Otago Daily Times Clutching at Straws

By David

Recently there has been an exchange of correspondence between the Otago Daily Time’s (ODT) journalist Alistair McMurran and ex-New Zealand Director of Coaching, Clive Rushton. It began on Saturday, 3 May 2014 when McMurran published an opinion piece under the provocative headline; Swimming: Absurdly strict selection policy hurting the sport. Here is a summary of what McMurran had to say;

The selection system for international events must change if New Zealand swimming is to step forward in the international arena. The system must be deemed a failure because only four able-bodied swimmers qualified for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in individual events.

The cut-throat selection policy was introduced by national coaching director Clive Rushton for the 2004 Olympic Games at Athens and has been kept in place over the last decade. The swimmers have only one chance to do the qualifying times, and this is at the national championships.

Rushton came into the job from the United Kingdom and introduced the English system to New Zealand. But he forgot one important factor. The United Kingdom, the United States and other large countries have large numbers of competitors and big budgets and can afford to lose swimmers through this system. New Zealand has only a small group of elite swimmers who are prepared to train four hours a day and 24 to 28 hours a week. It can be disheartening if they get close to the qualifying standard and get knocked back. The swimmers can lose confidence and give up and the loss of morale can affect other swimmers in the training squad. Liz van Welie and Kurt Crosland are two Otago swimmers who have been affected by the selection system.

Van Welie narrowly missed selection for the Athens Olympics in 2004 when she was just 0.09sec short of the A standard qualifying time in the 400m individual medley. Helen Norfolk (Auckland) beat the A qualifying standard with her time of 4min 44.65sec and van Welie was second in 4min 46.41sec. and well inside the B standard of 4min 49.65sec. For New Zealand to send two swimmers in the event to Athens both had to break the A standard. Van Welie could have done it but the new selection policy denied her the chance of another attempt.

Crosland, a backstroke specialist, missed the cut in the 100m by just 0.25sec at last month’s national championships. He clocked 54.88sec. The qualifying mark was 54.63sec. Swimmers have a limited window in which to do the times. Other New Zealand sports have a more reasonable approach. The cut-off date for competitors in athletics, wrestling, table tennis, badminton, gymsports, netball, weightlifting, rugby sevens and hockey is June 10.

McMurran is a better journalist than to write and publish this rubbish. Blaming the selection process for the fact that only four able bodied swimmers qualified for the Commonwealth Games is ridiculous. Eating Christians was not the fault of the lions. The shambles of Miskimmin’s centralized policy is responsible for the decline in the standard of New Zealand swimming. McMurran would be better employed using his sporting knowledge and writing skill to identify the real villain in the sport of swimming. McMurran should focus on those responsible for neglecting Crosland’s career and needs long, long before the Otago swimmer caught a flight to the Auckland trials.

But when McMurran goes on to blame Clive Rushton for the current selection rules – well that’s just asinine. For God’s sake, Clive left New Zealand six years ago. Since then the sport has been controlled by North Korean look-alikes Jan Cameron and Peter Miskimmin. Besides, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the selection policy. But, even if there was, in 2014 it’s certainly not Clive Rushton’s fault. Truth is Clive was the best Director of Coaching that New Zealand has ever had; streets ahead of Naylor, Bone, Cameron or Villanueva.

Why don’t I mind the sudden death selection rules? Well first, because they are tough and that’s good. Second, because they are certain. And that’s what coaches and swimmers need most of all. We need a stable environment in which to practise our trade. The fact that the “perform at the Nationals or stay home” rule has been in place for twenty years is one of the few areas where SNZ has lived in the real world. It is sad that McMurran should undermine one of the few good things in New Zealand swimming. And third, if you can’t swim the qualifying time, there is little prospect of winning an international event. As Lydiard would say, “David, you are there to win the bloody thing. Don’t talk to me about qualifying times.”

However before this becomes another David Wright rant – perhaps I should let Clive Rushton speak for himself. Here is his reply to the McMurran article.           

By Clive:

Alistair, long time, no hear from you. How are you? I apologize for the delay in response to your article Swimming: Absurdly strict selection policy hurting the sport but it has taken this long for the article to cross the Indian Ocean.

I don’t know whether to be hurt or feel proud that you think my decisions in 2002 (not 2004, as you wrote) are still having an effect on the sport 12 years later. I left SNZ six years ago so I don’t really think you can blame me for the “only four” (your phrase) qualifiers.

I don’t recollect the ‘cut-throat’ selection policy being an ‘English system’, but systems from around the world were undoubtedly more severe and objective than the ones being used in New Zealand when I arrived in late 2001. I wanted to make the changes as soon as I arrived but the ones for the Commonwealth Games in Manchester 2002 were already in place. You mention Helen Norfolk in your article and I’ll come onto her selection over Liz Van Welie for the Athens Olympics a little later. Helen missed out on the Manchester Games and, in my opinion, her non-qualification was solely the fault of the wishy-washy criteria in use at the time. Swimmers were given a ‘window of opportunity’ during which they could put up a qualifying performance anywhere and anytime. I think the window was five months but it may have been longer.

Helen attempted to qualify. She failed. She attempted again. She failed. And on and on it went. By the time we got to the last opportunity (New Zealand Nationals) the poor girl was a shadow of her former (and future) outstanding self. During the qualifying window she had repeatedly been traveling around the southern hemisphere, repeatedly resting for a superlative performance, and repeatedly having to deal with the disappointment and frustration of missing out. There was no gas left in the tank. I truly believe that she would have easily qualified if the opportunity had been limited to a one-shot deal; a seasoned competitor like her would have taken it in her stride and who knows what she may have been able to do in Manchester?

You rightly say, “It can be disheartening if they get close to the qualifying standard and get knocked back,” but that’s why it’s called a qualifying standard. Do it and you qualify; don’t do it and you haven’t qualified. Some people advocate for leeway but my coaching mind doesn’t work like that. How much should the leeway be? If the standard is 54.63 and a swimmer goes 54.64 is that OK? If it is, then make the standard 54.64 in the first place. How about 54.65? 54.75, 55.75 ….? If you don’t stick to published standards then you shouldn’t have standards.

There are famous examples of athletes performing well after selectors have given them the benefit of the doubt and there are many, many examples of athletes failing to perform after they have achieved agreed standards. Should selectors judge not to send someone who has qualified because ‘they’ don’t think they are up to it? Should they judge in favor of someone who has failed to achieve the agreed standard? That starts to sound like a Red Queen decision from Looking-Glass land.

Subjectivity has no place in the selection of swimmers. Rugby, netball, and other team games are a different matter. Swimming has standardized conditions and objective results mechanisms. Swim a particular time and you win. Don’t, and you lose. Simple, straightforward, honest.

Once you introduce subjectivity you open up a can of worms that can lead to all sorts of nasty, dishonest and distasteful issues with accusations of favoritism or vindictiveness being thrown around willy-nilly. Toni Jeffs was ‘non-selected’ (it was an active decision based purely on personal opinions) for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. The official reason was she was too old. Quite right too. However, six years later (and to my math that means she was way, way too old by that time), she won a medal at the Commonwealth Games. Too old? Yeah, right! Too damned outspoken, but that’s subjectivity for you.

Which brings me to the Athens Olympics when Liz was 0.09 seconds off the A standard. The inference in your article is that Swimming New Zealand should have selected Liz because she was under the B standard. What you fail to mention is that the criteria mandating that both swimmers must be under the A standard for them both to be selected was nothing to do with Swimming New Zealand. That was, and still is an International Olympic Committee rule and, as such, took precedence over anything SNZ did put in place, or could have put in place. You also suggest Liz “could have” done the A time but the [SNZ] selection policy denied her another attempt. “Could have” is a remarkable back to the future prediction, and “another attempt” would have put her outside the NZOC and IOC qualifying deadline.

Do it when you have to, not when you want to. That’s the approach all swimmers should adopt.

Best wishes to everyone at the ODT and to everyone in Otago. I miss the flume.


Clive will probably hate me for this – but with the exception of missing “the flume” I agree with every word.

  • David

    While we are discussing selection policy for the Commonwealth Games, there is one aspect of SNZ’s selection rules that is annoying. The “able-body” portion of the team is made up of only four swimmers who qualified in individual events and ten who are there to swim in a relay.

    Being SNZ of course the ten who did not qualify for an individual event will all be put in individual events when they get to Glasgow. Makes you wonder why they had individual qualifying times in the first place. Just let Layton, Renford, Villanueva and Lyles select a full complement of relays and the team would be the same. No Trials were even needed.

    But that’s not the annoying issue. What’s annoying is the constant – one rule for Layton, Renford, Villanueva and Lyles and another rule for the rest of us that characterizes everything SNZ do. They drive around in new Mazda SUVs while the rest of us struggle through in our 1972 Robin Reliants.

    In this case I am referring to the Open Championship and Age Group Championship rule that every coach in NZ must observe. This is what it says

    “Only swimmers who have met and entered at least one required individual qualifying standard in the respective competition may be entered in relay events”

    That same rule applied to Layton, Renford, Villanueva and Lyles would mean just four swimmers would be going to Glasgow. I do not understand why rules should be written to favour the Millennium Institute and penalize every club in the
    country. If there is an important principle behind this rule it should apply to
    everyone. Layton, Renford, Villanueva and Lyles should not be able to give
    themselves a softer life than the rest of us. No one should be above the law.

    Here is a list of swimmers going to Glagow who, if the event was held under the SNZ rules that club coaches must meet, would be staying home.

    MitchellDonaldson (North Shore, Auckland) 4x200m freestyle
    Dylan-Dunlop Barrett (Coast, Auckland) 4x200m freestyle relay
    Tash Hind (Capital, Wellington) 4x200m freestyle relay
    Ewan Jackson (Howick Pakuranga, Counties Manukau) 4x200m freestyle relay
    Steven Kent (Coast, Auckland) 4x200m freestyle relay
    Samantha Lee (Capital, Wellington) 4x200m freestyle relay, 4 x 100 freestyle relay
    Samantha Lucie-Smith (Capital, Wellington) 4x200m freestyle relay, 4 x 100 freestyle relay
    Laura Quilter (North Shore, Auckland) 4 x 100m freestyle relay
    Ellen Quirke (Capital, Wellington) 4 x 100m freestyle relay
    Emma Robinson (Capital, Wellington) 4x200m freestyle relay