Review slams 'toxic' culture in Australian swimming team

A report reviewing the leadership in Australia’s swimming team has slammed a "toxic" culture which saw swimmers abuse prescription drugs, alcohol and curfews during last year’s London Olympics.

The report also accused the team of being devoid of leadership, resulting in bad behaviour going unchecked and individualism thriving. London was remembered by many as the unpleasant "Lonely Olympics".

In a warts-and-all review of culture and leadership in Australian Olympic Swimming, Doctor Pippa Grange paints a grim picture of the hierarchy of Swimming Australia and the unit that competed at the Games seven months ago.

"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,’’ she wrote.

"At its least attractive, the team dynamic became like a schoolyard clamour for attention and influence.

"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."

Dr Grange, who has worked with several AFL football clubs, the AFL Players Association and now runs her own culture and leadership consultancy business, was employed by Swimming Australia to undertake the review.

Among her six recommendations to address the organisation’s seemingly deplorable leadership, Dr Grange describes the ‘‘dire need to develop and enable leadership throughout swimming, and to orient people to consider leadership as personal, not just functional’’.

In the pursuit of gold medals in London, Dr Grange reports ‘‘the ‘science’ of winning appeared to whitewash the ‘art’ of leadership’’. There was no sport psychologist with the swim team for the London Games.

Dr Grange refers to “the absence of a leadership voice from Swimming Australia”, which was run by CEO Kevin Neil who has stepped down from the position.

“Some review respondents have suggested that … the outcome was an increase in individualism, and in turn a diminished sense of responsibility or connectedness to the team,” Dr Grange reports.

“The formation of sub-groups was already likely in a team of this size, but fragmentation was compounded in the absence of familiarity and sufficient opportunities to connect formally and socially.”

Dr Grange's six recommendations on standards and accountability include that Swimming Australia “create an ‘ethical framework’ … about what the organisation, team and individuals within it will stand for and what they will not stand for.”

She says Swimming Australia should invest in a ‘coach-the-coach’ leadership program for the head coach of the team, and that codes of conduct for swimmers, coaches and staff need updating.

Australian swimmers produced the worst Olympic result in London since Barcelona in 1992, returning with just one gold medal from a tally of 10 medals overall.

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