Making the most of Britain's liquid assets

August 20, 2004

At the last Olympics our swimmers floundered but, despite setbacks, today's squad is back among the medal winners. Matthew Baker learns how, in the last of our series

Ian Turner, head coach of the British Olympic swimming team, still remembers four years ago when, after failing to win a single medal in Sydney, his swimmers came in for some swingeing criticism from one of Britain's best-loved athletes - the Olympic triple-jump champion Jonathan Edwards. Edwards bemoaned what he viewed as a complete lack of professionalism.

"Ninety per cent of them can't win medals, they're here to have fun," Edwards said, adding that the team was only interested in partying.

Four years on, though, under the guidance of Bill Sweetenham, the British swimming team's national performance director, things have changed.

"I felt we were unfairly treated by Edwards," says a tight-lipped Turner, choosing his words carefully. "After all, he was a household name, so everyone took notice of his comments. But we've worked hard to become the most professional sports team in Britain and we're working hard to become the most professional swimming team in the world. What he said is meaningless now."

It's certainly difficult to reconcile Edwards' remarks with today's British swimming team, which is widely recognised as representing the most improved swimming nation in the world. Despite early setbacks in Athens and subsequent questioning of Sweetenham's approach, the team could still return this weekend with medals.

And Turner is quick to defend his boss. He says: "Bill's brought in a full complement of sport science support and doesn't miss anything. He's almost paranoid in his attention to detail. It's that thorough.

"We've even got to the point where we go into the Olympic Village with surgical wipes so that people's hands are clean all the time. Athletes pick up illnesses and infections and they are susceptible to all sorts of things, so Bill takes every precaution. He also insists that swimmers have a water bottle with them at all times so they don't dehydrate, and that they always put on sun cream when they're exposed."

Such a meticulous approach has brought results quicker than anticipated and has created expectations that the team is finding hard to fulfil this week.

Sweetenham is adamant that the improvement in the team is no thanks to the sports governing bodies, which, in his view, are not investing nearly enough in swimming in this country. Turner echoes this: "The goose is no longer laying as many golden eggs as it was when National Lottery funding first came about. But if we do well in these Olympics, we're likely to get a funding boost."

However, one way the squad has managed to sidestep the facilities problem is by sending out young swimming hopefuls aged 12-13 years to an offshore swimming academy in Australia.

Turner, a former PE teacher, has been involved with the sport for 20 years, producing some 84 medallists at World, European and Commonwealth championships, as well as an Olympic silver medallist. But he considers one of his greatest achievements to have been the setting-up of Bath University's swimming programme in December 1996. The team has won 75 medals at Commonwealth, European and World championships.

"I've worked with swimmers for many years," he says, "and I still get a great thrill from developing talent and nurturing the champions of tomorrow. The value that we add to that swimmer excites me. I've had four Olympians - from Lincoln, of all places - whom I've trained since they were about eight years old. That's excitement, watching them develop into Olympians."

Under Sweetenham, Turner readily recognises that the intensity of his workload has increased substantially, but he is quick to repudiate any suggestion that the pressure might lead swimmers to take performance-enhancing drugs.

"I've no doubt that some of the less scrupulous nations are experimenting with drugs, but I know of no instance in this country - certainly, none involving the athletes I've worked with," he says. "I believe it's just too difficult to get away with it in this country because of the number of agencies that are testing these athletes." Swimmers are tested unannounced, in and out of competition, and have to fill in a form to say where they are at all times in case a drug-testing agency turns up.

Many of the Olympic squad's swimmers are still at university, including eight from Loughborough, where the team trains. As a former graduate of the university some 30 years ago, Turner is delighted to see how Loughborough has continued to build on its reputation as a centre of sporting excellence.

"A lot has changed here physically in terms of new buildings and facilities, but it's still the same in terms of the desire that this university has to produce world-class athletes. I'm also pleased that they remain flexible in regard to entry requirements to balance athletes'

academic needs with their sporting needs."

He adds that Loughborough has "set the benchmark" for helping athletes to combine study and training, and he says that other universities are becoming more sympathetic. "Loughborough offers a good deal of flexibility in terms of entry requirements to ensure it gets the best athletes. But other universities are becoming just as supportive and fostering the right environments, which is why we have so many undergraduates who are now Olympians."

Chris Earle, director of sport at Loughborough, says the university is "a kind of dating agency" that develops close relationships between sports coaches and scientists to identify any problem areas that need working on and to feed information back to academic departments to enable them to adapt courses in line with athletes' requirements.

"This is a long-term process," Earle says. "It's working well, but we need to step up a gear and improve further the communication channels between athletes, coaches and sport scientists."

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