British Masters Express Concerns Over Governance in British Swimming

Masters Swimming Hall of Fame
Photo Courtesy: Aleksandr Safronov

British Swimming and Swimming Championships 2016 Ltd (SC2016) issued a statement back in November of 2016 to express their regret and apology for issues experienced last year at the European Masters Swimming Championships held in the London Aquatic Centre between 25th and 29th of May, 2016.  The meet was considered a fiasco due mainly to poor planning, logistics, staging and execution.  Many thought that the meet host put profit over protocol.

Fast forward to July of 2017 and you will find that tempers have not simmered even though efforts have been made by Great Britain’s Technical Committee and the resignation of David Sparkes, Chief Executive, British Swimming Ltd.  Additional concerns have been raised over alleged cronyism in choice of representation on a FINA level.

Recently, leaders in the British Masters swimming community have issued an Open Letter expressing serious concerns:

Open letter to Maurice Watkins, Chairman of British Swimming, and the other Board members of British Swimming

Dear Mr Watkins and other members of the British Swimming Board,

We are a group of Masters swimmers who have significant involvement in the administration of our sport and/or who have had major international success in Masters swimming. Several of us formerly competed internationally at elite level.

We are writing this open letter to express our serious concerns over governance in British Swimming and over the contemptuous and sometimes bullying manner with which the Board has treated our community. Most recently we have seen this in your decision to nominate a former Board member to FINA in total disregard of the wishes of stakeholders.

The immediate background, as you know, is the contribution of poor governance in British Swimming to the failure of the Masters event at the London European Aquatics Championships 2016 (although many of us had significant concerns over governance of swimming long before then). This event, as evidenced by a YouGov survey, was a disaster for competitors, described as a fiasco, shambles and the worst-organized Masters event ever.

Moreover, the Championships overall were a commercial failure, resulting in significant financial losses for British Swimming and UK Sport. Several hundred thousand pounds of these losses resulted from issues connected with the Masters event which might have been avoided by stakeholder engagement.

As you also know, the event resulted in a legal settlement in Autumn 2016 over competitors’ claims of breach of contract and gender discrimination. In this settlement competitors sought, and obtained, not individual compensation but an apology to the community and governance reforms, including reinstatement of our representation and a Masters budget.

Related to that settlement, British Swimming also made certain assurances over future governance. You asked the community to overlook past failures and to “look forward”, based on these assurances. However, in the subsequent nine months we have been gravely disappointed.

The open letter highlights our serious concerns over the governance and behavior of British Swimming in relation to Master Swimming affairs.

  1. A call to British Swimming to withdraw its nomination to FINA of one of its own former Board members (Simon Rothwell), made without following the proper procedure and against the wishes of stakeholders;
  2. A call to address issues of gender discrimination, in accordance with a promise to do so in a public apology issued nine months ago but still not acted on (arising out of the legal settlement with competitors over the 2016 European Aquatics Championships);
  3. A call to address a culture of lack of responsiveness, contempt and bullying behavior towards stakeholders who have sought to raise their concerns.

Read Open Letter From Concerned British Masters Swimmers And Administrators


  1. avatar

    The Championship was a bit of a fiasco for all of the competitiors. Some of the athletes missed events because security would not let them into the venue.

    Overall – it was a great experiance for me as an athlete participant. The venue was beautiful and the diving facility was world class. The lack of understanding of those running the competition that there would be overcrowding and problems was unforgivable.

    I hope that my Masters bretheren in Great Britian look to the US at what USA Masters Swimming did to break away from the USA Swimming to be sure that their interests were served.

  2. avatar
    Bruce Lawrie

    The significant concerns expressed are, for some reason, not relevant to the European Championships (non-masters) held at the same location/year. So, the capacity to produce a professionally run championships is evident. Begs the question, are Masters Swimmers undeserving of professional consideration? Setting all the elements of detrimental competition conditions and treatment aside, reference should be made to Health and Safety factors. Namely, taking the massive amount of competitors into consideration…..were the London Olympic Pool’s safety regulations adhered to???? Point being, is there a limit to how many individuals should be allowed into the changing and/or pool area, if so, was this limit broken and therefore Health and Safety compromised? Clarity would be appreciated.

    • avatar
      Sue Arrowsmith

      The problems with the Masters event arose essentially because the organisers vastly underestimated the entry numbers, and that happened essentially because they didn’t properly engage with Masters, whose representatives in GB warned them at three separate meetings exactly what numbers to expect (and it turned out that Masters’ own estimates were very accurate indeed). The organisers just didn’t engage with Masters themselves over the event despite an offer of help from the GB Masters reps who had vast experience of international meets – they were just told their help wasn’t needed – and the long memo the reps sent to try to help out once the problems emerged wasn’t even acknowledged. Then there was never any question of putting more money in to sort things out once the problems started (even to the extent that problems could have been mitigated that way) as the event was a such a commercial disaster and already in need of a big bail out from UK Sport in addition to the £250 000 guarantee by British Swimming itself and several hundred £k of contingency money from UK Sport. The commercial failure was mainly because of failure to attract the commercial sponsorship that was predicted in the bid to host the event and because the budget also assumed around £450 000 income from Masters’ accommodation commissions but Masters did not book their accommodation so they made only around a tenth of that – something that again might have been avoided by engaging with the Masters community before making those commercial assumptions. The gender discrimination issue was immediately down to the contractors engaged by LEN (European Federation) who had responsibility for that side, but wouldn’t have happened if the LEN and GB side both took proper care over equality issues which you’d expect to be addressed in an event of this scale. As for health and safety, there was actually great care to taken to comply in my opinion, though whether there was technical compliance in the end I don’t know (not sure whether there are separate numbers for poolside, changing etc rather than building as a whole). That itself in fact gave rise to the difficulties for spectators who weren’t being admitted. Happy to answer any more questions as I know a vast a amount about this event, having conducted the legal negotiations leading to the settlement by Masters swimmers and obtained lots of interesting extra info from Freedom of information requests to UK Sport!

    • avatar
      Sue Arrowsmith

      Perhaps should also clarify that when I say it was a commercial failure I mean the Championships as a whole – elite and Masters was technically a single event with the Masters part included specifically to make the money needed to fund the elite part through Masters income and the accommodation fees.

      • avatar
        Bruce Lawrie

        Appreciate your response, however, re. your comment

        ‘The problems with the Masters event arose essentially because the organisers vastly underestimated the entry numbers’

        Although, they may have initially underestimated, at some point in time a decision must have been made to continue accepting the huge amount of entries – irrespective of the implications for meet administration and any potential health and safety repercussions.

  3. avatar
    Sue Arrowsmith

    Yes – originally there was a limit on numbers. The decision to go over the original limit was actually imposed by LEN (whose general Secretary, however, is was also CEO of British Swimming so there is relationship there) because of the complaints about people missing out. Part of the issue there was the crazy contract signed by British Swimming with LEN which meant British Swimming had to do what they were told if LEN wanted to change the rules but without any change to the financial set-up i.e. to basically to bear the financial cost of anything LEN extra decided to require of them under a rule change to the competition. The extra competitors ended up costing more than the marginal revenue because they had to use paid staff rather than just volunteers for some things so there weren’t enough volunteers. That was another another reason for the commercial problems and difficulty of spending more on the Masters that might have helped the quality of the event, like a temporary pool for warm-up (though not as significant as the other items I mentioned in terms of contribution to the massive financial shortfall). There were also other smaller issues with the meet that came out in the YouGov survey that people were unhappy about that had nothing to do with all of this as well, that engagement with stakeholders would have helped with to do with presentations, certificates etc plus absence of social space. Another important point is that the PR and communication was incredibly badly handled – the “go away and shut up and just get on with swimming – it will all be great and it’s only you that’s moaning” approach. If LEN/BS had had decent communication with the community and its representatives even after it all went wrong they would have had a much more sympathetic response to the difficulties.

    • avatar
      Bruce Lawrie

      From a business perspective, did any organisation or individual/s accept responsibility for this sad fiasco? If so, did resignations occur as a result? Or, is UK Masters Swimming open to simular grossly unprofessional treatment in any related activity, be that competition participation/safety or training? Finally, if significant change fails to materialise….are our active members prepared to accept the possible continuance of what appears to be a bias treatment dealt to us Masters, viz. second class swimming participants. ‘One definition of madness is continuing to do the same thing, and expecting different results’……thanks to you, and all who have been instrumental in promoting Masters Swimmining, much appreciated.

      • avatar
        Sue Arrowsmith

        No. Obviously someone should have been, of course. The CEO of BS at that time was known to be leaving anyway to go the FINA Bureau, and without that we would not have settled the law suit, but we were led to believe he was going earlier than he eventually did. As for the future – well there is a new CEO coming in who has a good reputation, BUT in my view because of the way the Board has backed the old CEO over the FINA nomination we should take action of various kinds and not treat it as a new era. What that action should be there are lots of ideas about what I am not going to talk about on here but it is a debate we will have regardless of what our official reps now want to do, as there is a lot of anger over this – which this has developed over many years and the problem with the Europeans has just brought it to a head (over BS but also FINA and LEN, who are all tied closely together anyway). If you want to follow it for the future and get involved go on to the British Masters Swimming Facebook page for the public debate. (There’s also a lot more interesting debate going on private debate, though :).)