A Mirror Image

I have written before about the importance of the Asian Games to the Saudi Arabia Swimming Federation. Saudi swimmers are not fast enough to compete successfully at the Olympic Games and so the Asian Games are their Olympics. While I was coaching in Saudi Arabia the message coming from the Head Office was a constant and desperate litany of pleas for Asian success. I was told future funding decisions were going to depend on the results. I had to wave my western coaching wand and come up with Asian winners.

It was never going to happen of course. The standard of administration had much in common with Swimming New Zealand; the blind leading those unable to see. But unlike New Zealand the standard of Saudi coaching was also terrible. New Zealand has a good coaching infrastructure; educated and experienced coaches are all that is saving the sport from terminal disaster. Saudi had the worst of both worlds; bad administrators and bad coaches.

When I arrived in Jeddah, so-called national swimmers were training about 15 kilometres a week. I know that mileage is not everything but 15 kilometres no matter what the 15 kilometres involves is always going to be inadequate. The best swimmer in Saudi was Eyad Masoud. When I came back to New Zealand Eyad came too and applied for and was granted New Zealand refugee status. In six months his training mileage went from 15 kilometres to 70 kilometres and his best 100m freestyle improved from 59 to 53. That happened, not because of brilliant coaching, but because the guy was given a chance that would never have been possible in the desert that is Saudi swimming.

In spite of the fact that the Federation was run by a New Zealander it remained backward and ineffective. The administration, including the New Zealander, operated a classic “cargo-cult” regime. By that I mean Saudi Arabia has much in common with the movement first described in Melanesia which encompassed a range of practices that occurred in the wake of contact with more technologically advanced societies. The name derived from the belief which began among Melanesians in the late 19th and early 20th century that various ritualistic acts such as the building of an airplane runway will result in the appearance of material wealth, particularly highly desirable Western goods (i.e., “cargo”), via Western airplanes.

The expression of cargo-cult in Saudi swimming was given form in their construction of three identical German Olympic Aquatic Centres. The logic seemed to be if they built the best pools the best swimmers would follow. They send teams to exotic locations for training camps. But always there was the impression that they believed that the location alone is going to result in swimming success. They build first class weight rooms, cold water treatment baths, saunas and massage rooms that lie waiting for champions to appear. Their whole approach to training champion swimmers is brilliantly illustrated by the fact that all their “western” pools are built with changing and toilet facilities for women – but of course women, in Saudi Arabia, are not allowed to swim. Plenty of toilets – just no women.

They have everything a swimming champion could possibly need but no one who knows how to use any of it. And the boss, a New Zealander, should have known better. Instead of addressing the reality problem he wasted thousands trying to convince the world that poor learn-to-swim was the cause of Saudi Arabia’s competitive woes. What a load of rubbish.

When I left Saudi Arabia I wrote a 5000 word report for the federation. Its purpose was to address the performance shortcomings. It made 10 recommendations.

Recommendation One – Continue to promote Sibaha Learn to Swim
The program is good but should be simplified in order to allow more independent schools to become Sibaha compliant. The policy should aim to spread the Sibaha initiative and not make it so exclusive that no one can qualify.
Recommendation Two – Abandon the SASF involvement in direct learn to swim and focus on promoting independent Sibaha compliant swim schools.
The SASF is best involved in promoting and policing the business of swimming. Independent private contractors can be responsible for day to day operations. By focusing on and lifting the standards of private operators the SASF will be more effective.
Recommendation Three – Abolish short term foreign coaching and foreign training camps
KSA swimming must be run by KSA people. Bringing in a foreigner once a year is not going to do that. The function required is to turn KSA based coaches into international coaches capable of high performance coaching.
Recommendation Four – Appoint a Head Coach with a new role
Appoint a coach with responsibility to coach KSA coaches – to improve the coaching environment and performance and to tutor KSA coaches in the importance of a 40/20/40 aerobic, anaerobic and speed training balance
Recommendation Five – Change amount of work
Introduce minimum weekly training distances and introduce penalties for non-compliance and rewards for compliance.
Recommendation Six – More competition
Make available a racing program of about 100 races per annum. Introduce two national championships and an inter-city league championship
Recommendation Seven – Website, Records and Results
Design an effective website that provides swimmers with current and relevant information and news and especially prepare national age group and open swimming records.
Recommendation Eight – Involve non-KSA born swimmers
Investigate with the KSA Olympic Committee, FINA and other KSA government agencies the practicality of allowing non-born Saudi residents to be members of KSA national swim teams.
Recommendation Nine – A coach driven environment
Undertake initiatives recommended that promote the importance and responsibilities associated with coaching in the KSA. To produce a coach driven sport.
Recommendation Ten – The involvement of women
Investigate with the KSA Olympic Committee and other KSA government agencies the practicality of allowing women to swim and to be members of KSA national swim teams.

Of course nothing has been done. The New Zealand CEO has gone but the problems remain the same. The Asia Games are now just a few months away. They begin on 8 August in Indonesia. We will soon see whether all that spending has bought them a result. Like New Zealand I think you will find the answer is no – and ironically for many of the same reasons. We must not mock. New Zealand swimming has its own cargo-cult. And while we do, the planes of success will not land here either. Something tribal chiefs Cotterill and Johns will never understand.

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