is that being melodramatic?
But no announcement comes.
Yes, a couple of inquiries to concede home truths about our failure to deliver in London, but no great soapbox oration titled ‘Why We Stink’.
The contempt in which many seem to hold the sport couldn’t have been clearer than in a dog-whistle online poll this week based on Dawn Fraser’s suggestion that the so called Stilnox Six be banned for life.
That more than half the respondents endorsed this goofy proposition seemed baffling at first, until it really hit home that so many actually can no longer stand swimming – once considered an inclusive, iconic pastime.
Let’s itemise some of the incidents to have blighted a sport which has always been our Olympic breadwinner.
First there was Nick D’Arcy. Had swimmers ever been in an altercation before him? Apparently not, though I recall a few tiffs in my trips overseas.
Perceptions about Darcy’s apparent lack of contrition twisted that knife into the easygoing swimmer stereotype, if ever there was one.
Then there was the Sydney Morning Herald front page revelation that even our paragon of pool propriety, Kieren Perkins, had once brought a gun into an Olympic village.
That article appeared after Perkins had been drawn to comment on Darcy’s behaviour.
The paper retreated somewhat from its startling headline a few lines down with the admission that the assault weapon was actually a piddling air gun.
But the damage was done: a swimming felon slammed by a swimming hypocrite.
The sport had shot itself in the foot indeed.
When Stephanie Rice posted racy photos of her night life and tweeted an off-colour remark about a Rugby Union outcome, well, who would have thought those monastic swimming types actually enjoyed a night out and barracked for footy teams?
Steph’s tweets are now far more discreet, showing the usual learning curve for this sort of thing at that sort of age.
Then Kenrick Monk lied to police about the cause of a broken elbow that suddenly threatened our relay hopes. His Brisbane coach, Michael Bohl, was completely taken in, relaying verbatim Monk’s account to the press.
Some of the outrage rightly centred on the perverse notion that a swimmer was so scared of being a normal teenager that he had to fib about an accident.
Once the team was in London, resentment was curried further by perceptions that Leisel Jones, now a matriarchal figure for our troubled team, was merely there to complete an historical Olympic quadrella, based on her cossie size alone.
In the end, Leisel didn’t do too badly at all, winning a silver in the 4X100m medley relay.
Then we were bombarded with those pre-Olympic Bank ads in which our great sprint hope, James Magnussen, told us that simply by believing in the word ‘Can’, that he certainly would.
The ad was discretely pulled when Mags’ ‘Can’, didn’t – replaced in a hundredth of a second flat by a series of more modest track and field skits.
When former Olympic double golden boy, Grant Hackett, experienced marital difficulties, compounded by allegations of domestic violence, even the most reserved of observers gasped.
Photos somehow got into the newspapers showing holes in walls and unhinged doors, allegedly inflicted while his toddlers were at home.
His ambassadorship for a domestic violence charity was promptly withdrawn under the public opinion backlash.
Phew! I dare not mention the Stilnox six again.
What have we learnt?
Basically that swimmers, despite decades of being portrayed as being somehow different to the average sportsman – a little sappy and water-logged perhaps – are prone to the same confused and narcissistic behaviour as other elite international sportsmen.
That they suffer the same arrested development as most other former five-trick teenage ponies whose dazzled parents and mentors may have become moral hostage to their talents.
That the life-lessons of sport may really be in losing after all, and that, ipso facto, winners can fall through the cracks of civility.
In other words, swimmers, join the club, but watch the doorman!
The big difference between perceptions of today and yesteryear is that swimmers are now in the sport long enough to grow up, to use the term advisedly.
Growing up is always painful, whether in private or public.
It’s easy to forget that members of 60′s and 70′s Olympic swim teams rarely hung around long enough to contest the subsequent Olympics.
Most international careers lasted less than five years, Shane Gould’s a mere three, Karen Moras’s a year longer and Steve Holland’s four.
Jenny Turral, who’d set a record five world 1500m marks before her 17th birthday, was an emerging talent in Montreal and a spent force by Moscow.
A significant number of my team mates retired while still in their teens – almost minors.
And this is why they rarely became newsworthy out of the pool, because kids weren’t – and still aren’t – worth writing about.
They didn’t have life stories yet. Many quotes that came out of their shy mouths were glibly ‘verballed’ clichés by fill-in-the-gaps journalism.
Now that swimming stinks, it gets a zillion times the media space it once did. It both galvanises and divides opinion.
In some sense the sport has arrived.
And this is great news for any rising star who can learn to watch his p’s and q’s.
But even today, the big difference between swimmers and say, actual professional sportsmen like footballers, is that a footy player will receive his quarter of a million per annum even if he is not marketable or even an unsavoury individual.
A swimmer can pull this filthy lucre only if he is marketable.
I’m betting there are a lot of impromptu courses in life and media management in elite swim squads at the moment, only because so little appears to be happening from the top down.
Brad Cooper is a former Olympic swimming champion who won gold in 1972 in the 400m freestyle.