The Olympics comes around every four years, and we remember it as the stage on which world records are broken and gold medals are won. We rarely take the time to consider the other side of the Olympics, the defeats. The majority of the athletes who attend the Olympics will not win medals, and very few will set world records. But this is completely normal, after all, the Olympics is where the world’s best athletes get together to compete against one another. We know that some countries with large, well-funded Olympic programs are going to win the lion’s share of the medals while other countries who are able only to send a handful of athletes will likely go home empty handed. I’m sure we can all recall watching the opening ceremonies and hearing the Tv commentators botch the names of some of these smaller nations. So, the big countries with the star athletes get all the coverage and glory while the little guys are often only discussed when something atypical and amazing happens. However, this wasn’t the case during and after the 2012 London Olympics. One of the biggest, most well-funded Olympic teams in the world had a particularly bad showing in one of the sports they hold dearest to their hearts. In this post, I will present the story of the 2012 Australian Olympic swim team through an applied social psychological lens.
Australia has always loved swimming, especially competitive swimming. They have a decorated history of dominating in the pool at international competitions like the Olympics and the world championships. In 2012, Australia boasted some of the fastest swimmers in the world. Athletes like Eamon Sullivan, James Magnussen, Cate Campbell, and Emily Seebohm had all put up either the fastest times or second fastest times in the world going into the Olympics. Given all the talent on the team, anyone on the outside looking in would have picked Australia as a favorite to dominate in the pool. Once the Olympic competition started, it was clear that something was amiss. The Australians ended up winning just one gold medal and left London with no new world records. Those in the swimming world were shocked. They simply didn’t understand what could have gone so wrong. There were rumors of all kinds flying around, but eventually, a consultancy group brought in by the Australian national Olympic committee produced a report that painted a picture of a team in complete disarray. Two official reviews of team conduct were produced, and the way the Australian swim team was described as “culturally toxic”. The reports uncovered widespread alcohol and drug use throughout the team’s members. A culture of bullying, deceit, and lack of leadership was also reported. Athletes talked about how utterly “toxic” the culture of the team was during the Olympics.
How did the Australian Olympic swim team unravel so disastrously; the report tells us everything we need to know. The athletes and the coaches all point to a lack of leadership and responsibility at all levels. Coaches were only paying attention to the star athletes and were completely oblivious to the alienating effects of their preferential treatment. Star athletes felt overly pressured to perform and grew anxious while the lesser known swimmers felt as though they were completely neglected by their coaches. This lead to what one athlete describes as “a schoolyard clamor for attention and influence”. There was no cohesiveness or team unity, and the communication between athletes and their coaches was severely lacking. Furthermore, there were no common goals, each athlete got into a mindset where they were concerned only with their own performances not the performances of their teammates. Coaches recall a lack of team building exercises from the very formation of the team after the Australian Olympic trials earlier in the year. Overall, the two reports indicate a failure to create a functional team/organization on almost all levels.
A great deal can be learned from the 2012 Australian Olympic swim team and indeed, other teams, as well as the Australian team themselves, have used the 2012 performance as a learning experience. It can be extremely challenging to create a positive and functional team/organization especially when the group is large and when the pressure to perform and produce is high. The challenge for elite sports teams is similar to those of corporate organizations. Mainly that a group of individuals who are all asked to perform at the highest level within their own right must also be able to contribute positively to the group culture. It takes more than money and resources to engender this kind of functionality and that is why some of the most well-funded teams and organizations can be just as susceptible to team breakdown as smaller groups with fewer resources.
“AOC Swimming Investigation Findings.” Australian Olympic Committee, corporate.olympics.com.au/news/aoc-swimming-investigation-findings.
“Bluestone Edge Culture Review into Australian Olympic Swimming.” Bluestone Edge Bluestone Edge Culture Review into Australian Olympic Swimming Comments, bluestoneedge.com/bluestone-edge-news/bluestone-edge-culture-review-into-australian-olympic-swimming/.
Crouse, Karen. “Sedatives and Pranks Preceded Australia’s Olympic Flop.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Feb. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/02/23/sports/olympics/australian-swimmers-at-olympics-admit-to-taking-prescription-drug-and-making-pranks.html.
Schneider, Frank W. Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. SAGE Pub., 2012.