Tall Poppies, Toxic Waters: Thoughts On Australian Swimming Review

Commentary by Casey Barrett

Independent review rips Australian Olympic Team… Alleges London failures of leadership and culture…

It's been seven months since the Games ended in London and it appears some aren't done licking their wounds. Before moving on and focusing on Rio, apparently a few countries still have some explaining to do. For the Aussies, their Olympic performance in London was deemed unacceptable. They are determined to find out why.

It wasn't the talent. The Australian squad entered London fully loaded. They were favored to win multiple events, multiple relays. They had the fastest freestyler on earth. They had women capable of winning more than one race. They won one: the women's 4×100 free relay. They left London with ten total medals, adding six more silver and three bronze.

That haul is an indication of just how high the standard is down under. In any other nation of 20 million, 10 Olympic medals in one of the Games' flagship sports would be cause for celebration. Not so for the Aussies. Small population be damned, they expect to compete with the Yanks and the Chinese in the pool — and at most Olympics, they do.

So, what happened in London? Let's see… There was pill popping and trash talking and boozing and bitterness and loneliness. That's just the documented stuff. Details in a second.

According to the independent review, published yesterday, it sounds like a case study in a business that lost its way. The phrases “culturally toxic” and “overall leadership failure” were used. These are the kind of nasty little buzzwords that get executives fired.

I happened to read SI's account of the report before boarding a flight from Nashville this morning. After reading it, I walked into the airport newsstand and wandered around the stacks of bestsellers. In the business section, there were no less than six featured books with the words “culture” or “leadership” in the title. These days, that's what it's all about. It doesn't matter if you're looking to sell t-shirts or win Olympic medals. Organizations with the winning mix of culture and leadership reach the top. I realize that sounds like annoying MBA-speak, but it's true.

In 2012, the Aussies did not have that mix, and Team USA did. The proof is on the podium.

So, what were the specifics? The rumblings of bad tidings seem to have started well before the Aussies reached London. Their lead-up training camp sounds like a mess of big egos and tone-deaf leaders. At these camps, there are always the requisite bonding activities. The initiation rituals for the rookies, the team-building skits for the veterans and coaches… Having been to a few of these things with Team Canada many years ago, I know it's a delicate balance. For the veterans, it's easy to resort to eye-rolling jadedness. For the more mean-spirited members of the team, it's also easy to resort to mockery and a bit of bullying.

For a few of the Aussies — specifically, it's said, members of that doomed men's 4×100 free relay — that involved an initiation ritual featuring the popping of sleeping pills at one of those team bonding nights in the weeks before London. Consider that for a second. The studs of the team, the guys getting all the press, the guys considered locks for gold in the marquee relay of the Games, the ones everyone looked to first… Those guys treated a team bonding night as a perfect evening for some pill popping.

Now, contrast that with what was going on across town with Team USA's bonding rituals. They were busy making that viral sensation “Call Me Maybe” video that revealed a team of loose, laughing confidence. Is it any wonder which team was ready to step up and support each other when the Games began?

Fact is, Olympic medals are often won or lost long before any swimmer steps onto the starting blocks. The culture of a national team matters more than swimmers or most coaches might realize. If that culture devolves into one of toxic isolation, then good luck swimming fast when it matters. And if the leaders expected to guide that culture don't recognize it and change its course in a hurry, well then, good luck leading future national teams.

Now, here's a little nugget that didn't make that independent review. Remember when Nathan Adrian touched out the heavily favored James Magnussen for gold in the 100 free? In the days after his triumph, Mr. Adrian received many-a-deserved back slaps from swimmers from countless countries. But he never expected to get props from the teammates of the swimmer he'd just beaten. He did. Reports soon crossed the Atlantic that some Aussies actually thanked Adrian for beating a man who may have gotten too big for his britches.

There's a well-documented character trait among many Australians known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Basically, this means that it is part of the national character to want to knock down high achievers. Knock those tall poppies back down to size, back down to the same height as all the others. It's not just limited to Australians, of course, it's prevalent in many a nation — including Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth. (Hell, it sounds like the standard group behavior of girls in high school!) But this Tall Poppy instinct can be particularly destructive when you're talking about Olympic dreams.

At its best, the Tall Poppy Syndrome can serve as an excellent dose of humility for those who might need it. One of the things I've always liked in the Aussies I've called friends is their self-effacing humility. No matter how rich or successful, you always tend to get a bit of the 'I'm just really lucky' disclaimer. It can be refreshing, especially when compared to the clueless Yankee swagger so often on regrettable display.

Yet, at its worst, you get a situation like this. The tallest poppies fail to show that natural Aussie humility, fail to set the tone in a team's culture, and as a result, their compatriots are only too eager to see them knocked back down. Then, the leadership fails to see what's happening right before their eyes, and before they've noticed there's a problem, they have a swim-mad nation howling about an underachieving crew and wondering what's gone wrong.

Half a year removed from the Olympics, it took an independent review to state the obvious equation: Toxic culture + lack of leadership = Poor Olympic performance.

About The Author:
Casey Barrett is a Canadian Olympian and is the co-founder of Imagine Swimming, New York City's largest learn-to-swim school. He is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning writer for his work with NBC Olympics. His columns can also be found on his blog, Cap & Goggles: www.capandgoggles.com.