Archive for June, 2007

Make Good Choices

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

The IOC should really do something about controlling who swims at the Olympic Games. FINA should look at the World Championships and major regional meets as well. It is outrageous that the third fastest swimmer in the United States sits at home while some swimmer who’d not qualify for a U.S. State Championship happily adds “Olympic athlete” to his or her resume.

For years two Virgin Island families have had a huge influence on how swimming is run down there. They allowed many local swimmers to accumulate swimming resumes the rest of us can only wonder at: Olympics, World Championships, Central American and Caribbean Games and Pan American Games. You name it; they went there.

I want to stress there was never anything improper in their attendance. The system’s rules allowed it and the influence of their parents ensured it happened. My point is only, should it have been allowed? I’ve helped breaststrokers 20 seconds faster than the Virgin Island version. One of them actually became eligible to compete for the Virgin Islands and won a Caribbean Island’s Championships in a record time. We exploited a loophole in the rules to do it, but nothing all that different from what goes on in these small nations all the time. Shortly after the Championships the rules were changed to make sure we never got away with that again. It seemed to me to be another example of protecting their privileged isolation.

Is it right that small nations can send these swimmers to major events because of where they were born while genuinely world class, potential winners sit at home unable to even enter? It was Rhi who gave me the idea for this article. She told me recently about a friend, Hayley McGregory at USC, who was third in the 100 and the 200 backstroke at the last US Olympic Trials (1:01.94 and 2:13.24). Wouldn’t that be enough to break your heart? No one can tell me she shouldn’t have been at the Games in Athens. At her worst, she would have made the semi-finals in both events. There are probably many of you who can give similar examples: Pablo Moralas in the men’s 100 fly, for example. I just hope McGregory can lift herself to another effort at next year’s trials. No one would deserve it more.

Alternatively she could take a quick trip to the Virgin Islands and chat up one of the power families. That way she wouldn’t even need to swim a trial and she’d be on the plane to Beijing.

I’m not sure how to solve all this. I think what I’d do is leave things as they are, but add a provision that the world’s top-twenty ranked swimmers would receive automatic entry. As world rankings are changing all the time, the IOC or FINA would have to set a date at which the top-twenty would be taken. At least that way, the semi-finals and finals would be a contest between the worlds’s best swimmers. How many would this add to already over populated Games? The table below shows the extra numbers if this was done right now.

50 FR 1 4
100 FR 1 3
200 FR 2 2
400 FR 2 1
800 /1500 FR 0 4
100 BK 0 4
200 BK 3 4
100 BR 2 6
200 BR 1 6
100 FLY 3 3
200 FLY 2 3
200 IM 3 5
400 IM 3 5
TOTAL 23 50

So, the Games would be overcrowded by another 73 athletes. At least the competition would be an honest one, among the world’s best swimmers. A way to cut down the number of entrants would be to set a world-rankings cut-off point at which athletes were not longer allowed to enter. You’d annoy a fair number of people, however. You’d upset the balance that has existed in countries such as the Virgin Islands for quite some time.

One delightful Virgin Island’s moment did involve the patriarch of one of the families. We were sitting around at a Virgin Islands Swimming Federation meeting discussing whether to use the FINA points system as a method of evaluation. The patriarch fumbled in his briefcase and produced some photocopied sheets. This, he said, was an article he’d found on the internet about the use of the FINA points table. He recommended we read it. He said I might be interested as the article was from New Zealand. A quick look revealed that his discovery was an article from Swimwatch that I’d written about a year earlier. I’m a coward; I never said a word.

The matriarch side of both families had a standard answer to every suggested reform, “Oh we’ve never done it that way before,” they said. I began to wonder whether this place – a U.S. colony – was the same country that had put a man on the moon. Arriving on the mainland U.S. assured me that, in fact, it wasn’t.

Whatever happens, something needs to be done to avoid so many of the world’s best swimmers sitting at home watching a race they could win take place on television. The Games should be about determining who are the world’s fastest swimmers. While so many good athletes are left at home, the Olympics are failing to do that. For example, the selection of US professional basketball players at Barcelona in 1992 has had a beneficial effect on basketball world wide. It forced recognition of what world-class actually meant. The standard of the game went up everywhere.

Now, you may say that the above is not in the spirit of the Olympics, but this takes place at World Championships and many other international meets. If you must leave the Olympics the way they are, at least take a look at every other meet on the international calendar. At least some of these world-class sporting events need to take a look at the way they’re conducted and to whom they open their doors.

Rugby, Racing and Beer

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

(A New Zealand song that includes the lines, “Down under they’re mad over their rugby, racing and beer.”)

By David

In New Zealand, rugby is everything. It has the sporting importance that football, basketball and baseball combined have in the United States. On the 20th June 1987 New Zealand’s national team, the All Blacks, beat France to win the first rugby World Championship. Since then they have played 267 matches and won 224. They’ve lost 38 and drawn 5. That’s a win record of 84%, by any standards a dominating performance.

The All Blacks have been to four World Championships since 1987; they are held every four years. In every one New Zealand has failed to win. A 100% loss record, by any standards a devastating performance. The next World Championships are this year in France. New Zealand will be beaten again.

New Zealand has produced some fearsome competitors. Men and women who it seems have used their home’s smallness to construct an invincible hardness. Sir Edmund Hillary has it. So does Russell Coutts, Brian Lahore, Peter Snell, John Walker, Susan Devoy and quite a few tough and proud others. I hope like hell Dean Barker, the captain of the New Zealand’s America’s Cup challenge being sailed off the coast of Spain just now, has it too.

Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen the current coaching staff of the All Black team do not. Neither, incidentally does New Zealand’s national swimming coach, Jan Cameron. They fall into a group who are also affected by their nation’s size. A group who when the chips are down, when the rest of the world is stacked against them, choke because they are too small to win.

How do I know this? Two reasons; because they’ve always lost before and they make the classic error of weak people, they change their preparation before the big event.

I read a very good article recently by John Leonard, the boss of the American Swim Coaches Association. In it he argued that in a new situation a coach’s success or failure is likely to take three years to emerge. The first year is a honeymoon period where everyone loves everyone, the second year sorts out who wants to be there and who doesn’t and by year three everyone should have a pretty good idea of what the new coach is all about.

That’s how it worked in All Blacks’ Head Coach; Graham Henry’s only other international coaching job. He arrived in Wales billed as the savior, the Great Redeemer of Welsh rugby and took the team on a 10-match winning streak. He left three and a half years later, ultimately a failure.

And now he’s been the All Blacks coach for three years and cracks are beginning to appear. There are good players leaving to play for foreign clubs. Assistant Coach Wayne Smith thought the problem serious enough to say, “”It’s a major issue that we need to address as a country. It’s not just the Rugby Union who can come up with the answers – the whole country, including the Government, needs to be part of the solution.” What on earth has the Government got to do with playing rugby? I can’t imagine the Cowboys asking George Bush to take Terrell Owens for catching practice.

But worst of all Henry decided to change the preparation of his players. In his first two successful years they played a full part in a competition called the Super 14. This year he rested them through most of the Super 14 in preparation for the World Championships. It may work but it’s not good coaching; something that new and untried before the Championships. Henry should know better, but clearly doesn’t.

As the World Championships get nearer these coaching errors will magnify. Eventually they will be fatal. In the semi-finals or maybe the finals, South Africa, England or, God-save-us, Australia will exploit the indecision and roll past the world’s best rugby team.

A good coach like Lydiard would not make Henry’s errors. He wouldn’t ask the Government to select his team. He’d pick the best players wherever in the world they played and if his team were beating everyone in sight he sure as hell would not invent some new program for them just before the World Championships. He would not let the occasion get the better of him.

How do I know?

Because he spent a valuable afternoon telling me what an idiot I’d been changing Toni Jeffs preparation just before the Barcelona Games. I managed to snatch failure out of the jaws of success. My guess is Henry will soon share that not so wonderful experience. What is a mystery is why Henry is repeating the errors he made in Wales. It appears he does not understand the logic of Einstein, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” But he soon will understand.

Content Based Regulation

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

By David

It’s becoming really difficult to write for Swimwatch. Our comments pages are full of editorial instructions limiting what we can write. While America’s founding fathers probably didn’t have the internet in mind when they came up with the First Amendment, their efforts are a welcome protection from the excesses of some.

In a series of decisions America’s Supreme Court has provided added protection. In the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Association, Inc. v. Bresler, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell and Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., the Court has defined “actual malice”, we have none and hyperbole, we have plenty.

Let me give you some examples; although even this carries risk. Invariable the use of an example prompts some to scream, “Why are you bringing that up again.” The answer is because it illustrates some point. I would not have thought you needed that explained.

A few years ago Swimwatch published a report on the Auckland Regional Swimming Championships. You may still find it our archives. In it we suggested that Dean Kent, one of New Zealand’s best swimmers, would improve his medley with more work on his freestyle. The next morning we received an irate email from Kent saying we did not have permission to use his name and we were never to do so again. The current American President has shown he is capable of trampling over quite a few of our civil rights. This week I see he even said the names of people visiting the Vice President are a White House secret. But even George W. Bush has not been able to stop the most humble of websites from mentioning his name.

Others that surprise are those who claim ownership. We have written a couple of stories to illustrate certain points. Careful attention was paid to not mention anyone’s name. Names seldom add anything. It’s the events that are of interest. And yet, within hours of publication the people whose names we carefully omitted are posting comments along the lines of, “Hey, it’s me he’s talking about and he shouldn’t!” In some instances, the stories have not been flattering. However, no one on God’s earth knew it was them until they claimed the title. If I read something about myself that did not paint me in a good light, yet left out my name, the last thing I’d do is belly-up to the comments section.

I am amused by respondents who begin their comments with an explanation of their busy lives; much too busy to waste time writing on the internet. Invariably these industrious souls then spend a week writing pages of comments, far longer than the piece that began the process.

The real classics, however, are those who claim Swimwatch is full of lies. Some do it politely; others demand a meeting and some are as insulting as all hell. One young lady referred to one article as “bull crap, all of it, bloody bull crap.” Another reader is forever accusing the site of “telling lies.” The problem is they never identify the lies or in the young lady’s case, the bloody bull crap. What are they saying? Do they think the episode with the old German ladies in France didn’t happen? Do they think I had a glass of wine with two Bavarian ghosts? Are they saying I made up the graph of 500 yard times? I do not mind owning up to mistakes and sincerely apologizing. But if you are going to call me for lying please tell me which bit is the lie. You may recall Rhi Jeffrey asking one “you’re-telling-lies” reader to explain her/himself. Unsurprisingly, s/he never replied.

The Mayor of Napier in New Zealand, Barbara Arnott, hated Swimwatch; probably with good cause. We called her out on some pretty shady deals. We took her staff to court and lost only because the court said it did not have jurisdiction. Part way through the clash she called me into her office for a meeting to discuss our differences. She began by telling me she had never read Swimwatch. As the meeting went on her descriptions and knowledge of things that had appeared on became truly miraculous. She remembered things I’d long since forgotten. She was right, she had never read Swimwatch; she’d studied the bloody thing one word at a time. I was tempted to ask if she wanted us to post her each week’s article in a plain brown envelope.

There are also many really good responses. For those we thank you. People like Jay Thomas have added value by expressing a legitimate view without malice. It’s a skill, being able to debate without malevolence. It’s something we should all work on, but it becomes difficult when faced with a computer screen and a “publish comment” button.

Finally, I’d like to direct you to a post we wrote about this a few years ago. It covers similar ground as this one does today, but it amuses me that four years have passed and people’s online behaviour has not changed much at all.