Rio Olympic Games 2016: How Australian swimming started to turn the tide after London

Laughing all the way to Rio: Cate and Bronte Campbell. Photo: Brendan Esposito “We’re very confident and comfortable with our athletes speaking, having opinions.”: Mark Anderson. Photo: James Alcock
Nanjing Night Net

Almost four years after the corrosive disappointment in the London Olympic pool, then the sport-wide meltdown that followed in its wake, Swimming Australia is preparing to rack them up all over again.

This week in Adelaide, Australia’s prospective Olympians will round out months of preparations in the selection trials that they hope will punch their ticket to Rio. Everyone wants their chance to be fitted for a natty new team blazer.

Mark Anderson, the sport’s chief executive since 2013, says FIFO fans whose last interaction with swimming was a group of embarrassed lads bumbling apologies about Stilnox and door-knocks will be pleasantly surprised by the turnaround.

“There’s a real energy and momentum that has built across the whole (Olympic) cycle. You can feel it now. We’re going in expecting some really positive results for individuals as well as times they might record,” Anderson told Fairfax Media.

“We’re going in with a view that we’ve made great progress over the Olympic cycle. For many Australians, this will be one of the first opportunities to see some of these athletes and get to know them and get behind them. We can demonstrate what has been occurring within the sport.”

On the face of things, Australian swimming looks in fine shape ahead of Rio, where the only gold medal was returned by the women’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay team. They are unbackable favourites again, while Cate and Bronte Campbell, Emily Seebohm, Mitch Larkin and Cameron McEvoy are all leading contenders in their events.

But rarely do things flow without disruption ahead of an Olympics. Ever since Ian Thorpe tumbled into the pool like a felled oak in 2004, swimmers have approached the trials with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. Now there is some wiggle room, with SA able to action a clause that provides executive selection powers on account of ‘extenuating circumstances’.

Anderson said it was a small change to a long-existing policy and would only be used in the most extreme scenarios. Even then, it would have to progress right through the organisation and to the top levels of the Australian Olympic Committee before being authorised.

“In reality it’s a fairly minor change. And that clause has existed for many, many years. What we’ve done is make that more explicit. We would only use it in extraordinary circumstances. It allows us to have that discussion,” he said.

“There is a clear process that unfolds, which involves escalation right through the organisation, then through to the AOC. There is a clear and thorough process if that was needed to be used.”

Virtually everyone within SA has done their best to sell the message that the camp could scarcely be happier heading towards Rio under the guidance of head coach Jaco Verhaeren. Compared to the post-London madness, it has been relatively plain sailing, yet Anderson has been called upon to douse some spot fires.

He denies that Australian swimmers are being gagged ahead of the Games, following complaints from Gold Coast based swimmers Thomas Fraser-Holmes and Grant Hackett about Chinese athletes, a number of whom had been previously caught doping, sharing Swimming Australia facilities.

A leaked email to athletes from head office suggested it better to: “Speak only about yourself; about your own performances and your own journey and not about any other issues surrounding the sport.” Anderson said that didn’t amount to a media ban and continued to encourage swimmers to have open opinions.

“We’re very confident and comfortable with our athletes speaking, having opinions and voicing those opinions. That is something we encourage our athletes to do. Again, this policy has existed for many years. What we believe we’ve done well over this cycle is communication across all channels. That’s been really good. There’s a high level of trust.”

If there is so much trust, why the leak? “That’s a fair question. We do have close relationships with all of the team. We’re genuinely sure that confidence and trusts exists. For me, it’s a non-issue. Every behaviour and everything we’ve seen from our athletes and coaches is encouraging. But it is important that as we go into Rio we continue to do what has built a very strong culture within our sport.”

Anderson also said SA was keenly aware of every international swimmer training in affiliated pools and that they were subject to ASADA testing like any Australian athlete, even if Hackett had contended they are tested less often.

“We’ve got some strong controls over that and that process has worked well across the three-and-a-half years. If other international athletes come in and are fundamentally renting pool space off private providers, we don’t have a lot of control over that.

“What we do, though, is make sure we are aware of international athletes when they are training here and check in with ASADA to make sure they have visibility. They are therefore open to the same testing regimes as our athletes are.”

Like athletics beforehand, swimming has been rocked by suggestions of systemic doping by Russia, with an investigation by English newspaper The Times suggesting widespread use of PEDs and little or no punishment for positive tests.

Anderson has become well aware of the scenario but said SA had confidence in FINA to run as clean an Olympics as possible. Australian has also been working closely with USA Swimming to try and ensure best practices are followed in by counties, as well as throughout the sport.

“We’ve put in a lot of effort over the past 18 months and that’s included president John Bertrand and myself having discussions FINA about testing regimes. We had our questions answered to ensure there is strength in that system,” Anderson said.

“We’re trying to ensure we are protecting our athletes but also the integrity of the system to make sure the Olympics is as clean as possible.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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