Monday, 8 October 2012
London 2012 - The Scandinavian Story
For the Nordic countries in general the London Olympic Games was a giant let down. Following great expectations, the Scandinavians as a whole delivered no medals, and for Norway: not even a semi final.
Even though the Scandinavian countries greatly resemble each other in terms of population and way of life, the reasons, and reactions, to the Olympic failure are diverse.
Sweden is traditionally the best swimming-nation in Scandinavia. However they have been surpassed by arch rivals Denmark. At what could be perceived as the last big test before the championship - the World Championship in Shanghai last year, the Danes won two golds and a silver, while the Swedes were one gold behind them.
Having failed to get a single medal at the last Olympics the expectations and weight on the Swedish swimmers selected to London were great. Sarah Sjöström looked strong for number of the four years leading up to the Olympics - and for her to not get a medal in London is pretty close to unfathomable in Sweden.
Norway also got a gold in Shanghai last year, and was the best Scandinavian nation in Beijing. However Norway does not have the same strength in depth as their neighbouring countries. So when tragedy strikes, as they did with my good friend Alexander Dale Oen in May, it strikes us hard.
The tragic happening might be some of the reason as to why the debate following the bad results from our swimmers in London have been a lot more subtle, and less heated, than in the two other swimming-communities. To talk about catastrophe for something as trivial as sporting results is just plain wrong in that context.
Danish claim unfavourable treatment
The Danes delivered the best results, with a couple of fourth place-finishes. Rikke Möller-Pedersens 200 meter breaststroke was impressive, just unlucky for her three others performed out of this world. Still there was a storm brewing after the championships.
The authoritarian leadership style of Dutch national team coach Paulus Wildeboer has been greatly criticized by those who have national team athletes that are not a part of Wildeboers squad at the National Training Centre. (NTC)
Amongst claims that the athletes at the NTC get favorable treatment to those who chose to train with a different coach, there is a largely increasing sense that the resources is taken out of the clubs and into the NTC-system.
The fact that Wildeboer demanded all athletes who were to compete at the Olympics to leave their daily training environment and follow his regime for the last months leading into the Games has also attracted criticism.
The merited coach could of course hide behind the fact that the NTC-swimmers in general performed quite well. It was the swimmers from various clubs around Denmark and Faroe Islands, swimmers who left their normal way of training who failed - and some of them quite extensively. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Changing training three months before the Olympics is seldom a successful formula.
Wildeboer's success as a national team coach in Denmark is, however, not up for question. The results have been flat out impressive for the nation of 6 million.
Norwegian unity, but not enough man-power
Norways national team head of sports, Petter Løvberg, is also widely regarded as the most successful national team coach ever. A long string of medals at every international championship was broken at the London Olympics. Mainly because the main man was missing.
His success formula though has been different. Løvberg, of Vadsø - almost as north as you get in mainland-Norway, is not a coach in that sense of the word. He is more of a coordinator. He includes every coach who has a national team-swimmer to be part of the team. The coaches with the most (or best) national team-swimmers get the most time with the team on camps and similar, but everybody gets an input.
Norway has no training centre, and Løvberg is very much aware of the fact that the work is being done at the clubs, and the coaches need to be involved.
Pre-Løvberg the Norwegian mentality said that if you qualified for international championships you were good. After he took over in 2001 "Pete" as he is called has instilled a mentality saying that if you are there - you want to take the next step. Making semi-finals and finals. In London there were none.
It's hard to get by the big gap of a man that was not there. Not only was Alexander Dale Oen an almost guaranteed medal (gold would have been tough, albeit possible, considering Cameron van der Burgh's amazing swim), he was a man who made his presence known.
Almost the only form of criticism that has occurred after the Games has been questions why he did not bring a larger team. Not because the swimmers left out would have been able to perform any better than those there, but because of the effects a bigger team could have at those who were there.
Ingvild Snildal (100 butterfly) and Sara Nordenstam (200 breaststroke) were European Champions in the weekend championship earlier this year, but both performed better there, despite not being as tapered as they would be in London. The reason might have been the record-large team Norway sent to that meet. Although most of them did not make their presence known on the top half of the results, being a large team might have helped, following the traumatic experience in Flagstaff.
Leading up to London Snildal and Nordenstam was only accompanied by rookie backstroker Lavrans Solli. It might have been to small a team, left with a lot of time to think. The reports from pre-camp in Croatia was that of a team close to peak condition - but judging by results in London only Solli delivered what could be expected - and he was there mainly to learn.
Swedish shortage of men - and talent
Sweden fired their Australian national team coach, Greg Salter, in May. They did not start looking for a national team coach before in September. The Swedish Swimming Federation has taken its time figuring out which direction they wanted to take the sport to next.
In retrospect, the limbo this left the swimmers in looks to have been not favourable for their results in London. Sjöström was just a pale resemblance of herself, while Therese Alshammar (who does her own thing anyway) only had one race where she had a shot in the Olympics. When she has injury-trouble it gets tough.
The main discussion points in Sweden following the failure is that of recruitment. The women-side is at an acceptable level, however for the men the situation is pretty near disastrous.
Lars Frölander (38!) and Stefan Nystrand (31) were the only Swedish men competing in London. For the first time since 1956 Sweden did not feature a relay for the men. A part of that story is that Simon Sjödin (24) should have been selected for London. His performances earlier this year would have taken him to a semi-final in London.
Sweden has mainly produces sprinters in the latter years, raising concerns that the «sprint-ism» has spread too far down in the system. That the low-mileage, quality before quantity, way of training is implemented in such a way that it deprives the young talent from the necessary background - if their talent is more suited for middle- or long-distances.
A quick read at the discussion board at simma.nu (the joint Scandinavian site where I manage the Norwegian part of it) shows a general consensus that the swedes are to nice with each other, and themselves. A more rough, never-say-die attitude is needed. Go faster, and harder - and more often. Training volume needs to go up - on a larger scale.
Twists and turns
The expression goes: All roads lead to Rome. If anything the Scandinavian failure in London, with three distinctly different lead-ups, and follow-ups, shows that a lot of roads lead elsewhere as well - or at least that some roads take a bit longer to get to Rome.
The Norwegian national team coach has responded to the criticism by making the time-marks to be part of the national team even harder - making the team in general smaller than last year. The Swedes are looking for their new national team coach, at the same time as coaches for their new HPC (High Performance centre). The Danes seem to be more of the same, but have hired Mikkel von Seelen as a new Head of Sports. That signals a restructuring, as his predecessor Lars Sørensen, had the title of Head of Elite Sports (Elitechef).
Now we wait for who has found the right and fastest way to Rome. The Danes have one big thing going for them: their recruitment of young talent seems to be working better than that of their neighbours. That might shine through in Rio in four years. The other two countries, and perhaps Norway in particular, seem to be more reliant on particular individuals for success, although the Norwegian seem to have closed in on Sweden in particular - judging by results at the Nordic junior championships.