We invest a lot of money (in my country Denmark we spend around 1.200.000 euro centrally every year on the national training center and the national teams and the clubs spend much more combined on their elite programs) and we get nothing in return apart from the “joy of seeing the swims”. There are no resulting sponsorship deals, no increase in spectators for any meets, no rise in the number of members in the clubs, no rise in the quality of any other incentive in swimming and no other reward of any kind except for helping 16-20 individuals (the swimmers and their coaches) achieve their own personal goals. If they perform to a certain extent the national funding body (Team Denmark) will continue to contribute vast resources to (yes… you guessed it): to those 8-10 swimmers...
The argument that international elite swimmers' presence in a club environment is beneficial for other swimmers, coaches, managers and potential sponsors was lost many years ago when the bulk of the best swimmers in Denmark joined the national training center. The ones that didn’t fit in there have fled to the USA and the college system (primarily male swimmers) leaving no top international senior swimmers in the clubs right now except for Mie Ø. Nielsen.
So why are we investing massive central amounts in elite swimming? To make the nation proud? (Insert picture of donkey here). Or is it merely to have occasions to toast and talk about the splendid results at different parties nationally and internationally for the board in our national federations in the Scandinavian countries? (Insert picture of … well …)
Let’s look outside Scandinavia for a taste of what could be: In Britain they have managed to get a deal with British Gas which – in turn for results and media attention – gives British Swimming millions of pounds every year. In other words there is a “return on investment” for both British Gas and British Swimming. I can understand that. The swimmers can live decently from their sport so they have an understandable return also. And they contribute to the system – look for instance at the initiative to get “everybody swimming” before, during and after the Olympics which had participation of many of the best British Swimmers. The media attention of the elite results and of the initiatives like the above mentioned benefits the clubs and British swimming as a whole. The system works and swimming as a whole benefits also because of the elite program. It makes sense!
In Australia we see the same picture even though the sponsorship deal that can benefit the swimmers to live off their sport has just recently been finalized. Furthermore the Australian swimming culture probes for sold out stands at national championships and the swimmers play a big part in this with both good results and a presence and awareness of the media that we could learn a lot from. Just look at the TV-trailers leading up to the Australian Olympic trials this year if you doubt me. It makes sense!
In America many of the swimmers are helping charities and doing all kinds of both unpaid and paid work to contribute to the “system” (the swimming community). Ryan Lochte participates in several events during the year – both non-profit charities as well as sponsorship deals. Many of the best American swimmers (f. inst. on the Olympic team) are attending college which gives them a very good return on investment for their skills: Free attendance to college. And the college in turn gets their both academic and athletic skills and the press and spectators that go with them. When people turn up to watch a dual meet on a Wednesday night and the stands at NCAA are filled (even though the NCAA is televised nationally) it all makes sense!
In Scandinavia we are supporting the swimmer's (and admittedly also their coaches) personal goals and their wish to succeed in a tough global sport. It is a very noble quest and I admire the efforts from especially the swimmers but also the coaches. Going for the gold in global swimming is an incredible task. But we get nothing in return apart from 8 x finals sessions in front of a TV screen during the Olympics where we can shout and root for our heroes.
So why are we investing massive amounts in elite swimming in Scandinavia when the money would be MUCH better spent in producing better learn-to-swim programs and building more pools for kids? Let me add some perspective: In Denmark most “learn-to-swim” programs are based on 17-18 year old instructors with (needless to say) very limited experience and no education apart from maybe a weekend course and a background as a mediocre competitive swimmer. The same programs are part of a club that can easily have fulltime positions for both the head A and B team coaches. Some clubs in Denmark have several fulltime coaches in their elite program and none in the learn-to-swim program. Go figure…
Furthermore we have a massive need of more pool space to make the clubs function better (=earn money to expand and invest in new initiatives, better coaches, better administration, etc.) and still we use the best slots in the pool and the most space for elite programs that – in the very best case – contribute in a minor way to the whole club system both financially and otherwise. The only place where elite programs contribute is in the way of parental work (“volunteer work”) and let’s be honest: A lot of that work is only necessary because the elite programs demand it (officials at meets, arranging own meets, etc.). So the volunteer work would not be necessary if it wasn’t for the elite programs – and they solve no other tasks than those created by the elite programs. So the argument that the elite programs contribute with volunteer work from parents simply doesn’t fly – since the work they contribute is only needed because of the elite programs.
Don’t get me wrong: I for one can understand the fascination of the work towards an elite performance. I have worked as a fulltime coach for 15 years (and still do) and have had swimmers participate at Europeans, Worlds and Olympics. I understand fully the feeling you have in your body as a coach when one of your swimmers competes in an international final or breaks a national record. Nothing in the world can replicate that feeling. But I cannot for the life of me figure out why anybody else than the swimmers and coaches can see any benefit in putting a lot of cash and hours into Scandinavian elite swimming?
My best guess is this: We do it because the leaders of the clubs and federations almost always have their background in elite swimming. Thus no questions are asked when a federation puts goals forward to “Exceed in international swimming”. Everybody has a background in elite swimming and hence it is natural to them to continue down that path.
A large majority of the decision makers in Scandinavian swimming the last decade are either former coaches or former swimmers – both on the managerial staff and on the boards… in other words we are replicating ourselves from within, thereby taking any questions from outsiders out of the equation. Where are the businessmen and people with other backgrounds than swimming or coaching at the elite level?
If a business man had his way, the first thing he would do in any club would be to close the elite department; It spends all the money, it hinders the maximizing of income and it often has no strategic focus (always focusing on “the next meet/season”) thus making it impossible to make any strategic decisions in other parts of the organization without getting in the way of the elite program.
Don’t get me wrong: My suggestion is not to close down all elite programs. But somewhere between what we are doing now (100 % focus on elite swimming) and the businessman approach (100 % maximization of revenue/income) is the way forward.
So my point is not to close down all elite programs. My point is this: We at least have to ask ourselves (coaches, manager, parents) if we are making the right choices for the “sport” of swimming. Not only for the “elite sport” of swimming. And the elite swimmers (both on national teams and in clubs) have to ask themselves: “Am I contributing resources into the system or am I only pulling resources out of the system”? Otherwise they themselves will be redundant in a short time if we continue the current system.
Right now in Danish swimming we are taught that “The swimmers have to focus solely on themselves and their training – otherwise they cannot compete with the other countries in the world”. We are told that we cannot put demands on the swimmers to show up for too many press conferences and too many appearances in the media. If that is true I wonder how Ryan Lochte wins all those medals all the time while he is constantly embarking on one media adventure after the other? And for those of you thinking “Well Danish swimmers have to go to school” I can tell you that most of the best swimmers (the ones swimming individual finals at Worlds and Europeans) on our national center did not attend school during the last years – most of them have been full time swimmers for a while now.
In short: This is an attitude problem. We (coaches, managers, parents) guard the time of the swimmers making it impossible for them to create some return on the investment we make in them. Unless more and more funds are put into the system from a national perspective this is a system doomed to lose in the long run. And we know that funding for sports in general is being sliced by as much as 10-15% a year in the countries of the western world. So let’s not kid ourselves…
We should applaud a swimmer's participation in “Dancing with the stars” and in every possible media exposure! And we have to lift the decisions to make maximum exposure and return on investment of the swimmers away from the coaches, clubs and federations neither of which are competent to tackle that task. We are all coaches and former swimmers most of us. So let us manage the programs and the training and let professionals manage the swimmers and get us some return on our joint investment.
Unless we make a return on the investment we put in elite swimming in Scandinavia we are doomed to fail… not only in the elite departments of clubs and federations (which is not that important – the sun will rise tomorrow also without Olympic medals which we experienced the hard way this year) but also in the much more important department of getting more children to swim and to expand the organizations of the swimming community to offer more people the ability to swim in more ways.
Yours sincerely - Ricki Clausen
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Ricki Clausen is the newest blogger on Speed Endurance. Ricki is 37 years old and works as director of sports and elite coach in a major Danish swimming club (KSK). He has been a full-time elite coach since 1999 and has had swimmers participate in the finals of the Olympics, World Championships, European Championships and European Junior Championships. He is a partner on the Danish section of the swimming site "Simma.nu" as well as a partner in “DISH” – a Danish company that builds and renovates swimming pools. Ricki is also a swimming commentator on Eurosport.