Attitude Not Altitude

The phrase “attitude not altitude” was first used by Arthur Lydiard. He was unconvinced about the value of short term trips to altitude. Of course he accepted that athletes who live at high altitude or athletes who spend months or even years in high altitude camps will benefit. But Arthur is right, there is no evidence to support the idea that two or three weeks at a high altitude resort three months before a major competition will have any performance benefits.

But in spite of that, Jerry Olszewski, the American Age Group Coach, who is now Swimming New Zealand’s National Coach has convinced the Board of Swimming New Zealand to fund a high altitude training camp in Jerry’s home state, Arizona. The team will be there for two weeks and will then compete in the Mission Viejo Swim meet in California. Three months later this high altitude honed group will represent the Board of Swimming New Zealand in the World Swimming Championships.

What a terrible joke this has become. It is the sort of waste we see in third world Federations where appearance has more value than substance. Saudi Arabia is a classic example of the malaise. The country has three of the world’s best swimming pools and yet happily wastes hundreds of thousands of oil dollars sending athletes to training camps in Egypt, or Australia or New Zealand. Why?   

Well the reason is simple. For third world administrators, and that’s what they are in Saudi Arabia and New Zealand, looking and sounding good is what is important. Just think how much better Swimming New Zealand’s report to Peter Miskimmin sounds describing an Arizona high altitude camp compared to three week’s training at the Millennium Institute; Cotterill looks better and Cotterill sounds more important. In my opinion the decisions of the CEO of Saudi Arabian Swimming and the Chairman of Swimming New Zealand suffer from the same cult of ego.

Two weeks at high altitude in Arizona will be of no benefit. Well that’s not quite true. Jerry gets a paid two week trip back to his home state. So that’s good.

But for the New Zealand swimmers, on their way to Arizona, the science of swimming seems to be conclusive. In a defining study on the subject Dr A Baker from California and Dr W Hopkins from Otago University say;     

“The best duration of stay at altitude is uncertain, but the concentration of blood erythropoietin rises in the first day at an altitude.  After two weeks it is still high, but declining.  Conclusion: three or four weeks is long enough for one stay. 

We expect the benefits to begin to wane by the end of the second month after altitude exposure, and to have disappeared completely after three or four months.”

These findings plus the accepted principle that acclimatizing to high altitude can take three to six weeks conclusively tell us that a plan to spend two weeks in Arizona followed by three months back at sea level will have no effect on the performance of the New Zealand team in the Budapest World Championships. The Board of Swimming New Zealand will have wasted another $100,000.

This farce is not a problem caused by New Zealand’s local coaches or by New Zealand’s swimmers. If the results reflect bad decisions like the one to travel to Arizona, the buck for New Zealand’s poor performance stops at Cotterill and his Board. They made the decision to employ an Arizona age group coach and they accepted the recommendation to swan off to a high altitude camp in the United States. It is about time responsibility for the problems being experienced in swimming were accepted by the guilty.

In the past coaches have been made redundant and swimmers have been ostracised. Recently Gary and Donn lost their jobs. There was not enough money to pay them but plenty to spend on a fool’s errand up a mountain in the United States. In 2012 the Board of Swimming New Zealand was vested with huge powers. The buck stops with them. They are responsible. And if the results of this big spend-up are as negative as I expect, then decency demands that they move aside. Hopefully their replacements will know better than to spend money on this sort of folly.

I imagine some of you are thinking, “There he goes again; another way over the top suggestion.” But is it really? These are important decisions. They have cost the sport millions and two generations of swimmers have lost their careers. They are decisions that matter. Remember when Swimming New Zealand carted the country’s swimmers around every Mediterranean resort on a training trip before the London Olympic Games. That was a waste similar to this one. But those responsible escaped all censure. Only when the Board accept and acknowledge fault will things improve. So no, I do not think expecting the Board to stand down is way over the top at all.       

But there is a glimmer of hope. I was at the Millennium Pool this week. I was reading my phone when someone said, “Hello David. How are you?” I looked up to see Lauren Boyle. She said she had not gone to Arizona and was instead recovering from injury and preparing at the Millennium Pool. All I could think was, “What a sensible decision.”

I hope Lauren swims well in Budapest. Primarily because she is a class swimmer and a class person. But also because her decision to stay in Auckland, surrounded by her family and friends is the way champions do things. You see Lauren Boyle does not suffer from the slightest personality of ego. She is well grounded and has been hugely successful as a result. The Board of Swimming New Zealand would do well to learn from her example.

But for this Board it is too late. After Budapest they should step aside and let those as grounded as Boyle assume responsibility for the organization.      

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