“Actually, what is the emphasis on here? Should we be developing well-rounded, successful, athletes who give it all for their country and then are functional and happy in later life, or are we purely looking at numbers on a medal table?”
As Lizzie Simmonds questions the predicament facing British sport, with mounting concern over the emotional wellbeing of athletes, she speaks with the qualified wisdom of a swimmer whose desire to carry on has been tested in recent years.
A two-time Olympian, Simmonds was a Commonwealth Games silver medalist as a 19-year-old in 2010 and a European champion in the same year. The Edinburgh-based swimmer was, however, overlooked for last year’s Rio Olympics despite coming out on top at the British trials – a decision Simmonds puts down to her age.
As she prepares to head to the Gold Coast on a training camp ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, two years after her last national team involvement, Simmonds admits that, a year ago, she could not have imagined this situation.
“After Rio, I considered retiring,” she confesses. “I kind of thought I was done with it all – done with the sport.
“But I realised I wanted to finish my career – whatever period of time that is – on my terms. I’ve made a very positive move to the University of Edinburgh, I’m enjoying training again, and seeing the results in recent competitions.”
Somewhat paradoxically, at the age of just 26, Simmonds is viewed as a relative ‘old head’ in a sport dominated by young athletes. However, in a discipline as black and white as swimming – sport in its very purest form – the importance attached to youthful potential in British Swimming’s selection process appears somewhat misplaced.
“The way that the selection policies are set up is incredibly tough,” she explains. “Basically, there are some very fast times that you have to hit to make the team. It usually ends up after the trials that only six to eight swimmers have actually made the cut, based on their times. The rest of the team is essentially selected at British Swimming’s discretion, which is an interesting way to do it because – for me – swimming is not a subjective sport.
“In swimming, it’s whoever’s fastest wins. There’s no judging involved.
“In a race you don’t get penalised for being a bit older than somebody else. At the end of the day, the fastest swimmer wins. But the way that many decisions in the sport are currently made is largely subjective. They’re based on someone with a list of stats thinking you maybe do or don’t have the potential for a medal somewhere down the line.
“Funding decisions have gone against me because I’m viewed as being too old to invest in. I don’t get given the same racing opportunities as younger athletes, despite being quicker. I completely understand the focus on securing future medals, and developing potential in youngsters is really important, but it’s been tough to be repeatedly overlooked and offered minimal support in recent years.”
Simmonds’ experience provides an eye-opening insight into the increasingly complex dilemma facing elite sport. The pressure on governing bodies to produce champion athletes at the expense of protecting the human side of the competitors has never seen such vast imbalance.
“Support prior to the Olympics was based on a lot of stats, and on British Swimming’s predictions for what the medal times would be in Rio,” she explains.
“For my event, these predictions turned out to be completely wrong,” she says. Despite winning the British trials for the 200m backstroke, she was not chosen among Team GB’s swimming squad – not at the expense of another swimmer, but merely based on a spreadsheet that suggested she was unlikely to claim a medal.
“The 200m backstroke at the actual Games was significantly slower than they’d predicted. So, I was sat back at home in the UK watching, very frustrated that I didn’t have the opportunity to contend for the podium. It was a super-slow event at the Games, bronze was slower than I’d gone in London to come fourth – it really was wide open to grab a medal. It was frustrating to not even be given the chance to step up.”
And with British Swimming embroiled in bullying allegations in the Paralympic sphere, can we link the ‘climate of fear’ described in an independent inquiry to these strategic choices made by British Swimming and, more widely, throughout British sport?
“I don’t know the exact details of the Para allegations being made at the moment, but they’re hopefully a one-off. I’d guess that’s just unlucky – a coach who’s doing the wrong things, and a system that’s ineffective in reporting and dealing with such issues.
“I do think though, that there is a call to look at the whole high-performance system, not just swimming.
“It’s been claimed that elite sport is becoming overly success-focused, which can arguably end up being detrimental to the well-being of athletes.
“Sport should be fun, it should be about participation, it should be about inspiring people and it should be about getting people involved and getting people fit. And that’s great if you can do that with champions in the limelight, but I don’t think that should be at the expense of the wellbeing of those champions.”
The accusations of bullying, Simmonds suggests, may stem from the medal-driven undercurrent that has increasingly driven British sport in the last decade.
“I think it’s a very difficult area because there’s a thin line between a coach being tough on an athlete and helping them better themselves, and bullying. It probably is tricky for coaches to balance. What we’re likely seeing is that there’s so much pressure – and the pressure isn’t just on the athletes. It’s on the coaches and support staff as well, because their careers and futures are at stake too.
“The intensifying pressure on coaches to produce medals and hit targets means that some coaches will inevitably push athletes over the line – they’ll go from motivating and being tough, helping athletes be the best they can be, to instilling an environment where the athlete feels like they’ve been pushed too far, beyond their limit.
“I definitely don’t think there are loads of coaches who are ‘bullies’, per se. What we’re probably seeing is that external pressure has resulted in the line inevitably blurring because of the incredibly fine distinction between pushing an athlete to their absolute limits and pushing them beyond their limits.
“The problem is also exacerbated because the subjectivity of the decision-making processes makes speaking out difficult. If someone in authority has direct control over whether an athlete is supported, funded and making teams, the consequences for that athlete in speaking out or challenging the status quo can be huge.”
While Simmonds doesn’t claim to have been the victim of the kind of allegations that have rocked Para-swimming, she readily admits that her omission from the Rio Games provided her with a release from what she views as a single-minded culture within elite sport.
“I took a big knock from missing out on the Olympics in 2016.
“But I think it’s ended up being a positive for me. It’s given me a sense of perspective on the sport. But at the time, when you’ve trained for four years to swim at an Olympic Games and hopefully to get a medal at an Olympic Games, and then you don’t get to go and you have to watch it on TV, it’s really rubbish.
“I’ve achieved a lot in my career. I came fourth in London, a result I’m incredibly proud of. Starting up training again after Rio, I felt like I had to start from scratch. I had to make sure that I was doing it all for the right reasons.”
It is this renewed understanding of sport’s significance that Simmonds, who speaks with an impressive maturity throughout, credits with her return to the pool and her upturn in form since. Having been first thrust into the limelight of international swimming aged just 14 – albeit at a time before the successes of Becky Adlington and, latterly, Adam Peaty had increased the expectation on British swimmers – Simmonds had grown up in an environment obsessed with performance. Indeed, Adlington’s double gold success at Beijing 2008 made her Britain’s first Olympic champion since 1988 – three years before Simmonds was even born.
“I think, in a weird way, it takes having a bit of a knock to get back,” she says of her Rio rejection.
“When you’re successful at a very young age, like I was, the development of your personal identity can be inextricable from your sporting identity. This results in young athletes often basing their entire self-worth on their sporting successes.
“You’re a teenager and you’re impressionable and everyone’s giving you loads of positive attention and feedback. You get media articles written about you and you get sponsorship deals, and you grow up relying on that success to value yourself as worthy. Only after performing poorly, or being knocked down, do you realise the complex fragility of that identity construction, which can start to crumble with galling consequences.
“It’s only then that you recognise that you have to separate your personal identity from what you’re doing in the pool, from what the stopwatch or scoreboard says. It’s a really common issue with elite athletes. It’s one of the reasons why we sometimes see Olympic medalists, and athletes who’ve been incredibly successful, retire from their sport and then fall off a cliff, metaphorically speaking.
“There’s just this huge identity loss afterwards when you separate the two and people can feel worthless because they’re not succeeding at something in the same way as they were when they were competing. It’s also difficult because athletes often sacrifice a lot for their sporting career – at the end, when the support stops, they can be left with very little guidance and direction.”
She highlights the similar struggle faced by members of the armed forces after completing their duty, devoid of their regimented routine and sense of being that has dominated their very existence.
However, for Simmonds, the void created by retirement may be linked to a secondary aspect of a wider problem within sport.
“I think one of the other issues in sport is that of mental health – one way or another – there is a huge stigma that it’s a weakness,” she explains.
“It’s seen as a weakness to talk about it, for an athlete to admit that they’re not all right. It’s a weakness to accept, even though you might have won some medals or been training really well, that things aren’t okay in your head.
“We go to training every day to work on our physical weaknesses and to make them better. The mental health stigma is amplified in sport because we’re in the middle of a world where weakness is not really viewed as acceptable, and dealing with it is not as clear cut as going to training and working on a physical deficiency.
“Athletes are exceptionally good at self-discipline and control. We often avoid seeking help if we’re in trouble mentally, because we find it hard to admit that we’ve lost that control, that we’re not coping.”
Whereas in a bygone era, sport was as much about the entertainment and the personality behind each athlete as the churned-out results, nowadays the latter seems to have overridden the former as the priority.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent won Britain’s sole gold medal. Twenty years on in Brazil, Team GB claimed 27 golds. The remarkable improvement raises the question of whether this change in mindset is central to both the current bullying allegations, as well as the underlying attitude that risks squashing the emotional wellbeing of athletes in favour of boosting Lottery funding.
“It’s turned towards a medal-winning mentality because in recent years Britain has become very good at sport,” says Simmonds. “This is undoubtedly a great thing and it’s inspiring hundreds and thousands of youngsters who now look at athletes as role models. But it also means that all the media attention is focused on people being winners.”
“Athletes go through the performance system and it’s incredibly success-focused, so focused on getting medals.”
Financially, of course, this ruthlessness is necessary for the survival of individual sports. GB Badminton was one of seven sports to have its funding removed ahead of the 2020 Olympics – a decision based solely on medal potential. Simmonds’ omission from Rio is traceable to the obsession with medal-hunting, while recent bullying allegations stem directly from the pressures heaped on high performance at the expense of a balanced lifestyle.
“To a certain extent it’s understandable.” Simmonds admits. “High performance sport needs success to continue being funded. If sports hit medal targets, they get money coming in and they’re able to do things and support their athletes. If they don’t then they’re not funded and they don’t get to invest for the next cycle.
“Sports aren’t getting a funding pot for being able to show that they’ve got athletes who’ve scored an eight out of ten on average for their wellbeing. That’s not a thing. Whereas, maybe it should be a thing. Or at least we need to make sure that some of the funding goes towards establishing a system that ensures that athletes are okay, and that they know who to turn to if they’re not okay.
“What is great is that we’re starting to talk about it more, and I know sport governance is looking into ways of supporting and protecting athletes in the future.
Having represented Team GB for the best part of a decade, Simmonds is well-placed to offer an informed and wise view on a hugely complex and progressively visible matter. She is well aware of how deep-rooted the issues are and that the response must start before the win-at-all-costs notion is engrained in the athlete’s psyche.
“There are some really positive changes being made and I’m working with certain organisations to assist this. What we need to do is focus on young athletes, ensuring that they’re developing into well-rounded and balanced human beings and not just single-minded, success-focused robots. As a side project, I’m setting up a mentoring programme which will work with young athletes to help them get this balance right between performance and personal development.
“In terms of the high-performance system, I think we need to make sure athletes and coaches have an independent route to go down if they are unhappy, and that they won’t be penalised for questioning processes, having opinions or challenging the status quo.
“As a nation, we also need to recognise that, although we rightly love to watch medal-winners, we shouldn’t judge and value sportsmen and women entirely on their sporting results.
“Ultimately, past attitudes have been great for racking up numbers in the medal tables but may not be in the best interests of athletes and their future wellbeing.”
Featured photograph: Clive Rose / British Gas