IT’S A GLORIOUS MORNING, COMRADE

May 23rd, 2022

The final Swimwatch post on the report into Cycling New Zealand (CNZ) recommended three steps that would reduce the welfare crisis afflicting sport in New Zealand and would also improve our international results. The three steps were:

  1. Reject the policy of centralised training.
  2. Increase and modify the financial support paid to athletes.
  3. Restore each sport’s democratic institutions.

The next three Swimwatch posts will look at each step and explain the reason for the recommendation. Today’s post will address the policy of centralised training.  

Reject the policy of centralised training.

Four words explain the reason for rejecting the policy of centralised training – it does not work. I have no idea what made Peter Miskimmin think he could impose a policy on New Zealand that the Soviets tried and failed to make work. But that is what Miskimmin did. An athlete welfare crisis, culminating in the death of Olivia Podmore, is its most obvious achievement.

Remember too when the Australians tried to enforce centralisation through their Canberra Institute of Sport. Pretty soon they found that was a disaster and reverted to the decentralised training that had served them well in the past.

And finally in the best example of all, look at what happened to swimming in New Zealand. Jan Cameron and Peter Miskimmin forced swimming to adopt a centralised policy. A pool was built, coaches were hired, and swimmers were lured from their homes to the “state” training centre. International success was sold as the inevitable prize.

For 20 years Swimming New Zealand tried to make centralised training work. Sport NZ handed Swimming New Zealand $31,547,603, so there was plenty of taxpayer’s money. And the result was no Olympic medals and a competitive membership decline of over 30%. $31.5 million for nothing.  

Do not blame Swimming New Zealand for the wasted $31.5 million. Like the Soviet Union, like Australia, Swimming New Zealand were sent on a fool’s errand. Miskimmin should be, but won’t be, held accountable for wasting $31.5 million and the death of a fine cyclist. In my opinion, his centralised policy caused both.         

And so, I think we have established that centralised training does not work. The next question is – why? There are many answers. Here are two of the more important:

1. In individual sport it is impossible for one coach to coach all the country’s best swimmers or athletes. In all coach/athlete relationships, personality and methods are important.

For example, Arch Jelley and Arthur Lydiard employ a similar coaching philosophy. But they have very different personalities. My wife, Alison would have lasted about five minutes with Arthur but got on supremely well with Arch. That wasn’t anyone’s fault. But it is one reason centralised training does not work. Athletes must have the freedom to select a coach they get along with.  

Similarly, methods can be different. Dave Salo in Los Angeles has been successful with a sprint-based training programme. Mark Schubert has had equal success with distance-based training. Paul Kent at Waitakere is a Dave Salo type coach. Duncan Laing was a New Zealand Mark Schubert. Both work, neither is right or wrong. But certainly, athletes find they respond to and improve using one or the other.

Forcing an athlete who prefers sprint training to accept a Jelley/Lydiard program is doomed from the start. Forcing an athlete who prefers a distance program to accept Kent’s sprint program is equally doomed. Again, both work, neither is right or wrong. But certainly, athletes find they respond to and improve using one or the other.

2. Centralised training cannot accommodate that flexibility, cannot provide a program that suits every good swimmer. Forcing the athlete to fit into a Miskimmin bureaucratic mould distorts the athlete/coach relationship. The athlete’s coach and his or her methods, must accommodate the athlete’s preferences. It is NOT the athletes’ responsibility to accommodate an environment imposed on them by Miskimmin, Castle or some NSO.  

And yet for 20 years and at a cost of $31.5 million that is what Sport NZ, Swimming New Zealand and Miskimmin tried to do. Remember when Lauren Boyle left the Swimming New Zealand centralised program because the coach and the training she was being given were not right for her. The very nature of centralised training and its failure to accommodate the athlete but to compel the athlete to accept “state” imposed training, inevitably causes stress, failure and in cycling – death. Whoever invented New Zealand’s centralised training structure clearly had no idea of the importance of athlete choice.  

Centralised training means athletes are dragged away from their homes, their mates, their own beds and forced to live in the exorbitantly high rental areas of Auckland’s North Shore or Cambridge. A rent-free family home is replaced by an expensive, pokey bed-sit. Mum’s dinner at night becomes McDonald’s on the way home from training.

A coach who has known me all my swimming life, who knows my mum and dad, who knows my boyfriend or girlfriend is replaced by someone I don’t know and clearly sees me as a pawn in his or her ambition to earn more of Sport NZ’s money. A familiar welcome from my home coach and training mates is replaced by, am I wearing the right label, are the elites laughing at my old Datsun, have I understood my new psychologist, does my new life-coach understand I will inherit 1000 acres of Marlborough vineyards one day, why does my new physiotherapist say my back needs straightening when I feel just fine and why does that woman from Sport NZ always ask about how I feel “as a woman” when I’ve never thought about that before? Centralised training is just asking for trouble.     

Remember the very good Wairarapa breaststroke swimmer who was dragged away from her Greytown home to swim in the centralised program. For all the reasons I have mentioned the move failed. They said she wasn’t tough enough. That was never true.

Remember the fantastic backstroke swimmer from Poverty Bay that came to Auckland, broke a New Zealand record (13 years ago in 1.00.22), got a medal in the Pan Pacific Games and went back to Poverty Bay. I don’t blame her a bit. I know where I’d rather live.

Remember the North Island breaststroke swimmer that came to the centralised programme, only to be assaulted by her Auckland billet.

How an “Olivia Podmore” event never happened in swimming is sheer good luck. The centralised training system lends itself to welfare problems. From a sport point of view – it does not work.    

MEDALS V WELFARE

May 21st, 2022

In this final post on the recent report into Cycling New Zealand (CNZ) I will address the question of medals and money V athlete welfare. This argument has been made many times in relation to New Zealand sport. The allegation is that because Sport NZ links Olympic medal success to the amount of their funding, New Zealand sports push athletes over the edge. Supporters of this view link the death of Olivia Podmore to the obsession for medals and money. Her welfare was sacrificed so that others could live like kings on the taxpayer’s dime.

For example, TV1 News recently reported that, The relentless pursuit for medals in high performance sports in New Zealand could be a big contributor to the issues appearing around athlete welfare. High performance sports in New Zealand ‘consumed’ by medal expectations, leading to issues in athlete welfare – that’s the opinion of NZ Athletes Federation chairman Rob Nichol”.  

There is a certain amount of truth to that argument. Sport NZ do link medals to money in an obvious and rather “back-street-loan-shark” sort of way. There is no loyalty when Sport NZ looks bad. Between 2014 and 2021 Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) won nothing at the Olympic Games and competitive membership dropped by 28% from 6359 in 2014 to 4553 in 2021.

Sport NZ’s funding reflected the sport’s barren performance. In 2014 Sport NZ paid SNZ for the centralised training program, $2,207,375. By 2021 that funding had fallen off a cliff to $829,500 – a drop of 62%. When the tough get going Sport NZ is out of there.

Bad coaches and administrators are affected by the spectre of reduced funding and make bad decisions – like the CNZ payment of bribes and the “illegal” swapping of riders at the Olympic Games. Like SNZ’s decision to appoint and then abandon Gary Hurring and Donna Bouzaid. Like the National Coach verbally abusing 15-year-old Jane Copland in a Sydney Hotel. Like the way Alan Thompson has been treated by Canoe Racing NZ.

However, Sport NZ’s bad behaviour is no excuse for these examples of treachery. Sport NZ could offer coaches like Laing, Jelley, Lydiard, Tonks, Thompson, Hurring or me any amount of their money and it would not alter our training or behaviour one millimetre. Good coaching cannot be bought or sold by Sport NZ’s money. Our loyalty to our athletes far exceeds the contents of Castle’s cheque book.

Bad decisions made to secure Sport NZ’s money are made by weak, bad people – not because of the link Sport NZ makes between Olympic medals and funding. Just because Sport NZ tries to buy medals and people does not mean coaches and administrators must become as bad as those who set the honey trap. The right thing to do by those that we coach is the right thing to do irrespective of the loan sharks working for Sport NZ. The problem at CNZ was those receiving the cash became as bad as those handing it out.

There is a solution. It comes in three steps. All of which have been promoted by this blog on several occasions.

  1. One: reject the policy of centralised training. Return to a decentralised model that allows athletes to choose their location and their coach. In the past I have called this – “to sleep in their own bed at night.” Do not make Sport NZ’s financial support dependant on being attached to a centralised facility and coach. In the two years since swimming has changed back to a decentralised structure the benefits have been huge – in terms of both performance and welfare. We have an example of a sport that has done the right thing – and it’s working brilliantly.
  2. Two: increase the financial support paid to athletes to the minimum wage based on a collective contract and an independent athlete’s union.  
  3. Three: restore each sport’s democratic institutions. Clip Castle’s autocratic wings. All Board members should be democratically elected. That change puts a ring fence around the athlete of people responsible to the membership for their position on the Board. The conflict of interest between appointed members whose current loyalty is compromised by their allegiance to Sport NZ disappears. Athletes are protected by bringing democracy back to NSOs. Castle is returned to her job of handing out money – period. The function of running New Zealand sport is removed from Sport NZ and returned to the membership. If a sport needs imported expertise the selection should be done by a democratic Board NOT the Castle clan. Step three is of vital importance. Do it now. Only when Sport NZ show a tangible readiness to reduce their direct power, will I believe there is a willingness to change the environment that killed Olivia Podmore.  

Implement these three steps and the current emphasis on having sport’s psychologists on call 24/7 will reduce dramatically. TV1 News told me last week that Eliza McCartney has a team of eleven people guiding her training. No wonder the athlete is struggling. All eleven of her experts will find a “lamp post to pee on”. How McCartney has done as well as she has is a wonder to me.

The purpose of the reforms suggested here is to reduce the need for all that stress management spending. A happy athlete does not need it. Peter Snell had Lydiard alone. Loader had Laing alone. Walker had Jelley alone. Marise Chamberlain, Lorraine Moller, Anne Audain, Yvette Williams and my wife, Alison seemed to be able to win championships and break national records without eleven hangers on. A happy, independent athlete who has the freedom to choose their own help, to make their own decisions – wins. Medals, welfare and money can coexist.

THERE IS A LESSON HERE

May 19th, 2022

Two events occurred today that appear to have nothing in common. First, Mark Reason wrote an article for the news website, Stuff, in which he tore into the decision to appoint Brendon McCullum as coach of the England cricket test team. And second Eyad left Auckland on an Emirates 777-300 ER to swim in the Mare Nostrum series and the Budapest World Championships.

To appreciate the link between those events, let’s first consider each separately. Reason’s article is mean and nasty. He rips into McCullum’s record as a “short-form” coach. He pours scorn over the English decision to make the appointment. He highlights McCullum’s lack of experience in coaching test cricket. And, because McCullum is going to coach England against New Zealand, Reason plays the betrayal card. Strangely enough Reason ignores the fact that England’s captain, Ben Stokes, is also a New Zealander. How come he escaped the treason label?

It is Russell Coutts all over again. None of it deserves to be treated as serious sporting opinion. It is mean, nasty, noxious, vulgar and wrong. Whether it reflects the character of its author I do not know. But wherever the text came from, it does nothing to advance sport. Everything that sport should not be, everything players should avoid is highlighted by the content of this piece. It is full of literary head-high tackles, eye gouging, scrotum grasping and racial slurs. It is disgusting. I am nauseated Stuff decided to publish the rubbish. I’d have asked Reason to pack his cardboard carton and leave the building.

Like the Brad Butterworth and Russell Coutts’ case, we are talking about international sport. People play and coach for different countries. I’ve coached representatives of five countries, New Zealand, the UK, the Virgin Islands, the USA and Saudi Arabia. That does not make me any less proud of being a New Zealander. Coaching is my job.

Joseph coaches Australia. Crowley coaches Italy. Schmidt coached Ireland. Gatland coached Wales and the Lions. Deans coached Australia. Henry also coached Wales. Lam is coaching Bristol. Tonks is coaching rowing in Canada. Grace coached cycling in New Zealand, France and the UK. Lydiard coached in New Zealand, Mexico and Finland. Jelley helped New Zealand and American mile champions. If Reason is going to jump all over New Zealanders who have coached other nationalities, the list is going to be a long one.

And I tell you what, every one of those coaches has or had more New Zealand blood pumping through their veins than Mark Reason. Do not accuse us of betrayal. Reason is a whinging pom and it shows.

And then there is Eyad leaving for the Mare Nostrum series and the swimming World Championships. It is his first trip to Europe. As I write this post he has taken off from Auckland Airport and is currently heading north west up the coast of Northland at 28,000ft and at 774kms an hour. It is important he adopts a professional sportsman’s attitude. He cannot be part of any “gee-whiz, I’m excited to be on an airplane”. He is a professional athlete with a job of work to do.

His degree of professionalism will determine his attitude to events that occur and to how well he swims. Small-minded pettiness and primary school excitement have no place in the world of professional sport. For someone not all that experienced in international sport I am impressed with how quickly Eyad has adapted to his new role – calm and understated, as he should be.

Which brings me back to the link between these two events. Quite simply one shows how those involved in sport should not behave and the other is an example of how things should be done. I have a fair idea which camp Brendon McCullum is in.  

Because of the popularity of his employer Mark Reason has a loud voice. Unlike Eyad some athletes read Reason’s small-minded bigotry and take it on board as the way to behave. To that extent Reason makes New Zealand success at international sport ever more difficult. He promotes a bad attitude. Perhaps the MCC sent Reason to the other side of the world to make Brendon MCullum’s new job that little bit easier.

In the meantime, I will keep you up to date with Eyad’s swimming as he competes in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Canet en Roussillon and Budapest.  

BRING IN ANOTHER EXPERT

May 18th, 2022

Gee, you read some rubbish on the internet. For example, this has just appeared.   “Cycling NZ is a grubby organisation. Swimming NZ is no different – it’s just another member of the same family. Cycling NZ has lost its CEO, Swimming NZ will lose its in the next two years.”

Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) is not a “grubby organisation”. It may have been a few years ago with previous leaders. But through design or lack of money it has changed for the better. The atmosphere is night and day different. The dark, grubby hole SNZ entered on the 28 July 2012 is behind the sport. Today clubs and domestic coaches have been restored to their rightful importance. SNZ is controlling the environment in which we operate – not doing the operating for us. Gone are the succession of foreign administrators and SNZ coaches that told us how bad we were. Swimmers, coaches and administrators are happier controlling their own destiny. As night follows day good results are on their way. Just watch the Mare Nostrum and World Championship results. They may not be perfect but they will be another step forward. No, SNZ is far, far away from being a “grubby organisation”.

And then this, “Swimming NZ will lose its (CEO) in the next two years.” How does anyone know that? I have been a member of SNZ since 1952. That’s 70 years. There have been a couple of breaks in that time, when I was coaching in the UK and the USA. And sure, the CEO has changed several times in those 70 years. So, I guess Steve Johns will eventually move on as well. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, when he considers he’s done what he can, the right thing to do is to move on. It’s a decision for Johns – and Johns alone to make. And when he does, it will not reflect badly on him or the organisation. In fact, if he forced himself to stay – that would be bad. When the time is right, resignations and replacements are vital to a healthy organisation.

And now back to the Cycling New Zealand (CNZ) report.

All these reports focus on the sport involved. Whether it is canoeing, cycling, rowing, gymnastics or swimming the reports target the performance of individuals. He or she didn’t do this. He or she let us down. The issue that is always avoided is that “he or she” were operating in a centralised structure, pre-destined to fail.

Over and over again it happened in Swimming New Zealand (SNZ). The solution was always the same. Get a better coach. Get a better CEO – and all would be well. Inevitably the next foreigner would be imported until he or she would also fail, not because they were not good enough but because the Miskimmin/Castle structure made success impossible.

In 8 years, between 2012 and 2020, Swimming repeated this coaching revolving door cycle 10 times. That’s an average of 9.5 months per national coach. And people wondered why swimming couldn’t win anything.

Even Olivia Podmore’s parents have fallen for the same sleight of hand. In a recent interview Olivia’s mother told Stuff reporter Dana Johannsen:

“The team environment is much stronger with the arrival of a new coaching staff. “The new coach is really great and Livi would have responded so well to him. She would have thrived. It makes me sad to hear that because that is all she wanted – to be given a chance to thrive.”

The problem with that argument is that while Olivia may have thrived in the new coaching environment some other athlete could well and justifiably hate the way things have changed. The centralised structure is to blame. It is impossible for one coach to be all things to cycling’s 5000 members. Just as swimming found it impossible for one coach to please 5000 swimming members. Diversification is the only option. Then athletes have their own wide choice of clubs and coaches.

USA Swimming has operated a diversified structure since it began in 1888. After 134 years it’s hard to argue that hasn’t worked.

Incidentally in 2015 Sport New Zealand’s website said this about Cycling New Zealand (CNZ).

“CNZ is now also reaping the benefits of its new home in Cambridge. The synergies offered by this new facility are helping move the whole business forward. Sport NZ and High Performance Sport New Zealand continue to support and invest in the capability development of CNZ at governance and operational levels, as well as Cycling’s development and high performance work.”   

Six years later Olivia Podmore was dead. So much for Sport New Zealand’s “support” at “governance and operational levels as well as Cycling’s high performance work”. Surely that admission of participation in the management of CNZ must count as Sport New Zealand accepting its responsibility for Olivia Podmore’s death.

And finally, I got the following email today from a South Island reader who knows a fair bit about swimming, canoeing and cycling. Here is an edited version of what she said.

“I liked your column today. About 5 years ago I came to the same conclusion. We have a dictatorship by Sport NZ which is impossible to change because most clubs are apathetic or key people think they will get higher honours (so keep their heads down and act like good Germans during WWII) so getting a two thirds majority for constitutional change is impossible or even rolling the board is impossible because Sport NZ control 3 of the 7 directorships.

Canoeing restructured in the period just before Swimming NZ. Sport NZ took full control in 2010 but what it did in 2004-8 showed how they operate. Sport NZ in 2003-4 agreed to pay for a parttime administrator leading up to the Athens Games which they did. Then Sport NZ told Canoeing to keep the administrator on. The Canoeing Board asked Sport NZ who is going to pay her as Canoeing did not have the money. Miskimming categorically told Canoeing that Sport NZ would – 6 months later Canoeing had received nothing, 9 months later Canoeing was broke and let the administrator go.

In 2007 Sport NZ began to panic as Olympic medals were on the line. Sport NZ said they had just the person for the job as long as Canoeing restructured. Canoeing agreed, as the gun was pointed at its head. Sport NZ brought on Richard DeGroen, ex cricket and an accountant. He was great and soon realised Canoeing was broke and Sport NZ were arseholes. Richard was a sportsman at heart and an honest good bugger. Richard eventually told Sport NZ they knew nothing about sport in NZ and resigned.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor” Desmond Tutu.

This quote sums up our sports administrators and politicians who just want to get the money and appear in the limelight.”

So there you have it. The same pattern as Swimming New Zealand. The largess, the threats and then the forced restructure. That is how Miskimmin grew his empire into the beast that killed Olivia Podmore – and is eating New Zealand sport into a world of malfeasance.

THE HOVERING SPECTRE

May 17th, 2022

I see that Alexa Cook has reported on a National Party conference in Paraparaumu. According to her report, “the National Party is firing more shots at the Government over its spending ahead of the Budget being released on May 19.”

National brought out its big guns for the occasion. Luxon and the hovering spectre of Willis were both there. The report declares that “Willis delivered blows to the Finance Minister.”

In one of those blows Willis said, “Debt is now at 36 percent of GDP and is continuing to rise,” I have no idea where Willis gets her figures from. The best I can find is from the International Monetary Fund: World Economic Outlook Database – a pretty reliable source. This tells me that New Zealand’s 2022 debt to GDP is in fact 28.07% – who to believe, a pampered ex-Marsden posh school stereotype or the International Monetary Fund? Let me think for two seconds.

Her specious claim, of course, provides no context. She fails to mention that New Zealand has the 160th lowest ratio of debt to GDP in the world. Labour under Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, has put New Zealand into a far better position than countries like Japan (237%), the United States (106%), France (99%), Canada (88%), the UK (85%), Finland (60%), China (55%) and Switzerland (39%).

Missing that international context is a typical right wing political lie. A lie by omission, perhaps but a lie, nevertheless. I suspect Willis has trouble lying straight in bed. I have written before that Willis learned her bad behaviour at Marsden School and bit by bit examples of her schoolyard treachery are beginning to appear. Her description of the level of New Zealand’s debt sounds terrible until you understand that most of the world have double, treble or more, debt than we have.

And then Luxon is reported to have said, “We’ll abolish the Māori Health Authority.” That policy is straight, old-fashioned racism. It promotes attitudes that have no place in New Zealand. He has shown himself to be racist. Māori health statistics are a disgrace. A Ministry to address the problem is entirely appropriate – unless you happen to be a white National Party flunky or privileged Luxon and Willis set on wresting power from Jacinda at any cost.   

Do not trust the National gang. Whether it is promoting an $18,000 tax cut for himself, pitching for the early death of Māori or exaggerating to a point of deceit, New Zealand’s debt, Luxon and Willis will do anything for power. These two are no Keith Holyoake, no Jack Marshall, no Bill English not even a Simon Bridges. They were honourable men.  

Always remember Luxon spent 5 years working in Chicago. We can only hope the anti-black politics of that city are not being imported into New Zealand. Also remember that Loxon has a history of helping kill black people. While he was CEO of Air New Zealand, its contracting business unit, Gas Turbines, was assisting the  Saudi royal family’s naval vessels, blockade essential supplies like water, food and medical assistance from Yemen. Luxon did business with the people that killed, beheaded and dismembered journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Luxon’s business helped starve to death Yemen’s black people.

The UN estimates that the conflict in Yemen caused over 377,000 deaths, with 60% of them the result of hunger, lack of healthcare and unsafe water – all the destitution Luxon’s company helped the Saudi’s deliver.

Luxon claimed to “have no recollection of it” and that “it might’ve post-dated my time.” If you believe that, I have a new bridge outside Ashburton to sell you. And if it is true, how incompetent is a CEO who does not know when his company is up to its eyeballs helping the Saudi navy deprive Yemen of food, water and medical supplies. Either Luxon lies or is incompetent or possibly both.

A country deserves the politicians it votes for. I do not think New Zealand has done anything to deserve a Luxon or his hovering spectre.