Archive for February, 2009

Bad Karma

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

By David

The best sporting news of the week – no wait – the best sporting news of 2009 was announced last week on the New Zealand website, Stuff. Here is what it said.

Shares in iconic Kiwi whiteware manufacturer Fisher & Paykel have been smashed to record low levels – losing as much as 40 percent in value.

You must be as delighted as I am to hear that news. Isn’t it fantastic? The whole house of cards is about to come crashing down on Chief Executive, John Bongard, and the gang of recreants that run his company. The details of it all make even better reading. Bongard has had to accept a 7.5% cut in his $1.14 million dollar pay. For some reason, his cohorts are losing only 5%. The good news just goes on and on. Debt has increased by $122 million since March 2008 to $512 million and is expected to reach $570 million by the end of March 2009. Shares closed at a record of only $1 last Friday. In the 10 months to January, sales were down 13.1 percent in New Zealand, 8.5 per cent in Australia, 12.9 percent in the US and 10 percent in Europe.

In the best traditions of sport Bongard described the conditions faced by his team as “unprecedented and difficult”. And it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving subject. If there is such a thing as bad karma, Fisher & Paykel have got it in heaps and they deserve it all and probably more.

For those of you who have been climbing Mount Everest without oxygen or sailing alone around the world and have not heard of the circumstances that have brought such joy to the rest of the sporting world, let me explain. It all began in 2003 when New Zealander’s Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth elected to sail for the America’s Cup challenger Alinghi against the cup holder, Team New Zealand. Led by Fisher & Paykel, Team New Zealand’s supporters branded their crusade the “Loyal” campaign. Silver fern flags featuring the word “Loyal” proudly flew from polished steel flag poles outside Fisher & Paykel’s corporate headquarters. New Zealand musician Dave Dobbin rolled out his old hit, “Loyal”. The country was obsessed. The flags were mass produced. The song, despite being released in 1988, became a huge hit once more.

But there was a dark side to all this hysteria. Letters threatening physical harm were sent to Coutts and Butterworth. New Zealanders, led by Fisher & Paykel, began to act in a manner that was alarming and dark. My country became a place I barely recognized. This had nothing to do with sport. This was not the way Lydiard or Hillary or Meads or Walker or even Coutts and Butterworth played the game. This was about power and money and fear: it was shameful.

But not nearly as shameful as Fisher & Paykel’s next trick; there they were leading a tsunami of national sporting hysteria in New Zealand and at the same time it was announced in Sydney that they had negotiated a million dollar deal to sponsor swimming in Australia. There was nothing wrong with the Australian deal. It was probably very good business and certainly got their brand well known in that country. What was not right was the beating they were giving two New Zealand yachtsmen for selling their services to the Swiss America’s Cup campaign at the same time as they were selling the Fisher & Paykel brand to foreigners and supporting Australian swimmers instead of New Zealnders. That was hypocritical beyond belief. For some reason though, they avoided the harsh publicity they deserved. I’ve never bought a Fisher & Paykel appliance since then and I never will, but I guess they’re not too worried about that.

Trick two, however, was even more scandalous. The company began a programme of shifting its manufacturing out of New Zealand to low cost labor markets in Mexico and Thailand. Again, there was nothing inherently wrong with that decision that does not happen in business and manufacteuring across the world, and neither this blog nor this post is primarily concerned with debating capitalism. However, when they so prominently took the America’s Cup moral high ground, when they played such an active role in forcing two proud and talented New Zealand athletes to hire ex-SAS body guards, when they preached the importance of national loyalty in business and sport – to abandon their country after all that pious posturing was despicable.

What goes around comes around. Coutts and Butterworth have prospered and Fisher & Paykel is on the bones of its bum. In a way, Fisher & Paykel may have been right all along. Honour and integrity are important in sport and business. Only in this case, it was New Zealand’s two sailors who displayed those qualities. Karma – it’s perfect.

Michael Phelps’ Drug Scandal – USA Swimming Does Well

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

By David

Very few readers will have missed the news that USA Swimming have suspended Michael Phelps for three months and stopped his pay for the same length of time. Well done, you guys in Colorado; I’ll admit I never thought you’d do it. I thought Phelps was untouchable: such a super star in your swimming universe that you’d mutter a few “bad boy, Michael”s and look the other way.

My skepticism was probably justified. Do you remember that shortly before the US Olympic Trials, USA Swimming’s Executive Director, Chuck Wielgus, said parents could happily get their children involved in swimming, knowing that in this sport there was none of the nasty drug misbehaving that went on in other sports. I can’t find the exact quote now but I think it included a reference to swimmers never getting involved in late night clubbing. It was always a dumb thing to say. Since Wielgus said it, Jessica Hardy has been caught with something performance enhancing in her system, Australian swimmer Nick D’Arcy has beaten up one of his mates outside an Australian nightclub and Michael Phelps’ Omega clad arm has been photographed clasping a bong.

I thought USA Swimming would continue with their rose colored glasses view of the sport; but they haven’t. Suspending Phelps and stopping his pay is an appropriate penalty. What Phelps did was dumb beyond belief. Given his status it was also a hugely bad example to young competitors in the sport. None of that means he should be punished more that anyone else. USA Swimming did the fair and proper thing.

Phelps’ apologies are beginning to wear a little thin. Several years ago – I think Phelps was seventeen – he was caught on a DUI charge. He quickly confessed and apologized. I was impressed. He was drinking underage and he was drunk in charge of a motor car, but he owned up, he took responsibility; it was time to move on. And now the bong. Sure, since the photograph he has followed the path that worked so well last time. He has apologized and publicly accepted USA Swimming’s reprimand. But at what point does the repetition of this behavior tell us Phelps is fast but he’s bad too? He must know that at the grass roots of swimming we are getting tired of explaining to thirty mini squad members why their hero is sucking on the end of a fancy looking glass tube. We’re making all sorts of excuses just now; citing words like mistakes and pressure. But keep doing it, Michael, and eventually we’re just going to say, it’s because you’re a bad bugger.

In that regard, USA Swimming’s decision has helped. Our message can now be, “Phelps did wrong and he’s been punished. That’s what happens if you do wrong.” I feel a lot better about that than the mistake and pressure routine.

Which is more that you can say for the clap-trap coming out of FINA’s posh office in Lucerne, Switzerland. They really gave it all the crocodile tears treatment; poor Michael he’s done so much for swimming, everyone makes mistakes, we want to see him swim really well at the World Championships later this year. Of course they began their piece with a “while we do not condone this sort of behavior” type message. The rest of it wasn’t even a slap with a wet bus ticket. You’d have thought Phelps had just won Mr. America. The guy was photographed at a party bubbling on a bong; FINA, that’s not a good thing. Are you sure there is not the sweet scent of something coming from your offices? Whoever came up with that public response should be fired for three months and made to swim across Lake Lucerne every day for no pay. Wake up, sober up take a look at what USA Swimming did and treat this sport with some respect.

So well done USA Swimming. Do much better next time FINA. And Phelps, for God’s sake, cut it out. Otherwise people are going to think you’ve been smoking too much of that stuff for far too long.