Archive for August, 2008

Live The Dream

Monday, August 25th, 2008
By David

I’m not a big fan of car bumper stickers. Many are little more than crass personal advertising. “My son is a St.Vincent Elementary School honor student” – to which I’ve seen the perfect response “My dog’s smarter than your honor student”. Thank God the parents of really bright or talented children don’t feel the need to advertise the fact on their cars. Imagine the lists – My daughter’s a National Swimming Champion, My Son Has a full Ride to USC, My Son won a State High School Final, My Daughter Swam in The Pan Pacific Games. Ponder for a moment what Michael Phelps mother’s car would look like. She’d never see out the window to drive. And what would Paris Hilton and Britney Spears’ mothers have thought appropriate to have on their SUVs? I know – “My kid has A.D.D. and a couple of Fs.” No, I’m sure family triumphs are best enjoyed at home; not on the side of a motor car.

I have a bit of a soft spot for the sad irony behind “No one died when Clinton lied.” On my way home tonight I saw a little Chevy with an “I love New Orleans” bumper sticker. Not very original I hear you say. I thought so too until I read the small sticker beside it. It said “Drove my Chevy to the levee and the levee wasn’t there.”

The scary ones are the “Swim Mom” and “Swim Dad” stickers. I have no doubt that the guy who invented them did so with the best of intentions. Today US Swimming wants to find out why so many teenagers drop out of the sport. They could do worse than begin by interviewing the owners of those stickers. Have you ever noticed how many more “swim moms” there are out there than “swim dads”? Why is that do you think? Perhaps more moms derive status from their children’s activities than dads? Now possibly that is the place US Swimming should start.

The “Swim Taxi” bumper sticker is a paradox. It may imply that the owner is a touch negative about spending so much time carting children to a swimming pool. That seems strange. What else would they prefer to be doing and what on earth did they imagine having children would involve? Some of the best “quality time” of my life was spent driving my daughter to and from swimming pools. Her tales of a day at Hastings Girls High School were endless and entertaining. Like the day she got into the car with a report from the physical education teacher that said, “Jane lacks aerobic fitness”. At the time Jane was the open women’s national 200 meters breaststroke champion and had just set a national open record of 2.30.67 for the event. Strange breed those PE teachers.

My car has two bumper stickers. One advertises my membership of the American Automobile Association and the other my membership of US Swimming; I’m sure you will agree, a modest enough display. My number plate is a bit ostentatious though. Some might even say it is no different from the “honor student” exhibitions. There is a picture of Martin Luther King on the plate and the words “Live the dream.” I’ve had one or two white Americans tell me they have never seen that plate on a white person’s car. I chose it because King was a huge world personality. Although the dream in his case conveyed an important racial message, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me using his thought to communicate the enjoyment I derive from coaching swimming in the United States. Jack Nicklaus conveyed much the same idea when he was reported as saying how privileged he felt being able to work and earn a living playing golf; to be paid to do something he couldn’t wait to get to each day was something very special. I agree with him. As the number plate says, for me, just now, coaching swimming in the United States is living the dream. However all of that probably does not excuse having it displayed on the back of my car.

Why My Friends Think Michael Phelps Is On Drugs

Monday, August 25th, 2008

By Jane

Update: In case this is coming across the wrong way, I’m completely convinced that 99.99% of athletes, including Phelps, are clean. This is a report on the sad things I hear other people, who rarely know much about sport, say about elite athletes.

The obligatory two weeks where the Whole World cares about swimming, diving, track, volleyball and gymnastics are over. It was fun, wasn’t it? Your classmates or coworkers knew the names of your country’s best swimmers, plus the names of a fair few other countries’ athletes. Americans and Britons watched swimming instead of football. New Zealanders set rugby aside to watch their men’s 4×100 medley relay place fifth in record time in the final. Australia did what it always does.

However, when I got back to work the week after the swimming was over, I heard some disturbing things from some of those people who rarely take notice of swimming. It turns out that a lot of them think our sport’s best athletes are cheats. And their assumptions are terribly misguided. It’s also tough to argue with “knowledge” that has no basis in fact.

The top 6 things I’ve heard from non-swimming fans about swimming’s recent rise and rise are thus:

  1. The drugs are now so good that they can’t be detected.
    According to public wisdom, swimmers now have super-drugs that haven’t made the list of banned substances.
  2. The chemists are so good that they can time swimmers’ drug consumption so as not to be detected.
    People cite Jessica Hardy’s positive drug test when using this excuse. Why, they say, did the substance only show up once in a batch of three tests? I don’t know the answer to this and neither, it seems, does anyone else.
  3. The suits did it all for them.
    I call this the Craig Lord reason. According to Lord, and a fair few others, the Speedo LZR suits are the primary reason for the number of world records broken this year.
  4. The pool did it all for them.
    Commentators talked a lot about the design of the Water Cube’s water cube and that’s led people to think that a three meter-deep pool, as opposed to a two, has given athletes an extra advantage.
  5. Administrators are in on the cheating.
    I hadn’t even thought of this one, but when it looked like Michael Phelps had been touched out by Milorad Cavic, several peoeple threw around the idea that Phelps’ win was orchestrated in order to assure the American’s eight gold medas. Even some conclusive video evidence didn’t seem to convince people that there is a reason why coaches advocate not gliding into turns and finishes.

    This theory has been around for a while. I sincerely hope it doesn’t take place in swimming.

  6. All of the above.
    We can thank both the cheats within our own sport and a number from sports like cycling and baseball for this, but many people are simply bored with the rumours and uncertainties. They have fully accepted that everyone who does well is cheating to some degree. They don’t care that Dara Torres, Phelps and many others volunteer themselves to the most rigorous, in-depth testing programmes available to science. They don’t have chemistry, sports science or physiology degrees but they’ve made up their minds about elite sport.

I fall into the camp of trust. I don’t believe that a majority of swimming’s fastest participants are taking drugs or engaging in any other form of cheating. The suits will be helping, as will the depth of the pool, but neither of those two things is covert and neither is against the ruels. You’ll also notice that quite a few swimmers weren’t wearing Speedo LZR suits and also swam very well: Although Arena, TYR and other brands came out with new, advanced technology, none receieved the praise or the criticism of the LZR.

People say Dara Torres can’t be that good because she’s too old. They say Cate Campbell and Emily Seebohm can’t be that good because they’re too young. I don’t believe that either of those things are necessarily prohibitive to athletic success. Age is a concept that we put in place to explain people’s successes, but it really means far less than we think.

Only once have I been completely convinced that I was looking at a drug cheat, and even then, I can’t be sure. It was 1999 and I was in Imperia, Italy, at a World Cup meet. I was in the women’s locker room and I heard someone begin talking behind me in Chinese. It was definitely a male, and a male with a deep voice, at that. I spun around, only to find two women talking to each other. The one whose voice I’d misplaced as male was built like a bulging weight-lifter from the waist up and was covered in acne. She fit every stereotype we have about steroid users. I don’t know her name or what happened to her, and again, I have no proof. And neither do sports fans who have suspicions about today’s swimmers, but it is still a common perception that advantages and cheating exists. The question is how to change elite sport’s damaged and unwarranted image. Expect to hear about it again in four years when swimming (and track, and cycling…) catches the public eye once more.