DROWNING STREET

The image of a drunken Minister of the Crown breaking a child’s swing at a 10 Downing Street party the night before the Queen sat masked and alone at her husband’s funeral is disgusting and horrifying. It smacks of the same self-entitled arrogance shown by Djokovic. Johnson and Djokovic deserve to be banished to the scrapheap of history.

In the case of Boris Johnson, it is not the booze I object to. As is often the case, it is the surrounding circumstances – the amount, the timing and the effect on others. In fact, I am pretty liberal when it comes to the consumption of alcohol. Not the rule breaking that went on in Downing Street or the stories that swirled around some international swimming trips. There is no excuse for a drunken swimmer, sitting on some foreign toilet, having his photograph spread over the internet. A swimmer waking up in spew-soaked sheets is equally unacceptable. So no, drinking to excess is deplorable whether it happens at Downing Street or on a New Zealand swim team.

A legal age swimmer having a drink though is perfectly okay. For legal age swimmers I’ve always thought the attitude of Swimming New Zealand was Victorian nonsense. To be fair, Swimming New Zealand’s Code of Conduct and Swimmer’s Contracts have become more liberal in their attitude to swimmers having a drink.

In the past swimmers were asked to sign contracts that prohibited the consumption of alcohol. Toni Jeffs used to draw a line through the clause, initial it and send in the amended contract. She was never asked about the alteration. I thought her position was entirely appropriate. Although she only drank occasionally, she was legally allowed to drink. If she wanted a glass of wine during dinner or a beer on a hot day, it was no business of Swimming New Zealand. She had no intention of complying with the prohibition clause, so the correct action was the amend the contract.

She caused a stir at one National Championships by pointing out to the Dominion newspaper that while swimmer’s contracts had the prohibition clause, officials were upstairs at the Wellington Regional Aquatic Centre, in full view of everyone, tucking into copious quantities of Federation supplied wine and cheese. It made for a great headline the following morning.

In 1992 New Zealand’s most successful swim coach, Duncan Laing and I were sitting together on a flight to Spain for what was then the World Short Course Championships. As our flight headed over the Tasman Sea a steward asked if we would like a drink. I ordered a beer. Duncan did the same.

“Thank God for that,” he said, “I thought this trip was going to be dry because you would insist on those Swimming New Zealand rules.” The rule he was talking about is still there. It says, “Encourage and promote a healthy lifestyle – refrain from smoking and drinking alcohol around athletes.” I have no idea why Swimming New Zealand believe that a beer on a 24-hour flight to Spain is not healthy. It sure didn’t seem to harm the performance of either of our swimmers. Both returned from the Championships with medals. Just think how good Danyon and Toni might have been if we had resisted the temptation to have that beer.

There have been some sanctimonious types in Swimming New Zealand. At a national Championship in Hamilton Mark Haumona had finished racing and came to me and asked if he could buy a six pack of beer and spend the next day surfing. I agreed and that is what Mark did. A week later I received a note from Swimming New Zealand asking me to explain why the National Coach, Mark Bone, had seen one of my swimmers walking out of a liquor store with a six pack of beer. Bone had complained that my swimmers were bringing the sport into disrepute. I explained that the swimmer was close to 30 years old and had asked and been given permission. Mark Bone should keep his interfering nose out of other people’s business.

It is interesting how the puritan busy-body attitude of the Mark Bone types compares with other views on alcohol around the world. In Germany, New Caledonia and Spain I have enjoyed many a drink in their training centre poolside bars. In every case a glass of wine and a salad beside the pool was relaxing and civilized. Hell would freeze over before Swimming New Zealand apply for a license to sell booze at the Millennium Pool. Besides what would Mark Bone say?

But perhaps the most civilised attitude to swimmers and alcohol is in France. When I went to my first Mare Nostrum Meet in Canet in the south of France, the reception lady gave me a present from the organisers. I was told each team got the same present. I opened my souvenir to find a gift box selection of 6-bottle wines from local vineyards. I’ve been back to Canet five times and every year have been welcomed with the same gift-wrapped sample of local wine. What a contrast with attitudes in New Zealand. What a promotion for a local industry. What a benefit to their national swim team. A team that knows they are adults competing in an adult world. Not Mark Bone led youths on their way to a swimming primary school.

In all this I’m not promoting some Downing Street Partygate. Not at all. As with all things, a mature attitude to alcohol helps produce a mature sport. And mature sports win big meets. Wouldn’t it be nice for Eyad and me and every club at the next National Championships to be presented with a gift of the Waiheke Mudbrick Flagship tasting case of six – two Chardonnay, two Syrah, one Cabernet Sauvignon and one Mudbrick Velvet. Duncan Laing’s son, now a prominent coach in New Zealand, could carry on a fine family tradition.

And that would be a swimming step forward into a brave new world.   

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