Archive for October, 2007

Good Manners in Swimming. And Other Areas

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

By David

Three years ago, just as we were about to leave the island of St. Croix to come and live in Florida, I prepared an important article for Swimwatch on how to peel a banana. Extensive research revealed that several techniques are used in the peeling process. Surprisingly, class structure appears to have quite a bearing. Just watch a banana being peeled and class, breeding and probably education are immediately apparent. If any of you are thinking this is a strange research topic, then I recommend you go and live on St. Croix for two years and see what you end up writing about. Peeling a banana is unbelievably sane.

Unfortunately, in the confusion of packing and leaving St. Croix, this small but important addition to world’s knowledge base was lost. I was thinking about the loss as I opened the pool this morning. There is ample time to think. Opening our pool involves unlocking ten doors; that’s 72,800 doors since arriving from St. Croix. The unlocking process also involves dodging a good number of toads that come onto the pool deck during the night to feed. A triathlete and biology teacher, my friend Steve tells me our toads are members of the Bufonidae family, noted for their very small brains. I have no difficulty believing that. Morning after morning they flee from me by pounding themselves into the wall of the Plant Room. Learning, it appears, is a difficult concept for your average Bufonidae. Steve tells me I should have no fear and directs me to the following study note.

“Toads, like many animals, detect their prey visually. A shape that is long in the horizontal direction looks like a worm, and so the toad’s brain interprets that as food. A square shape elicits no reaction from the toad, and a tall, thin shape is seen by the toad as the “anti-worm.”

How, on God’s good earth, do these people know this stuff? I would prefer to be the “anti-worm” but sadly fit certainly into the square “no reaction” shape.

I do not mean to be unkind but the photograph of Alan Greenspan on the cover of his book has a gentle toad-like appearance. It is probably just his droopy eyes. Besides, I’m sure Greenspan would be delighted to accept Kenneth Grahame’s description of toad in “Wind in the Willows”.

“No matter what he was doing, Toad was always smartly dressed to the point of parody. Mole thought he looked extremely dashing and compared his own rather somber black smoking jacket that he habitually wore, to Toad’s gay apparel. And if Mole dared admit it, Toad, who always used a good cologne, was a bit smelly”

Talking of Greenspan, I have finished his book. He’s a fanatic on the joys of capitalism all right. Like all fanatics he runs the risk of contradiction. For example he classifies most “popularist” manipulation of capitalism as bad. The welfare state should be resisted at all costs. Leave the production of wealth to the market and the poor will eventually get their share, he says. At the same time, didn’t he sit for years as the Chairman of the Fed, an organization specifically established to interfere in the free run of financial markets? Didn’t he use interest rates and money supply to disrupt and disturb the market? Market manipulation, it appears, is okay if Greenspan’s doing it.

Sadly, double standards are hard to avoid, even in swimming. Like Greenspan it is often those who trumpet the moral virtues loudest who offend most; the ones who lay claim to “building character” and all that stuff. I notice Florida’s High School Athletic Association have attempted to control bad behavior. Their rules say;

“Student-athletes shall adhere to the principle of good sportsmanship and the ethics of competition.” (A breech of the rule will result in the athlete being) “suspended from the competition for the remainder of the contest, but not less than the next two regularly scheduled contests.”

In the last two high school meets I’ve been at, I’ve seen a swimmer, leap out of the pool waving his arms in Olympic victory, well before any of his competitors have finished the race. Another trick is, three or four strokes from the end of a race, the same swimmer will lift himself out of the water and look back down the pool in contempt at those behind him and deliberately take a water-shot with a well directed butterfly stroke at a rival coach standing on the pool edge. Fortunately the coach noticed in time and the deluge missed. This is bad behavior and should be punished. Coincidentally, Timed Finals have an op-ed piece up today about good sportsmanship in swimming. This swimmer, and several others, would be advised to read it.

Totalitarian Drugs

Monday, October 15th, 2007

By David

Bernstein, a contributor to our previous article on drugs in American sport, posed the following question

“What were the motivations of the totalitarian regimes for cheating in the 70s versus today’s cheats in a more capitalistic nation/world?

I cannot claim any profound knowledge of the workings of totalitarian state leaders. I do know of athletes I’ve helped who have suffered at their hands. In 1981, track athlete, Alison Wright was ranked in the world’s top ten in the indoor 1500 meters. Over the next few years all but one of those ranked ahead of her were done for taking some performance enhancing potion. Alison could well lay claim to having been the world’s second fastest runner; we will never know. Certainly it was a tough time to be a “clean” female middle distance runner.

Just over a decade later my understanding of the totalitarian mind received a quantum boost after reading the following New York Times report.

“A former swimming coach at a Potsdam sports club, Michael Regner, described how club physicians had initiated him in the distribution of anabolics to team swimmers, who included Kristin Otto and Silke Horner, both gold medalists at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Regner, who fled East Germany in August 1988, through Hungary described how a drug called Oral-Turinabol, manufactured by an East German company in Jena, was given to swimmers.’

They said Mike was living in Frankfurt and looking for work. I called and he accepted a coaching job working for me in New Zealand. I felt Mike had demonstrated his strong anti-drugs posture by taking his family, in mid-winter, through a guarded razor-wire fence where the price of being caught was instant execution. His commitment to the anti-drugs cause had been stronger than most of the rest of the world. Brendan Telfer from Radio Sport interviewed me about Mike’s employment. In a fit of righteous indignation , Telfer demanded to know why I was bringing this man to New Zealand. My answer was simple. Telfer may be against drugs but would his revulsion be sufficient for him to risk an East German bullet in the brain of himself and his family. I think not. Until Telfer could answer yes to that question, it was probably best for him to cut Mike and myself a bit of slack.

The time Mike spent in New Zealand had its ups and downs. There was a huge difference between the expectations of a man who had been at the vanguard of East Germany’s 10 women’s gold medals in Seoul and the resources of a New Zealand swimming club. It was difficult for Mike to understand that in New Zealand the state did not provide everything a swim coach wanted. Greenspan is right, capitalism is different and even a sophisticated, bright guy like Mike took time to adjust.

He did not try to hide his involvement in providing drugs to East German swimmers. He took me through his diary and showed me the occasions when performance drugs were administered. I was amazed at his meticulous recording and the frequency of their use. He was very firm on two points: the swimmers did not know they were being abused and he had no option. His livelihood and possibly his life were at risk should he fail to follow orders. He coached at the rank of Major in the East German army. The order to dispense drugs was expected to be obeyed. I believed him.

The really sad thing about it all was, if you put the abuse of drugs to one side, Mike was a brilliant coach. He had received a four year swim coach’s education in an East German University; a step up from what passes as coach’s education in some parts of the west – the USA excluded. The system they taught supported, without reservation the principles of the New Zealand track coach Arthur Lydiard. He and I saw eye to eye and never once disagreed on the training that was needed to produce a decent swimmer. He was fanatical about the benefits of good technique and 100 kilometers per week of aerobic conditioning; preferably at 5000 feet. The exceptional stroke drills he brought to New Zealand I still use today.

Mike was good enough that he left one question unanswered. If his East German superiors and been stronger ethical men, could Mike and his colleagues have achieved similar results without all those chemicals? I know you’re going to say, “No, because they haven’t done it since.” Remember though, they haven’t had the state resources behind them since either.

Why then did they use drugs? “Because they were told to” is certainly part of the answer. But the real question is why was the order given to include the blue 4mm Turinabol pills along with the vitamins and iron? Mike put it down to nationalism. Our nation wins at sport; therefore it’s better than yours. Our economic theory produces more gold medals; therefore it’s a better way than yours. Sounds stupid, doesn’t it; trying to prove the value of a nation and its economic management on the back of a sixteen year old’s 200 breaststroke result.

Just about as stupid perhaps as invading Cuba, Korea and Vietnam were in trying to prove much the same thing. Abuse in the name of nationalism and economic theory comes in several forms and has many masters.

Greenspan is Right – Capitalism Does it Better

Friday, October 12th, 2007

By David

I am currently halfway through former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan’s new book The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. It’s a good read, far from the dusty tome of economic theory you might expect to come from that source. He admits to being a lifelong Republican, but makes little secret of his dislike for the current President or his admiration for the manner in which Bill Clinton ran the country. It appears Bill Clinton may have been a stauncher supporter of Republican values than his successor. Controlled spending, budget surpluses, getting out of regional wars and possibly even his Monica moments all have a Republican ring to them. Greenspan acknowledges that in Bill’s years Democrats did it better; Monica included, I’m guessing.

A central assertion in the book is that the contest between capitalism and communism has been resolved. Capitalism has triumphed. With very few exceptions, nations who once conducted their affairs along communist lines have turned to capitalism to improve the lot of their people. And it’s worked. In some countries capitalism got off to a rocky start as people struggled to get the hang of the having little state control. But today the standard of living behind what was once the iron curtain has risen dramatically. The application of capitalism may vary among nations but, Greenspan says, its acceptance as the paramount method of organizing economic affairs and ensuring prosperity is unchallenged.

Greenspan argues that the motivations for capitalism’s superior performance have been human nature and the market. Humans respond best when the have the freedom to take up new challenges, to improve their lives. Performance, he says, is best controlled by the wishes of the market place. The good and popular get accepted and prosper, the redundant disappear. And this, he says, is good. I’m pleased he stops short of proposing that the US Capitol, the City of Venice or, I would suggest, the New Zealand Government Beehive building, should be demolished just because they are old and inefficient. Even Greenspan, it appears, has his limits.

This week free enterprise and capitalism won another round against the excesses and inefficiency of the old state controlled regimes. It is official: private enterprise sport in the United States is now as good at taking drugs as any earlier state controlled administration. Athletes motivated by capitalist individual enterprise are injecting and sucking down testosterone, HGH and amphetamines at a rate the old communist regimes could only dream about.

No one should attempt to excuse the excesses of US drug abuse by saying, “At least it’s not state motivated and controlled. It’s just the excesses of a few individuals.” That does not work. The state was East Germany. Individual private enterprise is the United States. Of course the state is going to run drug abuse in a communist regime. That’s what central control is all about. Of course individuals are going to run drug abuse in the United States. That’s what capitalism is all about. The difference most certainly does not condemn one or excuse the other.

So, what are the drug abuse achievements that have launched the US into the forefront of drugged sport? Last week Marion Jones burst into tears and turned in a handful of her Olympic medals. Her apology was the best I’ve heard but could not hide an unbroken litany of lies and deception. Many say that it’s Jones’ relay teammates they feel sorry for. What if they too have to give their medals back? Fear not. You see, two of Jones’ teammates (Torrie Edwards and Chryste Gaines) in the 400 relay have also had to serve doping suspensions since the 2000 Games. That’s three of the four relay runners, juiced to their eyeballs. Do you recall what we said about East German teams caught with just one cheat?

Baseball, it’s called “America’s pastime”. Arguably, the sport’s most famous record is the homerun total. The current holder with 762 runs is San Francisco player Barry Bonds. To say he’s a bloody good baseball player is woefully inadequate. Unfortunately, it appears pretty certain he had chemical assistance earlier in his career.

World cycling’s most famous race is the Tour de France. In 2006 the race was won by the American, Floyd Landis. However his victory is no more. A test taken during the event has turned up positive for synthetic testosterone.

On September 24 2007, the CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency was reported as saying how pleased he was that the BALCO scandal had resulted in the suspension of 14 Olympic athletes. He was sure the fear this installed would curb the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Fourteen Olympic athletes suspended! That’s truly world class. Here’s to private enterprise.

To an outsider beginning work in US sport the scene is saddening and chaotic. Middleweight boxer Joey Gilbert, sprinter Justin Gatlin, sprinter and football player John Capel, 1999 shot put world champion C.J Hunter, world 400 meter champion Jerome Young and an endless list of others; the moral obvious. People in the US glass house should not throw stones.

New Zealand Rugby – The Living Dead

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

By David

Or at least that’s what New Zealand journalists are calling it. For those of you in the United States, who do not know what has happened, the New Zealand rugby team has just been beaten by France in the quarter finals of the World Cup championship. That’s a result about the same as the United States losing to New Zealand in a swim meet. Sure the score was a close 20-18; certainly the referee missed an illegal forward pass that led to the winning French touch down; possibly the sin binning of a New Zealand player for ten minutes was suspect; unquestionably the result was predictable. It was always going to happen; as certain as the sun coming up tomorrow.

Why do we know this? We know this because two of the three coaches, Henry and Smith, are no good. They can’t coach. You would be well justified, at this point, in saying something like, “It’s fine for you to Monday morning quarterback the reasons for New Zealand’s loss. Hind sight has perfect vision.”

But in our case it is not hindsight. You see hidden away in the Swimwatch archives is an article called “Rugby, Racing and Beer”. It was written on June 5 2007. To save you searching through the archives I will quote a few of the predictions we made back then.

“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.

Graham Henry and Wayne Smith, the current coaching staff of the All Black team, do not. 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. As the World Championships get nearer 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. 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 is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” But he soon will understand.”

Admittedly we did not name the foe that would bring about New Zealand’s passing. The result though, you must admit, is pretty bloody accurate. We still maintain the reasons are equally valid. Some coaches are just not up to the world’s great events. Henry and Smith have blown big ones before. Smith was sitting doing the same job eight years ago when New Zealand last lost to France in the World Cup. Who on God’s earth put him back there to do the same thing again? Oh, of course, it was Graham Henry. Henry had a “big-time” losing record in Wales and some idiot in the New Zealand Rugby Union decided the result would be different if the team he coached wore black instead of red. And that’s real stupid.

Certainly Smith was great in Canterbury and Henry was brilliant in Auckland. They won everything. What they can’t do is beat the world. You see the same thing in swimming. Jan Cameron’s teams will win the New Zealand Swimming Championships forever. She’ll never win you an Olympic title though; she just doesn’t have it. Duncan Lang did; in spades. In Florida you see coaches who are into the High School swimming scene but never attack the Nationals or the Pan Pacific, or Pan American or Olympic Games. They do not have what these events demand.

World class coaches can win State high school events; it’s not all that difficult. High school obsessed coaches will seldom, probably never, win the Olympic Games. The coaching skills and preparation are so different. To win a high school event you can clear-fell an athlete’s talent. And many high school coaches do just that in their head long dash to small time glory. Many parents are into the same juvenile dash and so thoroughly approve of their coach’s mania. To win a world event you need to set aside time to make a contribution to your athlete; over time to build an international career.

So, New Zealand, choose a rugby coach who knows how to win big international events. Here is a prediction from Swimwatch. Pick the other Assistant Coach to Henry, Steve Hansen. We know he was part of the loss to the French but we like him. He’s no County High School coach. He’s the genuine article. We think he’s a winner. Go on, pick the bugger.

Adults Behaving Badly

Saturday, October 6th, 2007

By David

High school swimming in the US is bloody incredible. I shouldn’t really say that. I have no idea what high school swimming is like in most of the US. However, one of our team members comes from California and he swears high school swimming there is full of fruit-loops. In Florida, there is no doubt about it: high school swimming is a wonder to behold. Normally sane people plot and plan with all the intensity and deception of planning an international invasion. Others, who, I admit, were a bit odd before the high school season began, go way off the normal behavior chart. Just about everybody involved is in need of some expert guidance. For psychologists, here is a new world of opportunity. I can hear it now,

“What field of psychology did you specialize in at University?”

“Florida High School swimming syndrome (FHSSS), it’s a rapidly growing specialty, offering attractive long term prospects of employment.”

You would hardly believe some of the things that happen down here. I know a coach who demanded another team be stripped of their points because a swimmer was incorrectly entered and the entry changed to the correct event after the close off date. Instead of a little sporting good will, the bloodhounds were released to search and kill. That episode amused me as the coach’s email concluded with that well known phrase, “I do not want to hurt the swimmer.” They all claim that just as they give the order to fire. It reminds me of people who hide behind “constructive criticism” when all they want to do is bash somebody. I’m told that it took a series of late night phone calls, meetings with secret handshakes and a retina security scanner to sort that one out.

I was watching a high school meet the other day. They had a single timer per lane. One of the timers got involved in a conversation and clearly missed the swimmer finishing in her lane. She wrote something on her timing pad. I hope it wasn’t the swimmer’s time.

Parents also exhibit FHSSS. I’ve seen some who insist on sitting in the same spot at each year’s championship. Finding someone else in their chosen place is reason enough to send them into rehab. I’ve heard parents demand trespassers move. Nervous? They are scared out of their minds. Before a high school championship, your average parent’s voice is an octave higher and 20 words a minute faster than at any other time. I was taken to dinner by the parents of one high school swimmer and offered a Caribbean cruise if I could get their daughter into the State Finals. I declined the offer but said I’d do my best. Coming to morning practice would have been more help than a Caribbean cruise.

High school championships also witness the acme of championship screamers. No matter how vocal they are, it is still true; a swimmer with their head under the water can’t hear a word. Edit from Jane: breaststrokers and possibly butterfliers can hear noise intermittently. But – ah – I never was quite able to catch what you all were saying, sorry.

One coach I know is in the habit of preparing a schedule of the area’s best high school times. The effort is enormous. The NFL could learn a thing or two about collecting statistics from this guy. The whole thing is meaningless. High school events are swum in pools that have the latest starting blocks, in pools too shallow to have any starting blocks, in meets that have one manual stopwatch per lane and in pools that have touch pads and the latest in electronic monitoring. The variation in conditions makes a mockery of his labor. Another edit from Jane: When my college team went to race a rival team during my senior year, the coach had posted all of our times and their times in a spreadsheet on the notice-board, separated by event. If our times were the fastest, they were highlighted. This struck me as weird. I already knew who was faster than me and who was in my general price range.

More square inches of newspaper copy are published about high school “stars” than Dara Torres and Rhi Jeffrey combined can muster. It’s a drug – an obsession – that I prefer to leave to others. Sanity demands no less.

The strange thing is you don’t find this kind of obsession at US national meets. In Indianapolis, for example, it was all good old fashioned competition. I win, you win, I lose, you lose; now let’s have a beer and enjoy the rest of the night. The difference is chalk and cheese.

Why is that, do you think? Perhaps it’s because the coaches, swimmers, parents and officials who get to the Nationals have experienced wins and losses, victories and defeats many time before. They have maturity on their side. They realize the futility of high school counter espionage. High school insanity isn’t needed because it doesn’t work. Whatever it is, I can’t wait for the US Short Course Nationals to roll around. It will be December by then and Florida’s bloody high school swimming will be done with for another year. Thank God for that.