Has Swimming Lost Its Personality & Does It Know Where To Find It?

2023-12-20 4 comments Reading Time: 12 minutes
Matt Richards - World Champion over 200m freestyle two years after Olympic 4x200 team gold at 18 - Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)
Matt Richards - World Champion over 200m freestyle two years after Olympic 4x200 team gold at 18 - Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer / MAGICPBK)

Editorial: When Mary Earps took to the stage to accept the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) Award last night, she thanked her fellow nominees and paid tribute to their achievements and then, in thanking the voting public, expressed gratitude for having been chosen for the “ultimate sporting accolade”.

And there’s the rub. The accolade is not that. It’s a British peculiarity. Yes, it involves merit and high achievement – and both most certainly apply to Mary Earps.

But there’s a rider, an asterisk, an explainer because the winner didn’t actually win anything. The questions that raises are significant to discussion on the status of swimming and other Olympic sports in the pecking order of popularity, attention/mainstream media coverage, audience size and standing in the much broader church of a nation’s cultural and societal priorities.

Through the international swimming/Olympic sport prism first: ‘Mary who’, I hear many of you out in the world of water ask. That’s not an insult, any more that Earps saying ‘Emma who’ about McKeon (or similar) might be perceived to be a diminishing return on the scale of respect. It’s just that people don’t know everything – and, in general, they know far less about women’s football than men’s and they know far less about swimming than they know about the likes of Messi.

In Britain, do they know the name Mary Earps as well as they know Adam Peaty? Probably not a couple of years back but that’s changed in the past few years as women’s football has become the poster girl for a “new golden era for females in sport”. As Sharron Davies and I note in “Unfair Play“, it’s not about women’s sport: “… it’s about football, stupid!”

Anyone tempted to disagree, I ask only why you think Mary Earps is now a personality and a household name, while Kathleen Dawson and Anna Hopkin, who claimed Olympic gold for Britain in Tokyo (in a team event), could walk down just about any street in Britain and even wander through most sports venues without anyone noticing who they were. I ask you to consider why they and other women swimmers get less coverage now than they did in the 1990s and 2000s, let alone the 1950s, 60s and 70s?

It’s not a women’s sport thing. It’s a football thing…

Take cycling, Josie Knight, Anna Morris, Katie Archibald and Elinor Barker; then Elinor Barker and Neah Evans; and Emma Finucane: all World champions for Britain in 2023.

And what of rowers Imogen Grant and Emily Craig? World Cup wins, World title, swiftest ever clockings and World Rowing Crew of the Year award.

Their excellence for Britain is not worth a place on a short-list: too mediocre?

Again, none of that is an insult; it’s the reality of their achievement being undervalued because they’re swimmers and rowers, in the mirror of a different experience: the footballer has a far greater chance of recognition and reward even when they don’t actually win.

Mary is the England women’s football team goalkeeper. The 30-year-old was the Lionesses’ standout player on a team that didn’t win but did a tremendous job of making the World Cup final earlier this year.

Fair and appropriate to note that Mary was the best at what she does very well: she got the Golden Glove for the best goalkeeper at the tournament. And she’s the second women’s footballer in succession to win the BBC award, a prize that carries understanding in its title. But try telling anyone involved in the BBC awards that Adam Peaty and Duncan Scott delivered the fastest splits ever to claim Olympic and World gold and then suggest that accolade might boost their chances in the personality stakes and you’d soon be made to feel as though you’d farted in the midst of the King’s speech.

Mary had a fabulous year and her award will doubtless help football clubs up and down Britain recruit another wave of young girls to football (yes, sport, but football). But she was not the highest achiever on the short-list for the award, in my opinion. My bias is straightforward: I like swimming far more than football and as such have no idea if Mary is a “personality” or not or whether she is a bigger “sports personality” than anyone else on the BBC list in 2023.

Nor do I care. I do care about the achievements of the athletes on that shortlist and the many others who didn’t even make the selection even though they became World champions in 2023, some after having been Olympic champions at 18 years of age: folk like double World title holder Matt Richards, for example.

Mary’s gold at Britain’s “personality” awards” was followed by silver for England cricketer Stuart Broad and bronze for World heptathlon champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson. The others short-listed were Jockey Frankie Dettori, wheelchair tennis player Alfie Hewett and golfer Rory McIlroy.

On pure achievement, which would make any overall nationally recognised prize the “ultimate accolade”, Johnson-Thompson would probably have got my vote: she won, she won at global level, she retained the title and she did so in an event that requires multi-event skills in track and field, a sport in which the best face the best from at least 50 nations that have medal-shot rivals at the very top of their game.

The argument I’ve read elsewhere that footballers face far more opposition and that only 5 or so athletes in a heptathlon are “real” title shots is bogus. Katarina faced 17 word-class opponents – on her own. And while she was one of seven athletes within striking distance of gold in her sport, just five teams were given a decent chance of winning the women’s World Cup, according to Statistica, and two of the top three did indeed end up in the final.

Such counts take nothing away from any of the athletes involved. The achievements of the most decorated Olympian in history, Michael Phelps, did not happen in isolation, even if he was a hot favourite for immortality: he won alongside opponents (Crocker, Cseh, Lochte, for example) who on any other day would have seen the word “greatest” alongside their names at various moments and levels in the context of specific events and, indeed, multi-eventing.

I once heard an editor describe Phelps going for gold No X in his record bull-run of eight as “boring” because it was “inevitable”. A frustrated colleague who felt differently wrote a column on it after I asked him if we should think the birth of a child, The Migration and the Earth’s rotation all very boring, given the inevitable nature of the miracle unfolding.

How To Measure Personality …

“Personality”, “Popularity” and other such riders attached to awards are no more that the kind of rules toddlers hook to their play when their favourite car must always win the next race.

The truth about the BBC award is underpinned by these two facts: the vote relies on the popularity of the sport in question and any top three finish at a tournament in soccer is highly likely to get the nod over Olympic gold for a swimmer; the vote relies on the key word in the award title.

Personality: the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character; a celebrity or famous person.”

The first of those may apply to a sport in its entirety, too, not just the athletes within it. Some say swimming has been sapped of its personality by poor governance and a failure to exorcise the ghost of the past. I don’t disagree – and current reform measures are very much in their infancy.

Those key definitions of ‘personality’ confirm that the BBC honour, generally regarded in Britain as the top overall sports prize of the year, is not based on pure achievement and merit in the global result.

The award goes to a ‘personality’ among those who make a short-list chosen by a SPOTY panel of judges (swimmers very rarely make the list), and the public then votes on the panel’s choices. For personality, however, read not athlete but sport. A footballers can win even when they don’t win; a swimmer can’t win or even make the short-list even when they do win. That’s the process by which double World champion Matt Richards is not a ‘personality’ worth rating, apparently.

The BBC and its panellists will doubtless have their explanations. Whatever they are, they don’t wash with me. If you ask many a journalist, not to mention sports editors such as the one who once said to me “the trouble with swimming is that swimmers have no personality”, they will offer explanations that come down to this: the popularity – and therefore commercial value to all concerned, including media – of the sport in which the “personality” achieves.

It certainly isn’t down to “personality” alone, or even “personality” at all. Perhaps they mean popularity but that might be seen as rather vulgar, cheap and nasty. And, again, it would apply to the sport not the athlete and in that climate it’s hard to tell what voters voted for, athlete or sport?

I’m more certain about this: I’ve listened to a lot of snap interviews of footballers, swimmers, runners and many others down the decades and believe more gold and personality has flowed from one panting swimmer in a mixed zone than many a post-match pant from the ranks of players given far more airtime that anyone else when they have far less to say that’s of any interest whatsoever if “personality” is what we’re looking for. And yet, there’s no end to it.

I’ve no idea what the merits may be of having “personality” in the title of an award that’s supposed to be a measure of achievement in sports that can be measured in only one way: the result. And that’s the case whether it’s a time on the clock, a points score earned or allocated (or both) or the number of times a ball makes it into the back of a net or across one at a trajectory bouncing the right side of a line.

In short, while it’s not easy to compare results across a wide spectrum of very different sports, it is not nearly as complicated as some would suggest it is if we simply treat a global crown in any sport with the respect the winner deserves.

Florian Wellbrock – by Patrick B. Kraemer

In Germany, Florian Wellbrock, the double world Open-Water champion, finished runner-up in his nation’s sportsman of the year honours behind Lukas Dauser, the first World Gymnastics champion for Germany in 16 years. The women’s list was topped by Biathlete Denise Herrmann-Wick.

Personally, I think two lists, sex-based, according to the nature of elite sport, is the right way to go. Men compete with men, women with women. Biology counts and any suggestion that it doesn’t is a vote for fraud, regardless of intention. It isn’t inclusive to exclude women from fair and meaningful comparison, female with female.

Generally, the German awards offer a far wider view of the nation’s high achievers in many more sports than the BBC event does in Britain. Katarina and Alfie were the odd ones out on a list that included four highly paid professionals earning at a rate well beyond standard fare among high achievers in Olympic (let alone Paralympic) sport.

Stagnation Where A Personality Is A Problem

All of this comes on the cusp of Olympic year and in the midst of a bitter debate about the BBC’s apparent lack of interest in swimming, in particular, and the mainstream media’s serious lack of coverage of the sport.

Peaty’s absence from Fukuoka on his way to a fine return to racing in the wake of personal challenges, got more coverage than all the action reported in all the papers put together.

Adam Peaty, From Crisis To Quest: Into The Light Of Self-Discovery, No Need To Prove His Worth

Adam Peaty, Crisis To Quest – Part 1 – Winter 2022 To Spring 2023: My Self-Destructive Spiral

Football and all the rest get that kind of ‘controversy first’ treatment, too, but it goes alongside all the match coverage, acres of it, every week. Swimming, the actual action in the pool, gets a passing mention – on a fantastically good day. Mostly, it gets nothing.

Not a single British journalist working for mainstream media attended the World Championships this year, while niche media celebrated the closest thing they had to hang on to: former independent journalists no longer covering Olympic sport on a regular basis (as cutbacks bite first in what was an amateur stronghold until the mid-1980s but not in pro-sport), now working in-house for federations and therefore unable to cover the sport in the same way as the mainstream media does.

If anyone wishes to take issue with that, I’m happy to have full and open debate on it. Step up the brave! First, consider this: when me and a few of my colleagues spotted then FINA boss Cornel Marculescu hugging Sun Yang* on the Olympic deck in Rio two years after a positive test for which the Chinese swimmer was never properly punished, who covered it? We did. It mattered very much indeed. We had reason to write celebratory stuff about James Guy of late. Go back to 2016 and we find him missing the Olympic podium by a touch because Sun has just won an Olympic title as a cheat never properly sanctioned and on his way to a second offence against the WADA Code, alongside his twice penalised doctor, Ba Zhen*.

Sun got banned but he kept all his prizes and those denied kept their emptiness and may well have to tolerate the return of a twice penalised athlete at the Paris Olympics should Sun show up at trials in form to make the Games cut for a fourth time.

Which in-house/organisation press service ran the story? None. Why? Conflict of interest. It’s the place where journalism gets going and PR/in-house positivity falls off a cliff edge into the lap of unquestioning fandom and the issues raised in this three-parter:

When It’s “Increasingly Difficult For Serious Journalists To Cover” Sports

When It’s “Increasingly Difficult For Serious Journalists” To Cover … Part II: Swimming

When It’s “Increasingly Difficult For Serious Journalists” To Cover Sport … Part III: Trust

What Do Audiences Grow On?

The answer is constant coverage. Look at pro-sports. Sport the model: simple, easy to follow, fast-action, two-hour show and on to the next recognisable, familiar, much-loved ands followed game, result, cup, season etc. All those sports have one big thing in common: a constant flow of broadcast and mainstream media attention.

Massive audience, far beyond any niche Olympic-sport crowd, especially in the valley between the four-yearly Heights.

It’s why it matters massively that the BBC, a public broadcaster, did not send anyone to the World Championships, did not show any of the multi-sport aquatics event live, even though it did broadcast the global showcases of many other sports low on the ladder of popularity. If the swimmer is invisible, a place on a ‘personality’ ranking through public vote is a mission impossible dictated by the BBC itself.

Swimming audiences were angry and sad, as well they might be, but the other part of that picture is the wider audience that bypasses anything that it is alerted to and entertained by. Result: no growth.

Some of those events the BBC did cover were either at home or much closer to home than Fukuoka in Japan, and there were whispers about the cost of rights but that’s one of the issues marked “no transparency here” on grounds of commercial confidentiality. The arguments for full transparency are stronger, in my view.

While costs cannot be ignored, the BBC’s decisions, highly criticised by national-team parents and many others, cannot only be put down to the price tag – nor the BBC. The issues are complex and need particular consideration.

Swimming is a sport that once ranked much more highly than it does today. But what can you expect if you turn a blind eye to the bloody stain that remains the official record of the sport.

Many in swimming raise their eyebrows or show no interest when “the GDR doping era” is mentioned. What they care less about, though, is not the journalist raising the questions but the swimmers, women in particular, and their coaches were told to shut up, told they weren’t up to the job, told to “try harder”.

Those messages often came from governors who failed to raise a red flag even when the biggest and most damaging heist ever witnessed in world sport was unfolding in broad daylight. That wilful blindness is alive and kicking to this day. Blazers may wish to drag their heels yet but they might also care to notice that the tipping point gets ever nearer as swimming slides down the pecking order of sports the mainstream media pays attention to in the void between a month or so of attention once every four years.

In Britain, it was not uncommon until the 1980s to have several TV crews and dozens of mainstream media showing up to cover national championships. Beyond the opportunity to interview a big name for a feature, the media stays away, all but completely away, in fact, from nationals these days. Even Olympic trials struggle to get more than a few reporters in the building at a time when remote coverage has made swimming ever more remote from its potential audience.

And that in an era of Peaty, Scott, Richards, Tom Dean, James Guy. Everyone of those men is brimming with ‘personality’ – and pantheon prizes. Just one has made a BBC awards list – and no amount of pioneering and pulverising performance for Olympic gold was good enough.

So What Does Swimming Do?

At the end of a year of plenty in the pool but relative drought in the media (and that a fact far beyond the shores of Britain), swimming faces questions about its place on the competitive side of the tracks running through the marketplace.

Subsidisation and sponsorship/partnership will make sure swimming doesn’t dry up but where do we look to for growth? Where do we look to for growth of a kind that spreads the word about swimming as far more valuable to society than a pantheon of medals and the funding tree they hang on? How does the sport ensure that its experience of the Covid pandemic (its voice often muted when seeking influence among politicians and decision-makers) will not be repeated? Have the lessons of 2020-21-22 been learned?

Swimming In A Pandemic: Chlorine Kills Corona, So Why Were Swimmers Frozen Out By The Bug?

Swimming - a sport frozen out of its element by a pandemic that highlighted the weakness of amateur foundations in a professional era
Swimming – a sport frozen out of its element by a pandemic that highlighted the weakness of amateur foundations in a professional era – photo by Craig Lord

The personality of swimming itself needs addressing. How does it make itself more attractive to the potential audience? No amount of in-house services to existing fans nor niche media offers can make up for the loss of mainstream media if “growth” is what the sport truly wants. Between 2024 and the 2028 Olympic Games, reform on many levels will be required to improve swimming’s competitiveness in the sports market.

Is swimming ready? Has it understood the issues? Is it listening beyond the soothing tone of the sycophant confusing best-interest with self-interest? We’ll be looking for answers in 2024.

Early next year, SOS will launch some new services. As part of our Paris Olympics coverage, we’ll be peering over the lane line at some of the dry-land issues holding swimming and swimmers back.

Meanwhile, our SOS 2023 Awards, coming soon, will mark the end of our year of coverage. Thanks for tuning in and sticking with us at times when preparing for the future has meant less time in the visible present.

A Very Merry Christmas & Festive Season To All Our Readers & Best Wishes For A Happy & Healthy 2024 and the pursuit of goals in sport – and the rest of life.

Anyone wishing to know more about our plans for the coming season can express their interest in an email to craig.lord@stateofswimming.com and we’ll make sure you’re among the first to know.

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4 thoughts on “Has Swimming Lost Its Personality & Does It Know Where To Find It?”

    As long as Swimming’s national governing bodies would prefer to have in-house PR people rather than active journalists,,,” real journalists” covering their sport we will continue to go nowhere in terms of recognition because the public is too sophisticated most times nowadays to fall for PR nonsense.
    PR shills working for NGB’s simply lower the bar until their NGB can clear the bar just does absolutely nothing to create excitement among the sports interested public about our sport, or any sport.
    Thank you Craig for another excellent analysis!
    Happy Holidays to All. John Leonard

    The number one priority has to be root and branch reform at World Aquatics. Secondly there needs to be a realisation that the NGBs do not need to be the only promoters of events. Then, a format that ticks the boxes you point out, primarily a fast action, two hour format that is personality lead. I’d quite like to see caps banned and some other identification method used. I know ISL failed but that must be close to the right answer, but with NGB support and perhaps properly national teams. Finally a concerted effort to get the big personalities doing generalised PR, get them on TV even if it’s through the keyhole.

    Thank you Craig. I’ve recently moved back from Club and professional (ISL and Pro swim group) swimming to College swimming (and diving). I am reminded daily of the incredible real life stories that create team energy and team cultures for these 18-22 year old dynamic (and in many cases, some of the best in the world!) and incredibly interesting and impressive co-eds.
    There is a phenomenal event in March that will be offered —the women’s and men’s NCAAs…. But almost no one except mom’s, dad, grandparents, and a few loyal sport specific alumni will be paying any attention…
    1. Date. CSCAA, The swim committee and apparently many coaches lack understanding that anything on the calendar in college sports in March that is not called Basketball has zero chance of gaining any significant attention – at any level.
    2. Format. As college football has discovered, the bracket format is a proven and understandable way to determine a national champion. Round-robin dual meet formats would be (in my opinion) and much more exciting and relatable (non swim people can just cheer for their team to get one more point that the other team) show (yes we should be trying to create a “show” atmosphere… Dual meets last 2 hours — perfect.
    I suggest we analyze local as well as challenge the complacency and monopoly of World Aquatics. The ISL did get a lot of things right — open access for media at the meets, constant interaction with the TV and audience at the pool, as well as the lights, music, and entertainment based announcer were a step in the right direction…. Let’s learn and change!

    Thank you David. Your suggestion is good. Reform has a long road ahead to travel yet and some of the pitstops will be out of reach until there’s a change of some of the guard that remain in decision-making positions without understanding what’s required to make reform a reality that speaks to the betterment of the entire sport, her athletes, coaches, families and communities.

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