Don’t Believe Swimwatch? Try Fortune Magazine

By David

For ten years Swimwatch have published 100,000 words on the management chaos at Sport New Zealand and Swimming New Zealand. I have argued that the appalling standard of sport’s management in New Zealand has been directly responsible for two generations of lost New Zealand swimmers. I have no doubt that Miskimmin and Renford either discount me completely or can’t stand the mention of my name. But do I care? No. You see they are wrong; fatally wrong. You don’t believe me? Well ignore Swimwatch and read this summary of a report published in the highly respected “Fortune” magazine this week.


The secret is consistent management, according to a new study.

USA Swimming, with its 520 total Olympic medals (220 of them gold), is first among all countries—and it isn’t close. Australia, in second place, has only 171. Swimming has been among the most successful Olympic sports for the U.S. for more than 25 years. So: how is America so good at swimming?

You might be tempted to think the answer is as simple as “Michael Phelps.” But the U.S. has been dominant in the sport since long before Phelps’s first Olympics. And now the organization has produced a study that it believes explains why: management. The “excellence study,” which USA Swimming shared exclusively with Fortune, closely examines the leadership and structure of America’s swim program and concludes that it is the school (so to speak), and not any individual teacher or student, that drives the success.

For a sporting body to basically say “we win the most because we’re the best run” might sound unsurprising, and perhaps silly. But Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, is dead serious about the study and its findings. “We wanted to know,” he says, “what is USA Swimming doing so right?”

To answer that question, the U.S. Olympic Committee tapped Finbarr Kirwan, its high performance director

The study rests on the premise that consistency in structure has served American Olympic swimmers better than any one part of the program. USA Swimming’s motto is, “Build the base, promote the sport, achieve competitive success.”

You would assume all countries have the same rigid management map for their Olympic teams. But Kirwan says that’s not the case. In Ireland, he says, “people would often say that some of the athletes were succeeding despite the program, not because of it.” And it isn’t that young American amateur swimmers have more raw talent than young swimmers in other countries, either. Their talent is shaped more effectively: “The problem we had in Ireland was we couldn’t properly manage the talent,” says Kirwan. “The structured environment we have here just wasn’t in place.”

Clear definition of roles is another key to the program, and provides something of a corporate management lesson. Wielgus uses his own job as an example. He is executive director, and the coaches and athletes all know him, but he is careful to keep his sights on the business (“We’re a not-for-profit with a bottom-line orientation,” he says) and let the trainers and coaches fulfill their roles unfettered. “Performance by committee is a major mistake,” he says. “So coaches run their show, directors do their part, and it’s a separation of state.” There is also an entrepreneurial spirit among the staff.

Lochte says the program’s management structure is no lip service. “It all starts at the top, with Chuck,” he says. “We have a system. If you go to other countries, they’re going to say the same, but when it comes down to it, Team USA is just the best. And I think it’s because we have something in our system that we don’t break.”

And so back to Swimwatch – it seems the message to Miskimmin, Baumann and Renford is do whatever it is you do – but for the love of God stay out of our business. Wielgus calls it “a separation of state”. New Zealand, on the other hand practices authoritarian rule. Miskimmin has spent years interfering in areas of swimming he knows nothing about. His mismanagement infects those he hires. Just consider the arrogance of Renford, a rowing administrator, who arrived in New Zealand, did a week-long tour of some clubs and told Radio Sport that the problem with swimming was the poor standard of coaching. How would he know? Who the hell is he to decide? With management like that no wonder SNZ never gets anywhere near consistent Olympic success.

I think I might write an article for Fortune magazine. I’ve decided on the first two lines.


The secret is unreliable management, according to a new study.