Bigger Barns

The title of this post refers to the Biblical parable known as the “Parable of the Rich Fool. It refers to the foolishness of a rich man who constantly builds bigger and bigger barns only to die without receiving any benefit. Donald Trump is a classic example of the parable of the rich fool. But so is New Zealand sport.

This thought was highlighted by a recent Sports Tribunal of New Zealand decision. The Tribunal ruled on a case where the New Zealand drug agency had convicted a recreational athlete of a drug offence. The person involved was a member of his local surf club as a result of a donation he had made to the club. He also played recreational golf. On that basis the NZ drug agency decided it had jurisdiction and convicted him of a steroid offense.

In a majority decision the Tribunal ruled that membership of a club alone bound everyone to the sport’s anti-doping rules, irrespective of whether the individual actually competed in a sporting event. The New Zealand drug agency was given approval to expand the definition of athlete to include recreational players.

I am in two minds. On the one hand I agree there has to be absolute and uncompromising policing of drug cheats. We cannot tolerate Sun Yang type episodes. On the other hand I wonder whether the New Zealand drug agency’s resources could be better applied than chasing down Sunday morning golf players.

If I had to rule on the case I probably would agree the drug agency should have the widest possible definition of athlete but should avoid prosecuting Tuesday night ping-pong player from Katikati. There are enough problems at the elite level of New Zealand sport to occupy the drug agency’s time and money. Who was getting away with what at the elite level while drug agency people were occupied with a charity member of a surf club? The agency should have the freedom to build bigger barns but should focus on what they have got already.

But the aspect of the Sports Tribunal case that did interest me was the push towards building a bigger empire. It is not only the drug agency that’s into that game. That is happening everywhere in sport. Upstart Ron Brierleys are seeking to build empires all over the place. None of them are in Ron Brierley’s league of course, especially not swimming’s Steve Johns, but that does not stop them trying.

Take swimming as an example. The attraction of bigger barns has been front and centre. While the existing barn is leaking and falling to bits, and in serious need of repair, Chairman Cotterill and CEO Johns are out looking for sites to build a bigger barn. You’d have to wait a long time to see Ron Brierley make that mistake. But that’s swimming for you.

Take the “teach the teachers” program. In his 2012 Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) Review, Chris Moller recommended that SNZ drop this function. It was one of the few Moller recommendations that I agreed with. There are far better private sector swimming organisations capable of teaching the teachers. Certainly it is a job for private enterprise not the occupants of Antares Place. But, of course SNZ needs a bigger barn. There was no way it is going to abandon “teach the teachers” even if Judith Wright, Gwen Ryan, Liz van Wellie, Rachael Johns and several others could do it better. Here is the only explanation we have had from SNZ.

The exceptions are Learn to Swim, where the Board of Swimming New Zealand explored all of the options available to it, and, for rational and justifiable reasons, chose to retain the “teach the teachers” programme as a separate business unit at that time

I call it an “explanation” but it is not. “For rational and justifiable reasons” does not explain or justify anything. What are the rational and justifiable reasons? If the Board is going to ride roughshod over the Moller Report that was approved by the membership, at a General Meeting, we have a right to know the details of the rational and justifiable reasons – or are they, as I suspect, just a case of wanting a bigger barn?

Of course the whole centralised training policy was based on building a bigger barn. SNZ saw itself as taking over the preparation of New Zealand’s best swimmers from private enterprise clubs. For ten years SNZ stripped money and talent away from New Zealand clubs and spent a fortune on coaching in Antares Place. It never worked. In fact New Zealand’s best swimmer at the time, Lauren Boyle, couldn’t wait to get out of that particular barn.

Her decision to leave could well have been the cause of the SNZ decision to abandon centralised training. Lauren Boyle may have lit the fire that eventually burnt down the SNZ barn. Well done and thank you Lauren.

Sadly the Francis Folly that replaced centralised training is just as bad. A North Shore age-group coach has been employed to organise elite training camps and wander around New Zealand telling good coaches how to prepare champion swimmers. Francis is just another SNZ barn, hopefully one that never has anything to do with any product of mine.

And finally SNZ’s, not so subtle, attempt to take over para-swimming is a classic bigger barn move. The clear motive is to latch-on to the spectacular success of Sophie Pascoe and others. Instead of saying SNZ won one bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games the organisation can distort the truth by claiming Sophie Pascoe’s two gold medals. The most recent step in the expansion into para-swimming is the cynical appointment of a para-swimming staff member. When SNZ run their core business so badly I have no idea why anyone would think SNZ taking over anything else was a good idea.

However the central problem with SNZ’s history of barn building is the distraction it causes. SNZ has a core business that is failing. Membership is DOWN. Income is DOWN. Government support is DOWN. Competitive results are DOWN. Without question the distraction of ventures into learn-to-swim, elite coaching and para-swimming have played a role in SNZ’s disastrous performance in its core business.

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