Notes on Sweetenham Leaving Britain

By David

The Australian Sweetenham is on his way: back home to Australia, and before the job is done. He was employed to be Britain’s National Coach, to lift the country’s swimming fortunes through to the Beijing Olympic Games. With a year to go, he’s decided to cut and run. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that his father has just died and his mother is seriously ill. Remember though, this is the guy who called on Britain’s finest swimmers to give their all in the name of success in Beijing. Sweetenham was quite happy to call into question the application of some of Britain’s finest swimmers. He was perfectly happy to demand that Britain’s finest swimmers spend their Christmas at a training camp in Wales as opposed to… anywhere else. World record holders with fantastic careers like Mark Foster and Zoe Baker got the rough edge of Sweetenham’s tongue as he slated their training habits and questioned their loyalty.

Many coaches have had to deal with difficult family problems: Tony Dungy, Head Coach of the Indianapolis Colts, for example. Faced with these problems, Sweetenham decided to run up a white flag. Dungy, in much more difficult circumstances, battled on and won the superbowl.

As soon as the going got tough for Sweetenham, as soon as wife, children and family wanted him back in Australia he was out of there, on his way home; do what I say, not what I do, was his message. He was quick to caustically demand application, work and loyalty from others, but not so tough when it came stumping up with the same commitment himself. Is Sweetenham simply a schoolyard bully? Is he a man of little substance? Were the athletes he abused actually the ones with character? Did he take cheap shots at men and women who did not deserve his abuse? He has left someone else to front the big test, which suggests these are legitimate and outstanding questions.

But Sweetenham’s has provided us all with one lasting and important legacy. He has given every aspiring international coach an object lesson in how a foreigner should not act in a strange land.

The first duty of a foreign coach is to learn and understand the culture of his or her new home. If Sweetenham’s family stayed in Australia for the seven years he was in Britain, it sounds like Britain was never his home. Therefore, and although we did not know it at the time, the game was lost before it began. Sweetenham’s task was to use his experience to accentuate Britain’s strengths. His task was not to convert Britain into a copy of Australia. This was Sweetenham’s mistake and was at the heart of Sharon Davis’ criticism. Britain did not need to be colonized in reverse. Aggressive Australian coaches such as Sweetenham and Talbot are fine in Australia; in fact they’re quite fun and highly successful. Their less than polite behavior and “call a spade a bloody shovel” attitude are understood and accepted “down-under”. But Britain is not “down-under” and it never will be.

Britain is Britain. There are many types of person in Britain, but they are not Australians. There are the loud, loutish Brits, but they’re still a different breed of person and a different type of athlete. There and there are the reserved, quiet Brits, who are not Germans and are not Kiwis. Coaches like Terry Denison, legendary City of Leeds coach, knew how to get the best out of British swimmers. There were others who knew how to do the same thing. The land of Wells, Ovett, Coe, Drake, Raleigh, Wilkie, Christie, Churchill and William Wallace do not need to be told by some upstart Australian how to win. The upstart Australian though, needed to learn that the British way of winning is different from the Australian or American way. Done properly, the British way is just as effective; but different.

Sweetenham’s job was to take care of the “doing it properly” bit, not convert Britain into an Australian or American clone. Australian sport can be brash and crass. There is a petulant arrogance about much that they do. The rugby player, George Greegan’s taunting call of, “Four more years,” to the New Zealand team after Australia beat New Zealand in the 2003 world rugby cup is pretty typical. American sport is full of rehearsed cheers and idealized ritual.

None of these things are British. Neither are they necessary components of winning. British athletes of all codes have proven over and over again that they can win, but they do it in their own way, not someone else’s. Sweetenham failed because he tried to do the wrong thing. He tried to colonize Britain with Australia’s swimming culture. His was a religious crusade. He should have identified how the Brits work, what makes them win and accentuate and grow those qualities. That’s how Lydiard did it in Finland: he made that point often. Lydiard did not attempt to turn his Finnish runners into Speights-drinking, sheep-shearing (yes, that’s shearing), Crowded House-listening Kiwis. Neither did I attempt to create Kiwis when I coached some of Britain’s best runners in the 1970s.

Because Sweetenham was not relevant, when he goes his message will soon be lost: two thousand years of British history will see to that. If he’d had the smarts to build the British way, he would have won more swimming races and created something capable of lasting after he had gone. Now, Britain is back at “square one” once more.