Pool's blame and shame laid bare

Sorry sight … Cameron McEvoy, James Magnussen and Eamon Sullivan deliver their mea culpa on Friday.
Sorry sight … Cameron McEvoy, James Magnussen and Eamon Sullivan deliver their mea culpa on Friday.

It is day one of the Games of the XXX Olympiad and in the poolside massage room, in the wash-up of the heats of the women's 4x100 metre relay, golden girl Libby Trickett is screaming abuse. She has not been picked to swim in that night's final and lets fly at the Australian swimming squad coaches in an expletive-laden tirade, according to an athlete in the room.

The relay team of Cate Campbell, Alicia Coutts, Brittany Elmslie and Melanie Schlanger goes on to win what will be the nation's only gold medal in the pool at the London Olympics. But even that shining moment has been dulled by the turgid tales swamping Australian swimming: late-night benders on banned prescription drugs, a ''toxic'' culture of bullying and intimidation, half-naked male swimmers allegedly trying to force their way into the beds of women team members and open hostility in the squad.

''There's a really deep belief that 'my loss is your gain' and vice versa,'' a member of the Australian team told Fairfax Media.

He compared Australia's swimming stocks to crabs in a bucket.

''If one crab tries to get out the other crabs will try to pull them back. If they worked as a team they could get out of the tin, but the reality is different.''

The public shaming of the men's 4x100 metre relay team on Friday was a clue to how deep the bucket drops. But for sheer symbolism it is hard to top the image of four-time gold medallist Trickett, who did not respond to calls, spitting obscenities at then women's relay coach Shannon Rollason.

Trickett has previously acknowledged a ''conversation'' with Rollason, while reports have intimated ''it was somewhat more than a conversation''.

For decades Australian swimming has basked in a golden glow.

Now it's drowning, not waving.

''Swimming was like the short-back-and-sides, clean, healthy young person sport with a squeaky clean image,'' said triple gold-medallist Shane Gould. ''It has certainly been tarnished.''

Revelations of the recreational use of prescription sedative Stilnox, banned by the Australian Olympic Committee before the Games, have particularly scoured the shine from our swimmers. ''There wasn't enough control over the use of Stilnox, so the swimmers were abusing it, sometimes mixing it with alcohol,'' Gould said.

''I think what's happened is the athletes are no longer teenagers, as in my era, they are adults and doing adult things, so they have more challenges with drugs and relationships. I think that's why we're seeing not just a squeaky clean kid, because they're no longer kids.''

On Friday, Swimming Australia sought to stop the rot by parading the disgraced men's relay team before the press.

The public mea culpa came the same day as allegations by swimmer Jade Neilsen. She says that James Magnussen, James Roberts and Cameron McEvoy came to her room late one night at the team staging camp in Manchester and acted ''inappropriately''.

But no one's climbing out of the crab bucket unscathed.

Australian swimming has been in gradual decline in world status since 2004. Two reviews into the team's relatively poor performance in London this week exposed the depth of problems facing the sport, which has consistently underpinned Australia's Olympic success.

That they followed allegations by the Australian Crime Commission of widespread use across sporting codes of performance-enhancing drugs and of links to organised crime, prompting the BBC to ask whether Australian sport was badly broken.

''On the field and off, Australian sport is arguably at its lowest ebb since the Montreal Olympics in 1976,'' said the British broadcaster.

Feeding such schadenfreude were the findings of a review commissioned by Swimming Australia that our Olympic swimmers were embroiled within a ''toxic'' team culture marred by bullying, misuse of prescription drugs and alcohol, breach of curfews and deceit.

Incidents of ''intimidation'' were not addressed and a leadership vacuum left swimmers feeling ''undefended, alone, alienated''.

They spoke of an ''increasingly desperate'' focus on winning gold. One swimmer described this as ''like looking at the sun - something you had to turn away from after a while''.

Review author Pippa Grange said: ''The team dynamic became like a schoolyard clamour for attention and influence.''

A separate report, commissioned by Swimming Australia and the Australian Sports Commission, traced such problems to the top, depicting a bloated administration that was out of touch with athletes.

A lack of leadership from coaches and team management had encouraged a ''culture of individualism'' among swimmers, fed by a failure to penalise poor behaviour.

Some swimmers celebrated the under-performance of teammates.

Others were satisfied simply with selection in the team rather than trying to improve their performance on the Olympic stage.

An attitude of ''what's in it for me?'' prevailed.

''Every part of the team - athletes, coaches, management - must accept responsibility for the decline in behaviour and team culture,'' said the review panel, led by former Australian Sports Commission chairman Warwick Smith.

One current Australian Olympic swimmer, who declined to be named, said findings such as these were long overdue.

Relations between the men's and women's squads are thought to be dire, with accusations some are feeding negative news stories to the media to discredit their peers.

''It is pretty divisive. There's no common goal that everyone believes in. There's the 'we're going to be the best team in the world' hoorah statement. But it's not really that strong.''

There is a sense that such problems would have remained unchecked by Swimming Australia if the team had enjoyed greater success in London.

''These reports wouldn't have happened if our performance was good. I think they would rather the average punter open the newspaper and see a gold medallist than a happy loser.''

Swimming Australia's problems go well beyond athlete misbehaviour. The independent review by Smith highlighted fundamental structural flaws, such as the lack of a national talent identification strategy and proper induction process. Coaching accreditation problems perpetuated ''a culture of athletes being 'meal tickets'''.

The review suggested benchmarks for team selection were too low and that team trials were staged too far out from the Games.

Head coach Leigh Nugent, who this week admitted he failed to act on reports of misbehaviour by the men's relay team, was spread too thinly and offered ''minimal oversight'', the review found.

The former swimming head coach Don Talbot said his successor had to bear much of the blame for the Olympic squad's failings.

''Leigh Nugent is a friend of mine and he is a very good coach. Swimmers have always been outspoken and some of them have misbehaved, but if something is not going right the head coach has got to do something about it,'' he said.

Current Australian athletes had failed to adapt their attitude and expectations to the increasingly competitive swimming world, he added. ''Australians are a bit like 'I have made the team and just have to appear and everyone will lay down before us', and they get a hell of a shock when that doesn't happen.

''From what I can see, a loss of momentum happened.''

Former gold medallist Kieren Perkins, who was on the panel for the Warwick Smith review, blamed behavioural issues on the lack of accountable leadership within the sport. ''When you have an organisation that doesn't have a clear direction or understanding of what everyone is trying to deliver, like any business, it becomes a complete rabble,'' he said.

The high-performance focus on individual athletes had prompted problems within the team, he said. ''I believe when you get to an elite level in sport a very significant part of your responsibility is to lead, mentor and help develop those coming up through the ranks. But when you isolate out elite athletes they lose a sense of reality … they don't have clear moral guideposts.''

He stressed that Swimming Australia had already taken steps to rectify its structure, including the appointment of president Barclay Nettlefold and the departure of chief executive Kevin Neil.

Neil, who resigned in November, declined to comment on the reviews in detail.

''To me, what it says basically is the team got beat by better swimmers - I don't know what else to read into it.''

Australian swimming has been the victim of its own success, to some degree.

The sport has provided 59 of Australia's 142 Olympic gold medals and enjoyed notable success since the 2000 Sydney Games. But past performance is not a determinant of future success, the Warwick Smith review notes.

A troubling sign for the sport is the increasing reliance on government grants amid a slide in sponsorship dollars by $2.5 million since 2007-08, to $1.9 million.

''We have been spoiled by success in swimming,'' said Richard Cashman, director of the Australian centre for Olympic studies at the University of Technology Sydney.

But positioning Australian sport at its ''lowest ebb'' was melodramatic, he said.

''I think the sport's reputation has been dented but at the next Games Magnussen will be much more mature and we'll get a couple of gold medals and forget about it all …

There is obviously some need for reform but I think with some tinkering rather than ostracising swimmers and kicking out the coach maybe we will improve, reform and regenerate the program.''

This story Pool's blame and shame laid bare first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.