Do They Know The Answer?

My previous Swimwatch story concluded with the following comment

The question is why has the sport gone 20 years with no Olympic medals? This is not a test of how well you can debate or avoid a straight answer or search for alternative facts. This is about answering a simple question that for 20 years Swimming New Zealand has avoided – possibly, maybe even probably, because they don’t know the answer.

If anybody at Antares Place reads Swimwatch I am sure they will consider that remark harsh, unreasonable and a slight on their performance. But is it? Why is it 20 years since swimming won a medal at the Olympic Games? Has anyone from Antares Place sat down and said this is what went wrong and this is what we are going to do about it? These were the mistakes and here are the changes. Have they diagnosed the disease? Have they prescribed a cure?

I decided to do a search to see whether anyone had provided an honest appraisal of the sport’s failure. But before that I must mention a comment made in the 2015 SNZ Annual Report by the then Chairman Brent Layton. This is what he said about Swimwatch.

A lowlight was the attempt by bloggers and media commentators to discredit Lauren’s 1500m freestyle record by claiming the pool was too shallow. The credibility the opinions of these bloggers deserve is clear; absolutely none.

Swimwatch has never attempted to “discredit” Lauren Boyle’s 1500m record. Swimwatch only called into question the integrity of those who signed the record application. And that was valid. The application form asked if the pool complied with all FINA minimum standards. It would have been so easy for SNZ to say “no” and to add a note explaining that the pool depth at the shallow end was below FINA minimums but clarifying that the swimmer did not receive any benefit. That way the truth would have been told and the record would have been ratified sooner. But, in my opinion, SNZ decided to tell a lie. They decided to fudge the truth with alternative facts. While Layton’s attack on the credibility of Swimwatch is flattering, the Chairman “doth protest too much, methinks.” But more important, in my view, his response illustrates a culture of deception that is not healthy for the organization.  

But back to Olympic medals: SNZ has provided very little in the way of a specific plan to turn around their dismal Olympic record. In fact the only clear guidance I can find comes from High Performance Sport New Zealand CEO, Alex Baumann. He is reported in the New Zealand Herald as saying:

They haven’t had a medal since 1996. There are potential athletes, but they have some way to go. We’re looking at the next two years to see if they can make progress. The focus has to be on the national training centres to create the right environment for athletes to succeed.

And on Stuff he said

But the key is to try and get that national training centre of excellence going and build on that and then we can take a look at them in two years.

So that’s Baumann’s solution – centralize and focus on the new pool at the Millennium Institute. It beats me how he can still promote that policy. Hasn’t he ever heard the phrase – those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it?

For two decades, through the tenure of about nine coaches brought in from all over the world and after spending $20 million the centralized High Performance Training Centre has achieved nothing. Danyon Loader never had anything to do with the high performance centre and Lauren Boyle couldn’t wait to get out of the place. The policy Baumann is pushing is a proven failure. Coach after coach has come, tried, failed and been sacked. When is the penny going to drop? The policy is wrong. Baumann is wrong. Miskimmin is wrong.

But of course these people are the SNZ paymasters. The policy they promote is never going to be questioned. And so all we get is a stream of platitudes.

Renford – bold decisions being taken and led to the development of a targeted campaign strategy aimed at improving our international performances.  

Renford again – The vision of our High Performance Strategy is: “inspirational swimmers, exciting the nation through exceptional results”.

SNZ High Performance Plan – Go Fast, Go for Excellence, Produce swimmers and coaches that are the best in the world.

But probably the most telling insight comes from Chairman Bruce Cotterill. On the 1 December 2016 he is reported in the NZ Herald to have said in reaction to the decision to reduce swimming’s government funding.

We’re still going through the process to understand the rationale. I think we’ve got the right coaching in place and a new facility [at the Millennium Institute]. The reality is the funding decision is made, but what we would like to understand is ‘why?’ and ‘what do we need to do to get back in the good books?’

Taking each of Cotterill’s points, the following comments seem obvious.

It has been three months since Cotterill said he was “going through the process to understand the rationale.” So what has he come up with? Three months is long enough for him to find out and tell us how he is going to turn SNZ around. But no, nothing, silence. Is that because Cotterill, like many before him, doesn’t understand the rationale and has no idea how to turn it around?

I suspect that might be true because the second part of Cotterill’s answer is about the eighth or ninth time a SNZ chairman has told us “the right coaching is in place”. I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the merits of that claim. In the same NZ Herald report the new national coach is quoted as saying

”Swimming’s global nature, with more than 170 countries competing in Rio, had to be put into better context. It seems that the general public in New Zealand only measure success in Olympic sports by the colour of medals. Swimming is perhaps the hardest of all Olympic sports in which a New Zealander can succeed. There are no other Olympic sports with [swimming’s] depth and breadth of talent, so we understand what a top-16 and a top-8 performance means.”

All that sounds horribly like making excuses for failure. Of course it’s hard. That’s why you are there Jerry Olszewski. That’s why you are paid the big bucks. I’ve met and talked swimming to quite a few coaches of Olympic medal winners in my time. Even I have coached a world championship medallist and never once have I heard or thought this sort of negativity. If the job’s too big, Jerry, go back to club swimming in Arizona.

And finally Cotterill refers to SNZ’s “new facility” as though that has some relevance. It does not of course. I have been coaching for a year in a country with many swimming problems in spite of having three pools that make the Millennium Pool look like something made by Para Rubber and bought for $19.99 from the Warehouse.

So what is the conclusion? The Government has ordered that the plan is still the centralized high performance Millennium model. Cotterill is on a mission to find out what that means but in the meantime SNZ are going to put their trust in another foreign coach and a new swimming pool.

And it will not work. Swimwatch has presented a winning alternative designed, tested and proven by Arthur Lydiard in Finland. But SNZ knows better. For 20 years they have known better.