British Swimming has launched an independent enquiry into allegations of bullying levelled at national performance director Bill Sweetenham.
The move follows an article in The Times newspaper written by former international table tennis player Matthew Syed that alleged Sweetenham’s methods had contributed to the retirement of 13 Olympic athletes.
Sweetenham rejected the allegations and said he had come close to quitting. “I’ve been coaching for 30 years – males, females, all levels – and I’ve never had a problem,” said the Australian. “All of a sudden now, because I set high standards and try to move British swimming on, I’m a bully.
“The high-level international competitions demand 100% commitment – some people can give it, others can’t. I think the enquiry is good because it will be shown that the allegations are incorrect. I’ve never been a bully.”
David Sparkes, chief executive of the ASA added: “The coach’s role is to get the best out of the athlete and that means at times encouraging them to go beyond that which the athlete knows they can do. I guess from an outside perspective that could look like bullying – and maybe it is. But it’s a difficult area for a coach and I’m not going to prejudge the enquiry.”
Jaime King, former British 100m and 200m breaststroke record-holder, told BBC Radio Five Live she was humiliated by Sweetenham at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona.
“I hadn’t swum very well and had been entered into a race I didn’t want to swim, ” explained King, who had raced more than two seonds outside her best in her individual 100m breastroke at the meet. He pulled me aside in front of the whole team and had a 10-minute rant and rave and told me I was the worst swimmer he had ever worked with. A lot of people were scared of Bill but no-one would really stand up to him. He’s caused a lot of people to give up.”
But Sweetenham, who has coached Australia at four Olympic Games, had a different version of events.
“I have an issue with people who say straight out they aren’t going to try in a relay and let the other three members of the team down. There are plenty of swimmers who will tell you that they have had plenty of encouragement and empathy from me over a long period of time, since I’ve been in Britain and before I was in Britain. If David Sparkes says I’m too demanding and too hard, that I want success way more than they do, then I’ll go in an instant.”
One swimmer who has sprung to Sweetenham’s defence since the article’s publication is David Davies, who won bronze at last year’s Olympics and July’s World Championships.
“I feel fortunate to have Bill. He has brought us on miles and made us a very professional unit, ” said Davies. “He has opened my eyes to how tough and dedicated you need to be to succeed.”