Britain To Sever Aussie Link
Jun 11, 2008
Craig Lord

Britain is to withdraw from the Southport School and the offshore centre in Australia that played a fundamental part in the cultural revolution of the national swimming programme. The national federation's explanation boils down to the fact that it wants to develop Intensive Training Centres across the UK.

At the surface, there is some logic in the decision and confidence in a new network of centres and coaches at home is essential to their success. However, The Southport School on the Gold Coast was not just about being in the sun. It afforded benefits that Britain maz never be able to deliver even if it wanted to. Some are obvious, like the weather and outdoor 50m training year round, while cultural aspects and education counted for much, in terms of following a model that represented the good side of the German Democratic Republic. Then there is the worth of living in a country that rates swimming so highly and gives the sport a billing beyond anything it receives anywhere else in the world.

There is nowhere in Britain - and the ITCs will not deliver that - where a school pupil can train, eat, sleep and be educated on one campus, a campus that has more 50m pools within a 20km radius of it than exist in the whole of Britain. That last point is all the more poignant when you discount the facilities in Britain where swimming does not dictate pool time, space or usage. Elite sports fits in where it can in may programmes across Britain. The ITCs will change that to some extent. What cannot be changed is the interest in swimming and swimmers. The boys from Southport will notice a marked difference when they return to Britain. They will have seen much coverage of swimming in the Aussie media and they will have met a fair few members of the public who have shown knowledge of and interest in the sport of swimming. In Britain there is almost no coverage and public interest is minimal, apart from the eight days of the Olympic swim cycle once every four years, at which point success is expected by all.

The link with Southport will end in December 2009. With that will go the opportunity for the national team to make use of an excellent home-from-home base. The centre played a fundamental part in the success of the home countries of Britain at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

'The efforts of those involved in the Offshore Centre must be praised. They had an outstanding Olympic trials but this decision wasn't a performance issue,' explained National Performance Director Michael Scott. 'This is about building a long-term, sustainable structure for British Swimming that will lead to performance improvements for male and female swimmers. We have to take the opportunity that presents itself now by securing a presence in modern 50m pools in Britain and have a far greater on-shore presence. Our commitment to the programme and swimmers at the Offshore Centre will remain until they've finished but the future of British Swimming belongs in Britain.'

British Swimming explained: 'The decision came about as part of a contextual review into how the Offshore Centre would feature as part of the ITC network and it highlighted a number of areas that included the need for increased investment in order to build on the work undertaken in Australia. When the initiative was set up many international competitions were being held in Australia, such as the Commonwealth Games (06) and World Championships (07), and therefore the centre also carried a dual role as a venue for training and camps leading into these events. This need no longer remains.'

Scott added: 'It was a good decision to introduce the centre at the time but our focus now needs to return to the UK where we can provide increased opportunities within our network of ITCs. This network provides a more cost effective system where we can support greater numbers of athletes and coaches going forward. We need to build on the quality and quantity of athletes, coaches and support staff in Britain. This will see talent confirmation, podium and development working alongside each other more closely while interacting with grass roots swimming. We have to grasp this opportunity if we are to maximise the legacy of 2012.'

In that last sentence, Scott reveals the truth of the matter. Britain will get out of the Games in London 2012 what it has already put in. The ITCs may make a contribution but the impact of positive steps towards shifting the British programme to a 50-metre environment for many more swimmers and coaches will take time to filter through. When the Australian Institute of Sport was set up in the early 1980s, the first team-wide result that made the world sit up came in 1996. By 2000, at a home Games in Sydney and 20 years into the programme, Australian was in the midst of a new golden era and has gone from strength to strength, with the odd blip that all programmes suffer from time to time.

Britain's revolution started in 1996 to 2000 with Deryk Snelling as the first Performance Director, and shifted seismically in approach and attitude with the arrival of Bill Sweetenham, who set up the Southport programme at a time when Britain had nothing to offer that came anywhere close. The impact of the early years of the new Millennium cannot be overstated.

The generation of Halsall, Simmonds, Lowe and Co - at home in Britain but on a regime that took them to camps in China, the USA, Australia and elsewhere, with tutors in tow - and of Carry to Loughran Down Under with coach Chris Nesbit's team, have blossomed for a number of reasons. One of the most important was the cultural outlook, the expectation and the discipline of a kind instilled at Southport and while on the road taking on board a world view.

The boys who grew up at Southport not only felt special and were made to feel special but developed into special athletes, produced results and evolved into rounded human beings with a level of respect, education and vision of their own future that set them apart. Time will tell whether a home-based programme and the British environment can deliver the same result, both in and out of the water.