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Bullying, alcohol, drugs - Australian swim team was 'toxic'

By Gary Morley, CNN
February 19, 2013 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
Emily Seebohm blamed her overuse of social networking website Twitter for her failure to win Olympic gold at London 2012 as the favorite in the women's 100m backstroke, where she finished second. Emily Seebohm blamed her overuse of social networking website Twitter for her failure to win Olympic gold at London 2012 as the favorite in the women's 100m backstroke, where she finished second.
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  • Independent review criticizes "toxic" culture of Australia's Olympic swimming team
  • Report accuses swimmers of getting drunk, using prescription drugs, bullying teammates
  • Swimming Australia says it is already addressing issues after disappointing London 2012
  • Australian swimmers failed to win more than one gold medal for first time since 1992

(CNN) -- Australian swimming officials have vowed to "win back the admiration of a nation" following the release of a damning report that blamed a "toxic" team environment at London 2012 which led to the country's worst Olympic pool performance in 20 years.

It was the first time Australia had failed to win more than one swimming gold medal since 1992, and the subsequent independent review revealed problems throughout the team -- from lack of leadership at the top to unacceptable behavior by the athletes.

"Standards, discipline and accountabilities for the swim team at the London Olympics were too loose," the report said, having canvassed 94 individuals and received 30 submissions.

"There were enough culturally toxic incidents across enough team members that breached agreements (such as getting drunk, misuse of prescription drugs, breaching curfews, deceit, bullying) to warrant a strong, collective leadership response that included coaches, staff and the swimmers. No such collective action was taken."

Coming soon after this month's government report claiming widespread use of drugs by Australian athletes, it is another serious blow to the country's image of sporting excellence.

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Swimming Australia said Tuesday it had already begun to address some of the issues raised in the review, and had a 100-day plan to tackle them further.

"Swimming has a proud history in this country and everyone in the sport wants to maintain and improve on the credibility and integrity which has developed over more than a century of success," said its president Barclay Nettlefold.

"Before we look at winning gold medals, we want to win back the admiration of the nation, and we want to engage with our swimming community like never before at every level."

One of the review's key criticisms was that team officials had been so focused on winning gold medals that the morale of the athletes suffered.

Swimmers complained of being ignored if they failed to achieve expected standards, describing it as the "Lonely Olympics" and the "Individual Olympics."

"Things were quiet and weird when someone lost. You just sort of went to your room and got out of the way," said one in the report.

Some respondents felt that team officials were only interested in presenting the most well-known swimmers to the media, with 24 of the 47-strong squad being first-time Olympians, while some did not turn up to support their colleagues on race days.

"The consequence was an undertone of divisions, now and then, us and them, men and women, the best and the rest," the report said.

"Poor behavior and disrespect within the team were not regulated or resisted strongly by other team members, and it was left unchecked or without consequence by staff and coaches on a number of occasions.

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"Some individual incidents of unkindness, peer intimidation, hazing and just 'bad form' as a team member that were escalated to personal coaches were not addressed and had no further consequence."

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These problems were magnified by a lack of control of the team's social media activities, the report said.

Emily Seebohm claimed her overuse of Twitter cost her a gold medal in the 100 meters backstroke event in which she was favorite, while Stephanie Rice made headlines after posting a picture of herself in a skimpy bikini just before the Games.

Teammates Nick D'Arcy and Kenrick Monk were forced to remove a picture they posted online showing them with weapons in a U.S. gun shop. They were banned from using social media at London 2012.

"The media search for controversy is nothing new, but London was the first Games where the influence of social media was so dramatic," the report said.

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"Some athletes engaged deeply in public debate on what they were doing, how they were doing, and even on who they actually were as individuals. This served to fuel emotions, good and bad, at a time where calmness, intensive focus and consistency should have prevailed.

"Social media also allowed already disconnected athletes to seek support from sources external to the team, which again diminished the reliance on a unified team."

The report said the lack of team spirit was partly caused by letting the swimmers prepare under individual programs with their own coaches, which caused a disconnect at all levels of the squad.

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Meanwhile, the Olympic village environment was described as "mayhem" and "a candy shop of distractions."

"Fragmentation was compounded in the absence of familiarity and sufficient opportunities to connect formally and socially. Greater cohesion as a team would have needed to be intentional and cultivated by design," the report said.

The Australian Sports Commission welcomed the review's findings.

"Swimming Australia has already commenced recruitment for a new high performance director and has also taken steps to improve its relationship with key stakeholders," said ASC chief executive Simon Hollingsworth.

"This report is a clear message to Swimming Australia to continue its reforms to enable it to return to the top table of international swimming."

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