Slack management allowed a “culturally toxic” environment to develop in Australia’s swimming team at the London Olympics, with abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs, as well as flouting of curfews and bullying going unchecked, a review said yesterday.
Australia’s worst Olympic swimming performance for 20 years was accompanied by reports of schoolboy pranks, inflated egos, a lack of team unity and unrealistic expectations, prompting the review into team culture by business consultants Bluestone.
“Standards, discipline and accountabilities for the swim team at the London Olympics were too loose,” the review said. “Situations were left to bleed with not enough follow through for fear of disrupting preparation for competition.”
“Although few situations relating to London reported through this review were truly grave in nature, they compounded in significance as no one reigned in control,” it said. “There were enough culturally toxic incidents across enough team members that breeched agreements (such as getting drunk, misuse of prescription drugs, breeching curfews, deceit, bullying) to warrant a strong, collective leadership response that included coaches, staff and the swimmers. No such collective action was taken.”
Australia’s swimmers are usually expected to lead the country’s charge for medals in the first week of the Games, but they failed to win an individual title and ended up with just one relay gold, six silver and three bronze.
An Independent Swimming Review into the high performance program at Swimming Australia commissioned by the Australian Sports Commission also reported yesterday, making 35 recommendations for improvements.
The report highlighted “a culture of non-strategic business practices and a governance system that did not operate as well as it should,” as well as the lack of a “clearly visible national direction.”
“As a result, lack of transparency in decision making had led to a growing disillusionment in those who held this responsibility,” it said.
Swimming Australia chief Barclay Nettlefold welcomed both reports and acknowledged there was much to be done to restore the credibility of the sport in the country.
“Before we look at winning gold medals, we want to win back the admiration of the nation and we want to engage with our swimming community like never before at every level,” he said in a press release. “Work has already started on the majority of the recommendations in these reports, including the introduction of a high performance director and an ethical framework.”
One of the more serious allegations to emerge after London was that some team members had been subjected to initiation rituals involving Stilnox — a sedative banned by the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) just before the Games.
AOC president John Coates said he was awaiting with interest a Swimming Australia inquiry into the matter.
“If the claims are substantiated and the individuals involved are identified, the AOC will consider their conduct in the context of their Olympic team membership agreement and consider sanctions,” he said in a statement.
The Bluestone report said there was no headline cultural issue that caused the underperformance, nor did the problems suddenly emerge in London.
“The findings of this review were that cultural factors did play a significant role in the ‘unpleasant’ experience that many Australian swimmers, coaches and staff had ... and the culture did not appear to assist or support high-level performance for most people,” it said. “Participants reported that in the zealous and streamlined attempts to obtain gold medals, the delicate management of motivation, communication and collaboration were lost.”
Once the expected medal haul failed to materialize over the first few days of the Games, team morale plummeted.
“Swimmers described these Games as the ‘Lonely Olympics’ and the ‘Individual Olympics,’” it added. “There was not much connection between groups of athletes, or between athletes, staff and coaches, other than what was engineered reactively. At its least attractive, the team dynamic became like a schoolyard clamour for attention and influence.”
The report made a raft of recommendations on areas such as standards and accountability, how to build better lines of communication both inside the team and with the media, as well as on building community in the team.
It also recommended head coach Leigh Nugent be sent on an “an intensive coach-the-coach leadership program” for three to six months.
Nugent said he would happily undergo training, but was unhappy with the use of the word “toxic” to describe the environment.
“It’s a pretty emotive word,” he told reporters in Canberra. “I am not really sure what that means. Behavioral issues were not overtly obvious.”