Don’t Trade Authenticity For Approval

 I enjoy reading the SwimVortex website. It helps that the principal author, Craig Lord, knows the subject. He feels and cares for the sport. His opinions are informed and to the point. With mixed success he has lead crusades on shiny swim suits, drugs and incompetent administrators. His writing clearly stems from years spent immersed in the business of swimming.

I have just read an interesting editorial posted on the SwimVortex website. Here is the link

The editorial expresses Craig Lord’s concern that the popularity of swimming is declining. He gives this as an example:

This author has written on swimming for two leading British newspapers for almost 30 years and continues to do so – just not nearly as much. In all that time, 2018 will be the first year in which the budget does not stretch to justifying having the swimming writer attend the Commonwealth Games nor the European Championships in Glasgow this August. That small picture of waning coverage is repeated on a much bigger, wider canvas.

He then asks the question, “what, we ask, could stop the media flooding away; what could be attractive to a wider audience – a big day out, a healthy realm, a social occasion, a festival of inspiration?” We have, he says, been let down by domestic federations: “they have bought into the flattery, the grace and favour, the self-interest and the gravy on the train of status quo at almost all cost.” I am no expert on domestic federations around the world but that opinion of Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) is certainly true.

Craig Lord then provides a pretty detailed suggestion of a new competition format. He argues that something completely new is needed because, “the status quo and the structures of governance that exist are not set up to favour a professional swimming realm that has the interests, welfare and pockets of athletes at the top of the mission statement.” He then concludes the editorial by asking us to “criticise any of the above but better still, offer your vision and help get the swimming future debate rolling.”

Who could possibly turn down an offer as generous as that?

I could not agree more with Craig Lord’s diagnosis of the problem. I am less convinced about his suggested course of treatment. Novel fairground solutions seldom work. Swimming New Zealand has spent a fortune on a national Zone Carnival competition that is as fake as a Donald Trump press briefing. Artificial teams compete for artificial points in a competition that goes nowhere. The basic ingredient of sport that there is something at stake is missing. The whole thing is a flop. I suspect Craig’s worldwide Zone Carnival would suffer the same fate.

You see traditional swimming has one thing fairground solutions can never replicate – authenticity. They have championship titles and team selections at stake. Craig Lord acknowledges as much when he lists positive features of the current international swimming program. He says:

  • There is nothing wrong with the Olympic Games as the pinnacle of the sport.
  •  Swimming is a stronger sport for having the long-course environment as a showcase.
  • Athletes take control of your affairs or resign yourself to being a small player whose sport will never generate the kind of income required to make swimming a home for truly professional swimmers.
  • Swimming has swum more than a quarter century past the point when swimmers were able to accept payments.
  • Swimmers have been content to go with the flow and nod their caps to federations and others who hold the keys to governance.
  • Swimmers have started to grow up with Michael Phelps, at 31, setting the record for the oldest Olympic swimming champion in a solo event just before Anthony Ervin raised the bar to 35.

With these positives in mind and recognizing the importance of authenticity ahead of zonal style stunts, I would recommend reform of the existing program. Here is what I would do.


·         Select five of the leading regional championships around the world – possibly the Pan Pacific Games, the Pan American Games, the Asian Games, the European Championships and the African Games.

·         Fund these events as significant money events and have championship titles available to all nationalities. Swim each of these championships annually. Drop the current team nature of the events and open them to any individual swimmers.

·         In order to qualify for any of the five pinnacle events swimmers must compete successfully in at least four secondary national championships (for example New Zealand, Australia, UK, USA and the like) and meet a qualifying standard.

·         Commercialise the events by altering sponsorship and logo rules and allowing the promotion and consumption of alcohol.

·         Encourage the cult of personalities.

The goal is to commercialize the attraction of winning a traditional championship; a mini Olympic Games every year. There is a title that has history and meaning at stake. Because the five main events are open to all swimmers it is expected that the competitiveness that gives the Olympics such appeal will soon characterise these events – in a similar way to Wimbledon and Paris in tennis.

Primary attention will be on individuals not on teams. Sport thrives on personalities. When I was coaching Toni Jeffs, Television New Zealand used to call me in the week before the Auckland Championships to ask if Toni was going to swim. If she was, a news crew was sent out to the West Wave Pool to film her races. That does not happen these days. Why? Because the sport’s administrators demand obedience ahead of an extrovert personality.

Swimming administrators have a myriad of rules that suffocate enterprise – that control what swimmers can say, that limit what they can drink and that restrict where they can compete. There is a choice; swimming can be dull boring and obedient or interesting and popular. In New Zealand and I suspect around the world those in charge are boring, dull and obedient – think about it, would you pay to see Steve Johns do anything. Changing that is critical to changing the prosperity and popularity of the sport.



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