On July 2nd, as the Australian National Swim Team was preparing to depart for their pre-Olympic training camp, the high-performance athletes woke up to the surprise of a sizable deposit into each athlete’s bank account. Seems like a positive right? When we first heard about it, we surely thought it was.
Daniel Kowalski, four-time Olympic medalist and most recently the General Manager of the Australian Swimming Association, didn’t see it that way.
“I woke up to a letter on the 2nd of July telling me that SAL (Swimming Australia) had gone and implemented their own model without any consultation or approval from us,” Kowalski explains. “Swimmers just had money here in their bank account, and there’s no conditions around what they received, there’s no real explanation. To be treated that way as a stakeholder it’s poor governance, unconstitutional, and flat-out disrespectful to be honest with you.”
For the last year, the ASA has been collectively-bargaining on behalf of Australian swimmers with their governing body. Kowalski stopped short of labeling it as a union, but said it effectively served the same goals.
“Of the 37 swimmers funded, only 11 will receive above Australia’s minimum wage,” Kowalski shared. “Because we don’t have an NCAA-like system, if you study you’ve got to do it part time. You have to work, and if you work, you can only work 3 or 4 hours a day, a few days a week because it affects the training and recovery techniques.”
It’s not just the money that hurts, Kowalski says. “Our goal is not just to get a fair stake for our athletes, but we also hope to provide training programs and act as an educational body to our athletes as well. With the way things have played out, we just aren’t able to provide those services to our athletes.”
This includes presenting a Transitional program to help athletes successfully move from competition to whatever comes after that: be it within the sport or outside of it.
This is all not a big cash-grab by the swimmers, though. While the money is a portion of it, the ASA’s ultimate goal is to grow the sport. They foresee the ability to top the Olympic swimming medal table in 2016, but only with support. That means keeping athletes in swimming longer, increasing overall participation numbers to get a bigger portion of the government sports funding available, and providing resources and incentives for top athletes to make more sport-promoting appearances.
Swimming Australia is in a different place than what we might see coming from USA Swimming, in that Swimming Australia receives huge amounts of government funding (USA Swimming is largely responsible for his own funding).
What it comes down to is that through the funding programs set up by Swimming Australia, only two athletes in 2011 earned more than the Federal minimum wage. For all of the struggles of national team swimmers in the US to earn funding, it’s nothing compared to what the Aussies are seeing.
Most of all, the athletes want a voice. They are the center of the sport, and Kowalski finds it unfair that the governing body interrupted good-faith negotations and discussions by making a unilateral decision on how to distribute available funding.
As for the path forward, Swimming Australia has said that they won’t discuss the matter any further until after the Paralympic Games, which wrap up next week.