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Australia’s Olympic Swim Team Had ‘Toxic’ Culture

Australia's swimming athlete James Magnussen
James Magnussen of Australia looks disappointed after finishing second in the final of the Mens 100m Freestyle during the 2012 London Olympics at the Aquatics Centre in London on Aug. 01, 2012. Australia failed to secure an individual title in the pool for the first time since the 1976 Montreal games. Photographer: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Australia’s London Olympics swimming team was beset by “culturally toxic incidents” including misuse of prescription drugs and bullying that highlighted a failure of culture and leadership, a report said.

The so-called Bluestone Review, commissioned by Swimming Australia after the nation’s worst performance in the Olympic pool in two decades, found that a culture existed within the team which “did not appear to assist or support high-level performance for most people.”

“There were enough culturally toxic incidents across enough team members that breached agreements (such as getting drunk, misuse of prescription drugs, breaching curfews, deceit, bullying) to warrant a strong, collective leadership response that included coaches, staff and the swimmers,” the report said. “No such collective action was taken.”

Swimmers described the London games as the “Lonely Olympics” and the “Individual Olympics” and morale was allowed to slump as performances failed to match public and media expectation, the review said. Australians won one gold medal, six silver and three bronze at the swimming meet in London -- their lowest tally since 1992 in Barcelona.

The Australian Olympic Committee said any swimmers found to have misused prescription insomnia treatments in London may face sanctions. In the leadup to the games, the AOC banned athletes from using sedatives such as Stilnox during the event.

“If the claims are substantiated and the individuals involved are identified, the AOC will consider their conduct in the context of their Olympic team membership agreement and consider sanctions,” AOC president John Coates said.

Two Reviews

The Bluestone Review recommended creating an ethical framework of what Swimming Australia and the team stand for, updating internal codes of conduct and implementing better processes for managing issues around standards and expectations.

A separate independent review of Australian swimming conducted on behalf of the sport’s governing body and the Australian Sports Commission also published its findings today, making 35 recommendations to improve the sport.

“It has been a time of reflection and review and a time to be honest and open about how we can make the right steps towards future success,” Swimming Australia President Barclay Nettlefold said in a statement. “Before we look at winning gold medals, we want to win back the admiration of the nation.”

Sole Gold

Australia, home to former Olympic champions Dawn Fraser and Ian Thorpe, failed to secure an individual swimming title in London for the first time since the 1976 Montreal games. The 400-meter women’s freestyle relay team took the sole gold.

Disciplinary issues affected the team’s unity in London and some swimmers were pursuing their own goals rather than those of the squad, the Australian newspaper reported Sept. 12, citing people close to the team it didn’t identify. Men’s 400-meter relay swimmer Tommaso D’Orsogna said in a Sept. 13 interview with Australia’s Ten Network that some swimmers behaved more like schoolboys than Olympians at a pre-games camp.

“Poor behavior and disrespect within the team were not regulated or resisted strongly by other team members, and it was left unchecked or without consequence by staff and coaches on a number of occasions,” the Bluestone Review said.

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