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Our Rio swimmers didn't choke. Now for Tokyo

Do Olympic medals really matter that much more? (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Roar Guru
29th August, 2016
9

Of the many and varied diagnoses of our Rio Olympics swim team ills, perhaps the most bizarre popped up on the American swim news site SwimSwam.

Posted by someone claiming to have completed a Masters Degree in Positive Psychology, the self-styled online clinician claimed some of Australia’s swimmers might have been “mentally ill”.

But then, SwimSwam has become somewhat of an advertorial resource for those in the “sport motivational business,” touting for custom in the name of commentary.

Regardless of the range of real world answers our coaches are undoubtedly work-shopping for their Rio inquisition, at least the theme of failure is unambiguous. It goes simply “four clear favourites for at least one individual gold medal failed in that goal.”

In addition, two others with near top rankings did not medal in their races. Emma McKeon’s surprising bronze in the 200m freestyle and Mitch Larkin’s silver in 200m backstroke broke that duck, but these two outcomes hardly drew sighs of relief.

Putting our efforts into even sharper relief was that several such “locks” from other nations slapped the wall first with such routine ease that they might have been clocking off from work. They were Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, Britain’s Adam Peaty, Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, and Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu. Katie Ledecky needed a roof collapse to threaten her dominance, and Phelps was no universal favourite.

At past Olympics, a pointer to the cause could have been found in the fact that our losses were in anaerobic/lactate distances (around two minutes and under). This might then have indicated a poor taper transition.

But since Australia has little truck with distance swimming these days – our focus is increasingly on the hardware hot-spot sub two minute races which comprise 26 out of 32 events – this scenario would now implicate almost the entire team. Were there taper problems, or was the team deeply jaded from eight months of unbroken training, with social media and celebrity identity overload thrown in?

Another suspect might be in supplement management. Judging by Swimming Australia’s official supplement policy, all elite swimmers are assumed to be on them. Supplements may legally contain a range of stimulants which, for reasons only WADA knows, are fine to take during the months of a training block, but banned during competition.

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Perhaps a change in the supplement regimen upset our swimmers’ metabolism. Perhaps not. These are questions journalists should ask, but don’t.

I don’t believe it was a case of choking, pressure, or galloping anxiety. If our swimmers were anxiety-prone, their careers wouldn’t have advanced so far. Wannabes and nervous Nellies get weeded out in their early teens at state competition level.

Swimming is by far Australia’s biggest participation individual sport, making swimming Olympians veterans of competition at an age when other future Olympians are still part-timing in school sports. Choking slurs have come from commentators whose own experience of high level sport was either brief or crippled by self doubt.

Even when our Rio coaches kindly “admit” our swimmers might have been overawed, this is more likely a case of good old-fashioned blame deflection to place themselves last in the culpability queue behind swimmers and psychologists.

Another area to explore in such a wholesale loss of form is medication changes. Were any of our swimmers receiving TUE (therapeutic use exemption) medicines? More and more international athletes are on prolonged prescriptions for diagnosed ailments. But because the two bodies overseeing Australian TUE allocations are hermetically sealed entities, we will never know if anyone was on TUEs, let alone if any over-cautious dosage tweaking was done in the lead up to Rio. (National and international bodies don’t always agree on TUE clinical norms.)

One also wonders if our salaried sports scientists (two were on the Olympic team) will be part of any review, and to what rigour of inquiry they will be subject to. Or further, if Swimming Australia boss John Bertrand has the wherewithal to probe effectively in this direction.

If team culture is once again blamed, it will likely be a cop out. It seems unfair to knock a team for achieving a massive pendulum swing away from the fractious internal environment of London. If ever a parent of a touring swimmer wanted an assurance of supportive teammates, it was this one. And if management was a little too proactive in promoting a “oneness” within the swim team at the expense of Kitty Chiller’s “Our team” branding, then that may not be the fault of swimmers.

Mack Horton’s calling out of freestyle rival Sun Yang as a drug cheat will have to be canvassed. The pre-Games hurly-burly of high profile bans and appeals undoubtedly played on the minds of conscientious athletes like Horton. The degree to which the incident may have distracted the team, or if Horton was out of line, will need to be noted, at least for the sake of future team protocol.

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Finally, AOC president John Coates’ recent allegation of “bloating” in terms of administrative duplication within the constituent Sports Commission entities needs addressing.

Here’s one example from swimming. Our current Junior PanPac team has 30 swimmers, many of whom will no doubt be going to the Tokyo Olympics. For so many high energy kids, you’d expect a decent staff of around half a dozen minders.

Wrong! There are no fewer than 16 coaches, psychologists, performance analysts (true!), doctors and physios on the team. That’s one adult for every two swimmers. God knows how many reports that justifies.

And in the last 12 months before Rio, when the various swimming bodies responsible for chewing up funding largesse did their final bean counting, a new layer of coaching bureaucracy was created to mop up the swill of zeros.

The candidates were given weasel titles like Coaching Development Officer and spent their days emailing coaches instructional video clips from the net, and doing “meet-and-greet” rounds at suburban pools in Hawaiian shirts.

They are now busy shoring up support for our Rio swimming effort. Jobs are at stake. One post Rio email asked its recipients, (with regrettably insular overtones) ‘Are You Sick of The Swimming Bashing?’ and included a jpeg testimonial defence of our swimming efforts from a physio, of all people.