Official Information Act

There has been a lively debate on the “NZSwim” Facebook page on the subject of New Zealand swimming officials. The table below shows comments made on the subject.

NZSwim So officials are misbehaving at the Harlequins Junior Festival. A shocked parent writes:

“We had terrible experience today from JOS (Judge of Stroke) . Not only kids but also young coaches were almost abused by these 2 females and another male representative of Auckland swimming. Shocking! Swimmers were growled at and quite often pushed by these 2 females. I hope someone will put an official complaint.”

Jeremy Chick Tasker Judging on results the Harlequin’s got compared to every other region, the officials must’ve been doing something right. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from them?
NZSwim Do you really believe its the standard of officials that have a bearing on results? Maybe their coaches and swimmers are doing something right – perhaps other zones’ coaches and swimmers can learn a thing or two from them? Based on your rationale Jeremy Chick Tasker, Aussie officials must be superb compared to officials in most other countries. Surely you can’t be serious.

I confess this is not a subject that I give much thought. Officials are what they are – good or bad. My job, as a coach, is to teach swimmers to follow the rules. With that done, we all have to work with the cards that the sport deals. When decisions are made that seem wrong they must be quickly accepted. It is more important to move on than spend time worrying about the actions of officials. In thirty years of being a coach I have protested an official’s decision on five occasions. I have lost one and won four. The one I lost was a protest about the depth of the Kilbirnie Pool. I might have lost that protest but they did change the pool. I’m still waiting for Swimming New Zealand to refund my protest fee.

While the behaviour of officials is not of much personal interest, it does not mean I do not have an opinion on their actions. I have been fortunate enough to attend swim meets in all sorts of countries, countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, Monaco, Jamaica,  Majorca, Barbados, the UK, the USA, China, Spain, France, Holland, Sweden, Germany, Russia, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.

I guess the questions posed by the Facebook posts are: is there a difference between the officiating around the world and, if there is a difference, does it affect the standard of swimming? Is there a relationship between the actions of officials and the standard of swimming?

In my opinion the answers to those questions is – yes, the standard of officiating around the world is extremely uneven. And second – yes, the actions of officials do have an effect on the success of the sport. In other words Jeremy Chick Tasker, I think you are right.

But is there any evidence to support that opinion or is it just anecdotal observation?

Example One

A few years ago I took our club team to Australia for the New South Wales Championships. It was a good team and included New Zealand champions Toni Jeffs and Nichola Chellingworth. Future national champion and representative Jane Copland was eleven years old when she went on her first visit. I thought 13 years and under swimmers were included and entered Jane in all the breaststroke races. When we arrived I was unable to find her name in the program. I went to the Meet Director to find out why. His investigation discovered that their computer had rejected Jane’s entries because of her age.

“Oh,” said the Meet Director, “You made a mistake with Jane’s age. She’s actually 13 isn’t she?

“She is my daughter. She is 11,” I said.

“I don’t think you understand. She is 13, isn’t she?” he asked again.

“Oh, of course, yes, she is 13.” I agreed.

Jane ended up swimming in the New South Wales Championships 13 year old events as and eleven, twelve and thirteen year old. You’d struggle to see that happen in New Zealand and maybe in part is why Australia’s swimming is so much better than ours.

Example Two

I keep a petty detailed record of the races swum by swimmers I coach. The table below shows the number of races swum by Jane Copland throughout her swimming career, the number swum overseas and the number swum in New Zealand. The number of times she was disqualified is also shown.

Race Location Number of Races Number of Disqualifications
Domestic in New Zealand 442 11
Overseas 418 1
Total 860 12

As you can see the number of races is close to 50/50 here and overseas and yet Jane was disqualified eleven times more often in New Zealand than overseas. I don’t believe for a moment that was because Jane was a better swimmer in Europe and the United States than in New Zealand. The reason was because the judging was different. Swimmers are going to be miles happier staying in a sport where the chances of being disqualified are 1 in 400 rather than 11 in 400.

Example Three

The table below compares the disqualification rates for two good size swim meets in New Zealand with a very big swim meet in Florida, USA. All three meets cover all the age groups from junior swimmers to open competitors.

Meet No of Swims DQs % DQs
Fort Lauderdale Invite Florida USA 5,610 35 0.6%
Anthony Mosse Meet Auckland NZ 2,067 82 6.5%
Counties Championships NZ 1,772 60 5.5%

Well, isn’t that a telling comparison. The American meet is huge, two or three times the size of the New Zealand meets and yet the disqualifications are less than half. Swimmers are 9 or 10 times more likely to be disqualified in New Zealand than in the United States. In Florida swimmers were disqualified once in every 160 swims. In New Zealand the odds reduced to one in 27 swims.   And no one should attempt to argue that America’s young swimmers are less likely to break the rules than New Zealand swimmers or American swimmers are better coached. Neither of those things is true. For example I coached exactly the same way in Florida as in New Zealand. And yet my disqualification rates were very different. On five occasions I have been to the Florida meet, American officials are not letting swimmers away with breaking the rules. American judges simply interpret and apply the rules better. The standard of judging could well be a factor in the American’s successful swim culture.

Example Four

There are one or two really poor officials in New Zealand; bad apples that affect the whole barrel.

For example, I had to protest a senior official who took referees down to the underwater viewing windows during an open national championship heat at the West Wave pool and instructed them to disqualify one of my swimmers, in the finals, for a fault she thought she saw. That was just flat out cheating. The swimmer won the final.

On another occasion, in Hawkes Bay, Jane Copland’s photograph was posted on the Onekawa Pool notice board. She had just set a NZ open 200 breaststroke record. One morning I noticed a senior Hawkes Bay official, who I also knew did not like me, standing in front of the picture. She turned quickly and walked out of the building. I was suspicious and walked across to the notice board. Sure enough the photograph was gone. The Pool Manager found it in a rubbish bin outside the pool. The official’s fingernail scratches were down the side of Jane’s face as she clawed the photograph off the wall.

I do not mean to suggest all officials are bad. I’ve known some stunningly good officials. Jo Draisey Jill Vernon, Beth Meade, Jeannie and Geoff Sibun and Jay Thomas were and are as good as any in the world. But taking Jeremy Chick Tasker’s point – yes good officials do make a difference. And yes, I agree, “Maybe we could learn a thing or two from them?”

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