During my University days I had a job lifeguarding at a large swim centre in Melbourne. I’d arrive at the ungodly hour of 5:30am and watch through bleary eyes as the local swim squad did laps for a few hours before they headed off to school. The fact that I was charged with their wellbeing was kind of funny, because I’m a mediocre swimmer. However, it is surprisingly easy to qualify as a pool lifeguard, and it pays well, so I wasn’t about to complain.
Anyway, watching these kids train was almost intimidating. When I swim, I fight my way through the water, thrashing my way from one side of the pool to the other before taking a breather. These kids seemed to float on top of the water, and glide effortlessly. And they didn’t stop to draw breath. The coach would pace along the pool deck, and yell out the next stroke for the entire squad, they’d reach the wall, do a barrel turn and glide into the next stroke without missing a beat. They did this for two hours every single morning before throwing on a school uniform and heading for the bus stop, reeking of chlorine. The same impressive display is taking place at pools across Australia every morning.
We’re Australian. We win at swimming. That’s what we do! We let the Africans, Jamaicans and Americans have the track events. We let China have gymnastics and all those unpronounceable countries can have the weightlifting… but the pool? That’s ours, right? We’re the nation of Madame Butterfly and Perkins and Dawn and Thorpey and Klimmy. Swimming is what we do. Maryland does crabcake and football, Australia does swimming. Right?
London has been a wakeup call, hasn’t it?
We rely on the pool to stay near the top of the medal tally, but the US is dominant and China, Russia and Japan have overtaken us too. We’re fighting Brazil, Great Britain and the Dutch for the table-scraps.
This begs a few questions.
1. Why has this happened?
A combination of factors: China, Russia, Great Britain and Japan have invested in swimming like never before. Like it or not, the extra money has had a definite impact. World-class facilities, coaches and support staff are no longer things Australia can lay sole claim to.
The elephant in the room is the simple fact that other countries also have more people than we do, a larger talent pool to choose from. The US college system fosters talent on a scale our AIS cannot compete with. We are a small country. We’ve always punched above our weight at the Olympics, but the reality of a small population has begun to catch up on us. We’re competing against countries with 100million, 200million, a BILLION more people than we have. Our illustrious history in Olympic Swimming counts for little when other countries have ten times as many people training at an elite level.
2. Why didn’t we see it coming?
Hubris. A sense of self-entitlement. The media feeds it to us, and we don’t argue. Growing up, I was blessed to watch Perkins and O’Neill and Thorpey absolutely hammer their opponents. I was indignantly offended when the brilliantly-named Pieter van den Hoogenband started to challenge The Thorpedo (© Adidas). I expected that golden generation to continue indefinitely. But like the Australian cricket team learned in the post-Warne/McGrath era… greatness is not the norm. Greatness is unusual.
Our golden generation of swimming drew to a close. Our current crop is packed full of very-good swimmers… but very few truly great swimmers. We latched onto Stephanie Rice as a medal hope despite her shockingly mediocre times and injury-plagued preparation. We expected her to ‘come good’ for the Olympics. Didn’t happen. We looked at the 4x100m Men’s’ relay as an unstoppable juggernaut.* Fact is that they only barely won at the World Championships because the lead-off swimmer for France had an absolute shocker. And as we saw, Australia didn’t even win a medal in London.
The media, though, had led us to believe that all was right. The Missile Magnusson couldn’t be beaten. Commonwealth Bank had an entire ad campaign built on the ridiculousness of the idea that he wouldn’t win gold. Never mind the fact that Brazil, France, China and US all boast swimmers with excellent 100m pedigree. Australia wins at swimming. That’s what we do, right?
We needed a reality check months ago when we put in a shocking performance at the World Championships, but you can sell more papers with optimism than pessimism. No-one wants to watch a TV feature about a swimmer who “hopes to make the final.” So the media gave us what we wanted, and we didn’t argue. We need to share that blame and stop blaming our swimmers.**
3. Can it be fixed?
I have a sneaky suspicion that before the London Olympics are even over, there will be calls from Swimming Australia and/or the AOC for more resources and money for our athletes in years to come. They want us to succeed, of course, but they’re also going to see a silver lining in a poor overall performance. They’ll point to massive amounts of money invested by other countries that have overtaken Australia in the pool.
“Look at them!” they’ll say. “They spent twice what we spent and won twice as many medals in the pool. Give us more money and we can retake our rightful place as an elite nation.”
And we’ll give it to them. Because we genuinely believe it’s our rightful place. But it isn’t.
Australia loves sport, and we love winning in sports like netball, rugby, cricket, and other sports played by England, New Zealand, South Africa and sometimes India. But China, Russia and the USA? We tend to steer clear of them in most sports. Swimming was always the exception. They’ve finally started to eclipse us, and I’m sorry to say this is an irreversible situation. We’ll always have a good, deep swim team. We’ll win medals and give our best swimmers goofy nicknames. But our team, as a collective unit, cannot compete with the US or China. That horse has bolted. They have too many people and too much money.* I’m not saying I’m an expert on swimming, because I’m far from it, but I actually predicted the 4x100m loss. The signs were there. Very few people seemed to care. “The hottest of red hot favourites” was the phrase used in newspapers. Egg… Meet face. ** OK, so some blame does fall at the feet of our swimmers for feeding the media hype. Why would an athlete agree to a commercial that effectively proclaimed him unbeatable, like Mr Magnusson did? Perhaps he’s a nice guy and I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but generally I’d say Aussie swimmers are pretty cocky. Even the squad swimmers I watched years ago were some of the most arrogant individuals I’ve ever known. They’re young, hormonal and they spend their mornings around half-naked members of the opposite sex without a single ounce of body fat between them. Believe me when I say that they’re oversexed like you would not believe, and it leads to a very brash personality amongst both guys and girls.