Conflict of Interest

By David

Wikipedia comes in for a fair amount of criticism. However for many day to day questions it is a quick and easy source of information. So what is a conflict of interest? Here is what Wikipedia has to say.

A conflict of interest occurs when an individual is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in another. The presence of a conflict of interest is independent from the execution of impropriety. The conflict in a conflict of interest exists if the circumstances are reasonably believed to create a risk that decisions may be unduly influenced by secondary interests.

Further clarity on the subject is provided by Michael McDonald from the University of British Columbia. This is what he has to say.

The key is to determine whether the situation you are in is likely to interfere or appear to interfere with the independent judgment you are supposed to show as a professional in performing your official duties. A good test is the ‘trust test’: would relevant others trust my judgment if they knew I was in this situation

So, a conflict of interest does not mean wrongdoing. Relationships that may make independent decision making more difficult are sufficient. I wonder then, what Michael McDonald and authors of Wikipedia would make of Alex Baumann’s family circumstances.

Alex Baumann is the Chief Executive of High Performance Sport New Zealand. He was born in Prague and moved to Canada with his family as a child. He was one of Canada’s greatest swimmers, winning gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in both the 200m and 400m individual medley races in world record times. He is married to an Australian and spent 15 years living there, during which time he was the Executive Director for the Queensland Academy of Sport and Chief Executive Officer of Queensland Swimming. He returned to Canada five years ago to work with that country’s high performance athletes.

As the Chief Executive of High Performance Sport New Zealand, Baumann is responsible for leading the high performance sport system in New Zealand. He must work in partnership with national sport organisations by: allocating $60 million to targeted sports and athletes; delivering support to impact NSO, coach and athlete performance and “constantly strive to outperform international benchmarks.”

But there is an interesting addition to the Baumann story. He has two children who are very good swimmers. In fact his son, Ashton, swam for Canada in the recent Barcelona World Swimming Championships. He was twenty fourth in the 200m breaststroke; just two places and 0.36 of a second behind New Zealand’s Glenn Snyders.

Is that a conflict of interest?

It is important to remember that a conflict of interest does not mean or even imply any impropriety. But, if you were Glenn Snyders and knew that the guy responsible for funding your lifestyle, has a son less than a half a second behind you in 200m breaststroke, would that make you just a bit uncomfortable? Has the uncompromising commitment required to excel in international sport been tainted by family ties?

And, you see, that’s enough. That discomfort; that feeling of unease, is sufficient for a conflict of interest to exist. The question is all that it takes. While Baumann has members of his family swimming for Canada; representing a nation hell-bent on beating ours, should he disqualify himself from any funding decision involving swimming?

And is that especially true when Baumann has seen fit to include the following disclosure in his Resume posted on the High Performance Sport New Zealand website?

One of the reasons I’m looking forward to moving is that my wife will be closer to her family. You have to put family first at times. My health is fine now; it’s not an issue any more. But it did make me re-adjust my priorities a bit,” he says.

“You have to put your family first” and “re-adjust my priorities” – of course that is how it should be. However, there are some who would argue that once Baumann was aware his son was going to swim for Canada, in direct competition to one of New Zealand’s best swimmers, he should have avoided any involvement in funding decisions involving swimming.

But, is a possible conflict of interest the only thing Baumann has to explain? This is what he says about the prospects for elite sport in New Zealand.

“I think the new structure is right. All the High Performance components will be under the one roof and there is the opportunity to be as streamlined as possible with minimal duplication.” He has a lot of respect for New Zealand’s sporting achievement and wants to ensure our athletes have the best opportunity for success at the next Olympic Games in London next year and then in Rio four years later. “We will be planning for post 2012, making sure we retain the best people and recruit the best people. Coaching would be the number one priority. I’ve always believed that if you have the best coaches in the world then you have a much better chance of success.”

But I’m confused. If New Zealand High Performance Swimming is so “streamlined – with minimal duplication”; if the sport has “the best people” and “the best coaches in the world”; if Baumann thinks he’s doing such a fantastic job, then how come his children catch a plane to Canada every time he wants them to represent someone? If things are that good here, at New Zealand High Performance Sport, why does Baumann makes sure his family swims for someone else? Presumably Baumann chose Canada for his son and daughter because he thought what Canada offered was better than what was on offer in New Zealand. It is hard to imagine Baumann sent his children back to Canada in the expectation they would be worse off. Should we be following Baumann’s example and look for a foreign ancestral home for our best swimmers? Would they be better off representing Australia, the UK, the USA or even Canada? If a man of Baumann’s experience, and doing his job, thinks swimming for Canada is best for his family, should we be concerned? Do we deserve an explanation?

Perhaps Alex Baumann, the CEO of High Performance Sport New Zealand, needs to tidy up some loose ends.