‘Toxic culture’ crippled Aussie swimmers


The review into Australia’s swimming team at the London Olympics has uncovered a ‘toxic culture’ that was not reined in by team leadership.

In a stinging report, culture and leadership consultant Dr Pippa Grange said the London Olympics represented almost the perfect storm of factors leading to a poor team culture, poor results and instances of bullying among team members.

Grange wrote that a focus on individualised training regimes and not team training leading into the Games led to a lack of bonding among athletes.

This lack of team identity was exacerbated by a lack of leadership within the team and external factors such as media pressure, Grange added.

Grange wrote the end result was a ‘lonely’ Olympics for many athletes who simply put their head down and got on with the job, while other athletes experienced issues with prescription drugs, alcohol and bullying.

“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 at the London Olympics in 2012,” read the report.

“Swimmers seemed to have missed the power of a shared experience, and critically, of friendship. In simplest terms this meant it was a lot less enjoyable than they expected.

“It is plausible that emotional tension in the group built to disharmony and sometimes became exclusion and, in the rare extreme, animosity between athletes.

“Poor behaviour and disrespect within the team were not regulated or resisted strongly by other team members, and it was left unchecked or without consequence by staff and coaches on a number of occasions.

“Some individual incidents of unkindness, peer intimidation, hazing and just ‘bad form’ as a team member that were escalated to personal coaches were not addressed and had no further consequence.

“Standards, discipline and accountabilities for the swim team at the London Olympics were too loose.

“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 reined in control.

“There were enough culturally toxic incidents across enough team members that breached agreements (such as getting drunk, misuse of prescription drugs, breaching curfews, deceit, bullying) to warrant a strong, collective leadership response that included coaches, staff and the swimmers.

“No such collective action was taken.”

Grange said the media also played its role in the problems that eventuated and that the use of social media by athletes as they interacted with the general public proved a distraction.

“There was no filter between the athlete and anyone who wanted to have an opinion on their performance, and that commentary did not need to be shaped with journalistic skill and experience, nor did it have any boundaries,” said the report.

“Some athletes engaged deeply in public debate on what they were doing, how they were doing, and even on who they actually were as individuals. This served to fuel emotions, good and bad, at a time where calmness, intensive focus and consistency should have prevailed.

“Social media also allowed already disconnected athletes to seek support from sources external to the team, which again diminished the reliance on a unified team.

“In addition, the glorification of a few was seen somewhere between embarrassing and irritating to other team members and added to a growing notion that the rest of the athletes were not really valued.

“One person said he felt that it was not really about whether you swam your heart out, it was about whether you could sell your heart out.”

Among Dr Grange’s six recommendations for Swimming Australia was the construction of an ethical framework that laid out what the team stood for and a major focus on developing a social media policy for athletes.


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