Official Caution

By David

The subject of officials in sport is often highly charged and emotional. Fortunately New Zealand swimming has attracted more than its fair share of first class officials. Some readers may remember Beth Meade from Gisborne, Jill Vernon from Auckland and Norman Jeffs from Whakatane. These officials were beyond reproach – honest, fair and caring examples that all competitors could follow and trust. And current officials I admire include Suzanne Speer, David Jack, Jo and Alan Draisey and Tony Cooper. Although they will be horrified to learn they have made the pages of Swimwatch they do impress with their quiet application and committed service.

Not all officials share these qualities. I have written before about the disgraceful conduct of Jo Davidson. A few years ago a swimmer of mine was a warm favourite to win the New Zealand Open 200 metre breaststroke title. During the morning heats Jo Davidson took two stroke and turn officials to an underwater viewing window and was reported as telling them, “This is what you will disqualify her for in tonight’s final.” God knows how many ethical and written rules that behaviour violates. I would have thought it reason enough to incur a serious penalty. Instead Swimming New Zealand has presented Jo Davidson with all sorts of service awards and international appointments. It’s that sort of example that makes me laugh at Renford’s claim to integrity and accountability. We found out about this because a member of the pool staff overheard the conversation and let us know.

I was in the Auckland AOD room during a swim meet recently and overheard a referee say, “That official made a mistake but we will just wait and see if anyone protests.” A referee like that has no place on the side of a swimming pool. Clearly she had no thought for the swimmer improperly penalised; no concern about whether the family could afford to put $50 at risk to protest the error. Of course officials make honest mistakes and there is nothing wrong with that. The attempt to hide it is the crime.

Certainly a number of official positions place a premium on honesty and sound judgement. This is what USA Swimming has to say on the subject.

Employees and volunteers of USA Swimming, LSCs and member clubs who interact directly and frequently with athletes as a regular part of the their duties must be non-athlete members of USA Swimming and satisfactorily complete criminal background checks as required by USA Swimming.

The last CEO of Auckland Swimming, Brian Palmer, was very concerned that Auckland officials demonstrate appropriate standards of behaviour. He published a comprehensive athlete’s protection policy. This is what it had to say.

ASA and its affiliated clubs have a responsibility to ensure that appropriate policies and procedures are established to safeguard all children and its members from any threat of or form of abuse while participating in any aspect of our sport.

The responsibility for safeguarding athletes, children and young people is with all adults who play a role in their lives. This refers to all who work, directly and indirectly, with children including those responsible for the administration and coordinating of the swimming club and its activities.

It is relevant to note that both USA Swimming and Brian Palmer emphasise the relevance of interaction with the athlete. USA Swimming says, “Employees and volunteers who interact directly and frequently with athletes.” Brian Palmer says the same thing this way, “This refers to all who work, directly and indirectly, with children.”

While ethical behaviour is important everywhere, it is especially imperative for those who interact closest with participants. That is why coaches, especially in the USA, have been subject to so much scrutiny recently. Certainly some official positions involve more interaction and more sound judgement than others; the position of Inspector of Strokes and Turns for example. At every swim meet all Inspectors of Strokes and Turns are required to make dozens of decision on the validity of a swimmer’s performance. Sound judgement is at a premium. There is no room for error. Any impression of bias or dishonesty should disqualify any adult from the job of Stroke and Turns Judge.

For example I would consider it doubtful that any individual who has been sentenced to time in jail following a conviction for financial dishonesty would be suitable to act in a position requiring a high standard of ethical judgement and honesty. A resume that includes failed companies and dishonesty convictions is not what Auckland Swimming should be looking for in positions requiring the highest standards of personal behaviour.

I am aware there will be many who will argue that we all make mistakes. When an individual has been convicted and served his or her punishment it is time to move on; a time for second chances; a time to forgive and even forget. In principle that view is fair and just. Except, I would argue, when the potential employment is directly related to the conviction. A ten times drunk driver should not be driving an ambulance or a school bus no matter how many sentences he has successfully served. A convicted paedophile should not be put in charge of a children’s holiday camp no matter how many rehabilitation courses he has attended. Serial convictions for endangering the safety of an aircraft should exclude you from being a senior pilot for Air New Zealand. And I would hope that a jail term for dishonesty would exclude you from making the judgement calls required of a Stroke and Turns Judge.

I would certainly feel uncomfortable about having the stroke and turns of my swimmers subject to examination by an official whose honesty had been the subject of legal censure. Accepting an arrangement such as that would, for me, be a step too far; the beginning of a slippery slope. But, it seems, current Auckland Swimming does not see it that way. And so, like many things in this sport just now, time will tell.