‘Prioritise The Olympics, the Only Competition That Matters’ Says Swim Elder Sweetenham

Katie Ledecky - winner of prizes and priorities that will last a lifetime and beyond - Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Sweetenham, one of the elders of world swimming, has urged coaches and swimmers to “prioritise the Olympics first and foremost” now the dates of Tokyo 2020 have been set for 2021, “as historically no-one, but no-one, recognises or remembers any other result or competition”.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) today named July 23-August 8, 2021 as the news dates of Tokyo 2020, the Games that will continue to be branded with the dateline of this year.

The Meaning Of It All For Swimming

It is not yet known what that will mean for the World Championships that would have taken place on the same dates in Fukuoka, also in Japan. As FINA, the international federation, talks to Fukuoka organisers (see statement in full below) who will stage the global gathering 20 years after first hosting the World titles, early suggestions hold that Worlds will follow straight on the back of Olympics.

While that may make some financial sense, it also raises instant and obvious choices and challenges for many swimmers. Distance freestyle specialists such as double World champion Florian Wellbrock, of Germany, would face an impossible schedule if peak form is what he hopes to deliver in pursuit of Olympic glory and the defence of his global titles.

His schedule would be something like:

  • Week 1: Olympic 800m (inaugural event), 1500m freestyle
  • Week 2: Olympic marathon
  • Week 3-4: World 10km (swim marathon title defence)
  • Week 4-5: 800m, 1500m freestyle (1500m title defence)

Sweetenham, former head of national programs in Australian Britain and mentor to a generation of Olympic podium placers, told Swimming World that his advice to those he works with is a message he hopes they hear ‘loud and clear’:

“The Olympics is the only competition that matters, the rest are pretenders! They should prioritise the Olympics first and foremost as, historically, no-one, but no-one, recognises or remembers any other result or competition.”

“Now is the first day of that journey (not tomorrow). Today matters! Commence strength and conditioning at home; invest in a home gym; given that Gyms are closing left right and centre there will be cheap gym weights and rowing machines etc going extremely cheap.”

The Australian’s words grant the Olympics the status they have long held in swimming, a sport in which only Olympic gold has guaranteed lasting status, recognition and financial rewards. No other prizes in swimming, a sport yet in the infancy of turning professional, have come close to having the impact on athlete lives of the biggest of Olympic results.

Australian Bill Sweetenham, Performance Director for the Team GB swimming team at the Team GB training camp, in Paphos, Cyprus, ahead of the Athens Olympics August 6, 2004. REUTERS/Toby Melville TM/ - RP5DRIDPTJAA

Bill Sweetenham – Photo Courtesy: Toby Melville

Sweetenham’s bucket list ran on:

  • “Commence a running program EVERY 2 days.
  • “Be competitive in all of the above and measure achievement, improvement as you go
  • “Video all of the above.
  • “Plan to perform no matter when the Olympics happen to be.
  • “I repeat the Olympics are the ONLY competition that counts. Find a private pool facility no matter what size and complete a planned and well designed tethered swimming program.
  • “See opportunity, as some of the greatest advantageous discoveries have been lead by innovative leaders in a ‘negative or down’ market.
  • “The more challenge in adversity the more that favours the strongest and best prepared. Opportunity awaits these people.

He advocated that all programs “get ahead on all non-swimming activities that will allow increased commitment to specific preparation” as soon as the coronavirus dies down enough to allow pools to re-open and a return to the water.

Sweetenham added:

“Use this opportunity to define exactly who YOU are: it’s not what you have or haven’t done it’s more than ever about how you think! Superior attitudes and character win ahead of all adversity.”

He drummed home his core message once more with a direct address to coaches:

“Remember, only the Olympics count! Forget FINA or any associated events. Maintain focus; handle distractions; manage emotions; and … instil all advantages in place for the athletes in your care. Win on YOUR strengths; superior in every possible way!”

Sweetenham told Swimming World that the shifting of the Games and what that meant for the rest of the sporting calendar presented a golden opportunity for the spirt”

“For me, this is a chance and opportunity to put a new system of global competition. And – No Sacred COWS!. The IOC could show some really great innovative leadership and stage a conference via the internet, no travel required, with ALL competition stakeholders and clients to come up with a fully integrated global competition plan and schedule/calendar that all can support and have confidence in and sign on.

“There should be no isolation of objectives other than providing the absolute best opportunity for all athletes. Buy in from ALL stakeholders would provide global swimming with a distinct advantage. We desperately need a global-leadership and direction-based strategy.”

The IOC, by naming the dates for 2021 has skirted any move to talk to major stakeholders, including athletes, though many had already stated they would like to see a shift for a year in the 2020 dates. That they now have.

It remains to be seen what FINA will do next. Says Sweetenham:

“We can only hope.”

In 2014-15, the Australian urged FINA’s leadership to submit the federation to “long-overdue and critical independent review with a view to improved governance and leadership of the sport” but was ignored. To this day, neither he nor the World Swimming Coaches Association of 17,000-plus members have received even a polite reply from the FINA leadership.

The Backdrop

The new dates for the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021 will see the Olympics end on the day they started in Beijing in 2008, when 08/08/08 was chosen as a lucky symbol for the Chinese hosts. Twelve years on and a virus that came out of China has wreaked havoc across the world and wiped out the sports calendar with a pandemic inflicting lasting damage on people and economies around the globe.

China has countered criticism for its status as the source of the outbreak with moves that include providing core data and research on the SARS virus of 2003 with scientists around the world via the World Health Organisation (WHO) to help produce a vaccine for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) to quell the current pandemic.

Against a backdrop of political turmoil, argument rages on the wisdom or otherwise of current tensions and severing of ties in research projects the USA and China had worked on jointly after the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Meanwhile, China is also sending medical teams and equipment out into the world to help others nations now fighting the peak phase of the spread of the virus.

FINA Statement


The FINA Handbook

Today, FINA rescinded to the news from the IOC with the following statement:

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, FINA would like to reiterate its concern for all those affected. FINA is well aware of the issues faced by aquatics athletes around the world, especially with regard to training and pool access.

Moreover, following today’s joint announcement by the IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organisers, concerning the postponement of the Olympic Games for 2021, FINA will now work closely with the host organising committee of the 2021 FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, with the Japan Swimming Federation and with the Japanese public authorities, in order to determine flexibility around the dates of the competition, if necessary and in agreement with the IOC.

FINA’s main goal is to ensure the success of its showcase event, while considering the importance of athlete wellbeing and maximising opportunities for aquatics stars to compete at the highest level.

FINA would like to express its continued and sincere gratitude to the IOC, and both the organisers of Tokyo 2020 and the Fukuoka 2021 FINA World Championships, for their very considerable efforts to bring the world together peacefully through sport.

1 comment

  1. Robin Carey

    This is amazing. 2012! we are time traveling now!!!!