Failure of Australian swimmers at London 2012 down to "toxic culture" review claims

Tuesday, 19 February 2013
By Duncan Mackay

Australian swimmer London 2012February 19 - Abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs, as well as flouting of curfews and bullying, were allowed to go unpunished among the Australian swimming team during the London 2012 Olympics, leading to a "culturally toxic" environment which contributed to the country's worst performance in the pool for 20 years, a review has claimed. 

The review, conducted by business consultants Bluestone Edge, also found that team morale was undermined by schoolboy pranks, inflated egos, a lack of team unity and unrealistic expectations. 

"Standards, discipline and accountabilities for the swim team at the London Olympics were too loose," said the report commissioned by Swimming Australia and written by Melbourne consultant Pippa Grange, a doctor of applied psychology, with over 15 years' experience in the public and private sectors.

"Situations were left to bleed with not enough follow through for fear of disrupting preparation for competition.

"Although few situations relating to London reported through this review were truly grave in nature, they compounded in significance as no one reigned in control.

"There were enough culturally toxic incidents across enough team members that breeched agreements (such as getting drunk, misuse of prescription drugs, breeching curfews, deceit, bullying) to warrant a strong, collective leadership response that included coaches, staff and the swimmers.

"No such collective action was taken."

Australia 4x100m relay team with gold medals London 2012Australia's 4x100m freestyle relay team of Melanie Schlanger, Alicia Coutts, Brittany Elmslie and Cate Campbell won Australia's only gold medal in the pool at London 2012

Australia's swimmers won just one gold, six silver and three bronze in London, their lowest tally in the pool since Barcelona 1992, and were without an individual gold medalist for the first time since Montreal in 1976.

An Independent Swimming Review into London 2012, commissioned by the Australian Sports Commission and carried out by former Sports Minister Warwick Smith, also published its report today, making 35 recommendations for improvements.

The report highlighted "a culture of non-strategic business practices and a governance system that did not operate as well as it should" as well as the lack of a "clearly visible national direction".

"As a result, lack of transparency in decision making had led to a growing disillusionment in those who held this responsibility," it read.

Swimming Australia President Barclay Nettlefold admitted that both reports made uncomfortable reading for a sport usually held in the highest regard by the public and which has produced Aussie cultural icons like Dawn Fraser and Ian Thorpe.

Barclay Nettlefold at London 2012Swimming Australia President Barclay Nettlefold admits that the sport has to regain the trust of the public

"Before we look at winning gold medals, we want to win back the admiration of the nation, and we want to engage with our swimming community like never before at every level," he said.

"Work has already started on the majority of the recommendations in these reports, including the introduction of a high performance director and an ethical framework."

One of the more serious allegations to emerge after London was that some team members had been subjected to initiation rituals involving Stilnox - a sedative banned by the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) just before the Games.

AOC Pesident John Coates said he was awaiting with interest a Swimming Australia inquiry into the matter.

"If the claims are substantiated and the individuals involved are identified, the AOC will consider their conduct in the context of their Olympic team membership agreement and consider sanctions," he said in a statement.

The Bluestone report claimed that the problems had existed within Australian Swimming even before London 2012. 

"The findings of this review were that cultural factors did play a significant role in the 'unpleasant' experience that many Australian swimmers, coaches and staff had...and the culture did not appear to assist or support high-level performance for most people," it said.

"Participants reported that in the zealous and streamlined attempts to obtain gold medals, the delicate management of motivation, communication and collaboration were lost.

"Swimmers described these Games as the 'Lonely Olympics' and the 'Individual Olympics'.

"'Things were quiet and weird when someone lost ... you just sort of went to your room and got out of the way,' one swimmer said.

"There was not much connection between groups of athletes, or between athletes, staff and coaches other than what was engineered reactively.

"At its least attractive, the team dynamic became like a schoolyard clamour for attention and influence."

Among the recommendations are the need to build better lines of communication both inside the team and with the media, as well as on building community in the team.

Leigh Nugent at London 2012Australian head Leigh Nugent is heavily criticised for his lack of "man management skills" in the Bluestone report

It also recommended head coach Leigh Nugent be sent on an "an intensive coach-the-coach leadership program (sic)" for three to six months.

Nugent claimed that he was unaware of any misbehaviour, primarily because he had about 80 swimmers, coaches and staff to command - a workload exacerbated by Swimming Australia's decision not to continue with its high-performance director position.

Nugent said he would happily undergo training but was unhappy with the use of the word "toxic" to describe the environment.

"It's a pretty emotive word," he said.

"I am not really sure what that means.

"Behavioural issues were not overtly obvious."

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