Monday, 7 January 2013

Would you invest with a presumed ROI of zero?

“What’s the point of elite swimming?” should be the only relevant question for Danish swimming (and I argue in the following article for Scandinavian swimming as a whole) these years. The question should be put forward because elite swimming in Scandinavia gives a zero return on investment (ROI) any which way you look at it.

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 "" as well as a partner in “DISH” – a Danish company that builds and renovates swimming pools. Ricki is also a swimming commentator on Eurosport.


  1. Danish swimming is rather unique in some ways and for those unfamiliar with their swimming culture, a bit hard to envision. I learned, am still learning this, the hard way: by coming from the Canadian swim culture and into Denmark. It's been three-and-a-half years now and I am still experiencing "You have got to be kidding me" moments.

    Ricki is pretty good at his job. He is one of the best producing coaches in the sport in Denmark. He does what a coach is supposed to do: put out fine aquatic competitors. There are a few coaches like this in Denmark, mostly people who actually know what is going on outside the borders of this tiny country. You have to give these coaches credit for putting up with the "that is the way we do things here" attitude.

    Well, eating soup with a fork might be the way some folk eat their soup. That doesn't mean it is the most efficient or optimal way of eating soup.

    The biggest difference between Danish swimming and other major swimming cultures in the western democratic nations is the cost: we, as humans, rarely place much value on what is cheap and being in a swim club in Denmark is dead cheap compared to the USA, GB, AUS, CAN etc.

    Certainly there are other major differences, as noted most eloquently and exactly by Ricki, basic fundamental differences that shape elite performance at grassroots level. but even then, cost/price plays a major factor.

    If you had to pay $500 for a good winter coat, that coat would be brushed, sprayed with stain and water repellant, hung up, cleaned. If you paid $25 for a no-name cheap imitation of the same coat, the chances of you lavishing the same care on it are greatly lower.

    The same holds true for optional recreational activities. Parents who pay $500 for 11 months of swimming (8-10 times per week)have a vastly different attitude and expectations from parents paying $200 per month plus mandatory regular fundraising to match that plus mandatory volunteering (or cash equivalent) for competitions plus plus plus.

    Different expectations fuel program changes, culture changes... ROI... what am I getting for my money, at grassroots level.

    And you do get what you pay for, there is no doubt about that. If you are paying very little for your child to be taught how to blow bubbles with their nose, then you can be pretty certain the person teaching your child to do that is exactly as Ricki has stated: young, inexperienced, poorly supervised, with limited expectations for producing a result.

    There are several good things about swim clubs in Denmark, please don't misunderstand, but unless and until the basic swimming culture expectations are radically changed, voices in the wilderness, like Ricki's, will continue to go unheeded. For this degree of change to occur, it MUST be strongly led from the top: day after day, week after week, year after year.

    People don't like changing "how we do things here". It takes them outside their comfort zones, probably takes power away from some people who really like that power, and removes routine. It's hard.

    It is not as hard as taking a 12 year old and turning them into an international swimming sensation in two years.

    Denmark has the parts of huge changes sitting there waiting to be drawn together into a critical mass that could propel this country into a massive surge in international recognition. It is here. Waiting. It is waiting for the right leadership to take a deep breath and step forward and drag this country kicking and screaming into the 21st century of performance management.

    It would be suggested that this be done without the assistance of Denmark's famous committee culture too. Swimming is not, and never really has been, a democracy. Endless discussions in a committee environment result in nothing but compromises.

    If one wishes to be a leader in excellence, there is no room for compromise.

  2. Real possibility to combine sport and studies at Universities may be one factor what helps US to produce elite athletes. In other words, keeping athletes get on with sport until they became elite athletes.

    For instance in Finland at the edge of university age, in practice, athlete must choose between sport and studies. Everyone have to do exactly same things in order to graduate and there is no flexibility to help athletes combine studies and training. Remarkable quantitity of potential elite athletes quit before that materialize.

    Helping athletes to combine studies and sport might end in increased number of elites with no extra costs.

  3. Hi Michele

    I find this to be more of a "how do we percieve the swimmers and their role in the swimming community"-issue than the overall performance management.

    Your argument could be "potato/potato" but hear me out: If we start seeing the swimmers as people that have to contribute to the system then the performance management will be halfway there by itself.

    Thanks for your comments.

    And to Anonymous: Finland seems as prone to elite swimming in the university system as Denmark :(


  4. But I do agree with you, Ricki. I just don't think you go far enough. The entire perception of competitive swimming in Denmark is way off-base. Very very few take it seriously or have the capacity to actually make the mental leap into a new model.

    The swimmers would gladly do it, just ask any of the "names" in Danish swimming. Advertising spot on television? Sure thing. Print ad? Absolutely. Become a patron of a charity? Sure, if someone taught them how to do this, I have no doubt the swimmers would happily embrace it.

    I absolutely agree with you, however.

  5. Christian Andersen10 January 2013 at 22:27

    I partly agree with your points, however I think you miss a point in your discussion, which I know you have touched upon before, but I think it is important.

    There is an attitude problem as you write. We as coaches (or clubs or whatever) need to promote the swimmers. Not protect them. But it is a difficult task to do. First of all there is the problems that Michelle mention, that we don't usual do it, but let us forget that for a moment.

    The real problem as I see it is where and how to promote the swimmers and swimmers in general. Sure we can do as Ricky proposes and get the very best swimmers to participate in tv-shows. And sure if we actually made a very nice press-conference for the swimmers after European Championships and so on that would also help. But this would mainly contribute to the promotions of the very best swimmers (8 swimmers max!).

    But how do we promote the level below that? The local heroes. The seniors, who actually managed to combine studies and swimming, and got a decent position as nr. 9 at the latest Danish Championship? This is really a hard task. Look at Tennis where Caroline Wozniacki is during great and gets a lot of attention in the media, but this haven't really helped on getting more members or better coaches in the Tennis-community, even though they are trying really hard.

    For swimming it is even worse. There is no promotion of anything.

    A new point: If you asked football fans if they can mention the names of all the players of their favorite football team, they will usually manage that. Or Handball. Or Ice-hockey.

    I'm not asking for a way to get every dane to know every danish swimmer. If I am just making the point, that no one besides coaches in Denmark have a clue who won the most medals at the latest Danish Championship. And the reason is that there is no good way of promoting that - neither locally or natially.

    So what I am proposing is that the swim association becomes much more visible in the media. Promote the stars and also promote the almost-stars. Use resourses to promote the national championships. Make sure that at least 3 different media is pressent. Create a press area and get the stars to BE there after the races. Invite an audience. Make a VIP-area for sponsors - with actual VIP benefits. Make a show out of the championships. Go to Vejle during Tour of Denmark (cycling) to see a show. Here they manage to get 5.000 people to stand on a 800m long hill. If they can do that why can't we even get one single person to go to a swim-meet? We need to be able to actually make tv-trailers for out meets.

    So the short version: We don't get any ROI before we manage to get other people than ourselves interested in our sport.

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