Men's relay debacle harms all sports

OPINION

The number of elite swimmers in the Australian team being paid has decreased since a peak in 2007-08, yet the numbers of paid staff, including coaches, managers has increased, according to the Warwick Smith-led report into Swimming Australia.

But the starkest point to come out of this introspection is the lack of leadership and the disintegration of the "team".

Based on the parading of the women's eight back in 2004 after the lay-down Sally Robbins debacle and the 4x100 men's freestyle relay team last Friday, it seems that taking athletes to the media gallows to confess their sins is de rigueur within, if not the Australian Olympic team, then its constituents.

Make no mistake, idiots being unprofessional, running amok and affecting the performance of others is deplorable and the length of time it has taken to surface is reprehensible. Maybe it's time for highly paid managers, coaches and PR gurus to be led to those same gallows for a mea culpa or two. But don't hold your breath.

Now let me qualify my thoughts. Yes, much of the responsibility should sit with the athletes based on their personal code of behaviour, more so when representing the nation. But the unquantifiable aspect here is the pressure on individuals, exacerbated by the burning spotlight of the Olympics which exponentially rises with each social media games. Athletes are laid bare.

For many inexperienced individuals, or even some that have touched the atmosphere before, there might be no way out. The fish bowl is a prison, or a circus. Release is sought and found, such as with the relay team. The answer must be leadership.

Strong, effective leadership and management engendering respect gives unity of purpose. A team works together, inclusively, from the top down. In this era, athletes are surrounded by minders; PR people, managers, coaches, individual management, family and fellow athletes.

Yet it seems, from the two reports and subsequent outpourings that respect for each other and the principles of the "team" were and still are foreign philosophies. That is underlined by a succession of athletes giving their version of events, each providing a salacious titbit of the overall puzzle of performance and behavioural woes.

In a real team the problems would never have eventuated. Parameters would have been set, inspiration would have been provided. And all the minders and managers would have known exactly where their candidates for success were every minute of the day and what they were doing. Six of them, with races close at hand at the greatest sports event on the planet, would not have been allowed to wander away to form their own individual team. Warning signs would not be ignored, and psychological experts would be in place to help.

Head coach Leigh Nugent said in August, "The coach is the best psychologist", when conceding team members had stage fright in London.

The swimming team hasn't had a full-time psychologist since 2008. In light of the reports, that looks like a major failure of management.

In a real team, fellow team members don't submerge some athletes while others are clinging to life rafts. Teams survive together. That's what is really disconcerting about this so called "Olympic team". The individual nature of it. And the AOC , at its pontificating best, comes out and threatens sanctions on the relay team, which may include retrospective monetary penalties for admitting to taking Stilnox (a drug not banned by WADA).

Will they do the same to the coaches and team managers who've failed in their duty? Will they fine themselves for not ensuring full-time psychologists were part of the ongoing landscape, particularly considering the burgeoning ranks of staff over the years, funded for the most part by taxpayer money? Management failure.

At every turn in the Smith report, there was a landmine. More than a wake-up call, an indictment of the upper echelons of sports management in this country, with behaviour by athletes including "celebrating the underperformance of team mates" and an attitude of "what's in it for me" (apart from the drunkenness and Stilnox abuse) to the lack of a plan between the trials, some 21 weeks before the Olympics.

Athletes were heading to overseas training camps with, it seemed, no clear direction, resulting in telling analysis ... "there was evidence of training programs actually being compromised and altered so athletes could spend time sightseeing and partaking in other holiday activities".

With those assessments one realises why only 46 per cent of Australian swims in the London pool were better than the trials.

Before implementing many of the 35 recommendations in the Smith report, and those of the second report, someone must display management principles and harness the blame game. Why has it taken this long?

Take the bitter pill, so to speak, and get on with it. Unless there has been some major atrocity, it's time for unity, a path forward and not further fragmentation leading to more damage to the reputation of Australia's "good sports".

A-League star shines bright

On a bleak night on the Coast, the Mariners reinserted themselves as out-and-out favourites for the competition with a stunning 6-2 win over the Melbourne Victory. 

Coach Graham Arnold couldn’t hide his delight as his charges put on one of the displays of the season despite the atrocious conditions. There was fist-pumping and a foxtrot or two from Arnold celebrating the rousing second half, soaked as he was from head to toe. Quite infectious really.

That favouritism might only last a week as Western Sydney Wanderers made it seven successive wins with just the one goal needed against Perth. That sets up a mouth-watering clash between the runaway one and two teams this weekend.

Put those results alongside the re-signing of Italian maestro  Alessandro Del Piero and the acquisition of Lucas Neill by Sydney FC, and the A-League is definitely supercharged. Sydney will still lose money on the Del Piero deal, but his impact on the competition, and indeed FC’s crowds, can’t be underestimated. A marquee who’s delivered deluxe. 

The only trepidation is that the 38-year-old body will succumb to a few more niggles than he has done already this season. His impact will require some astute management.

 Overall though, for Del Piero to submit to another A-League season, is, one thinks, more an endorsement of the quality of the competition, rather than an effective cash-cow vehicle for an ageing body.

This Moises could part waves

There was something quite refreshing about Moises Henriques’ exhibition in his first test. 

If some thought the Portuguese-born all-rounder was lucky to be selected, Henriques certainly didn’t. 

It could be my imagination, but from his upright and authoritative stance he looked to be smiling his way through his partnership with one Michael Clarke. A man enjoying his cricket to the full, seemingly oblivious to the pressure-filled situation. 

In fact, if Clarke had been given out early on when he clearly nicked it onto his pads before being caught, then Henriques could rightfully have been top scorer. 

Oh how that moment rebounded on the narrow-sighted Indian board who rejected the decision review system. That might well have been the turning point of the Test.

After his innings, Henriques was bemoaning Australia’s position as they lost late wickets rather than reflecting on his own performance and whether he might have gone on to three figures. 

More of Moises please.

The re-entry of James Pattinson was another welcome sign for Australia, just before Sachin Tendulkar reminded us what an annoying yet glorious player he still is. 

 Australia’s attack did seem to reinforce a trend where quick bowlers are vying to be inserted into the pecking order.

Meanwhile, our spinning ranks are woefully thin.

We are in the middle of a fascinating time for the national team, even if football has thundered its way into the consciousness.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop