Swimming Australia admits failings in misconduct complaints procedures

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Swimming Australia has conceded it “could have done better” in facilitating complaints from athletes but insisted it is committed to transparency as a panel is set up to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct and mistreatment.

SA’s board met on Tuesday to consider the controversy engulfing swimming, after two-time Olympic silver medallist Maddie Groves pulled out of the Australian Olympic trials and said there were “misogynistic perverts” in the sport.

SA chief executive Alex Baumann said the organisation had a zero tolerance policy towards inappropriate behaviour, amid mounting calls for an independent review into the allegations that have plunged the sport into crisis over the past week.

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“We acknowledge the complaints process should be easily accessible and we have committed to ensuring all our members are aware of the avenues to access this process,” he said.

Baumann conceded that SA had not done enough to alert athletes to the complaint channels available to them and said that SA will over the next 24 hours send a communication to all members of the swimming community to reiterate the process.

The Olympic trials in Adelaide, which started on Saturday, continue to be overshadowed by the issue, as several high-profile individuals call for governance reform and cultural change.

Former SA chief executive Leigh Russell, who stepped down late last year, said on Tuesday that “it is time to listen and learn rather than continue to speak and spin the wheels”.

“The only people who don’t believe there’s a problem are those benefiting from the system as it is,” Russell tweeted. “Those in charge of sport (men) have long focused on fixing women to fit. It is indeed a broken boys club and there will be no genuine cultural integrity in sport until the system is fixed, not women.”

Russell criticised the federated structure of many high performance sports in Australia, including SA. “If we want to be the best in the world, it has to start with the systems we use,” she said.

There have also been calls for SA to engage the Australian Human Rights Commission to undertake an independent review, as the statutory body has done for gymnastics – a process which concluded last month with findings of abuse and mistreatment.

SA is yet to adopt Sport Integrity Australia’s National Integrity Framework, which includes an independent complaints handling process managed by the government agency.

“I think that Swimming Australia really needs to firstly sign up to the Sport Integrity Framework,” Dr Jenny McMahon – an academic at the University of Tasmania, and former elite swimmer – told ABC’s The Drum on Monday.

“They also need to initiate – like gymnastics – the Human Rights Commission, just so they can look at past and present practices to inform future practices.”

McMahon has been responsible for research which involved interviews with hundreds of current and former swimmers, who reportedly revealed anxiety, depression and substance abuse within the sport.

In an interview with The Australian, McMahon said her research revealed a “toxic” culture within the sport.

At a recent Senate estimates, SIA chief executive David Sharpe called the gymnastics review “the wake up call all sport in Australia needed” and urged sports to “address the failings of the past together, whilst moving forward into the future with independent and transparent mechanisms to manage reporting of abuse.”

But at the press conference on Tuesday, Baumann said SA wanted to go its own way. “I think it was given consideration by the board, but we felt this approach was more conducive to what we hope to achieve,” he said.

The touch paper for the crisis was lit late last year, when dual Olympic silver medal-winning swimmer Groves sent a series of tweets alleging sexual misconduct in the sport.

Groves’ social media comments – which she expanded upon last week after withdrawing from the Olympic trials – have provided fuel. But Groves is not alone in voicing concerns about the culture within swimming, a sport that has long been at the forefront of Australia’s Olympic medal-winning ways. The concern is that an all-consuming desire for glory may have allowed inappropriate behaviour to go unchecked.

The allegations from Groves, a 26-year-old law student who won a handful of gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, are essentially twofold. In posts on Twitter and Instagram last week, and last year, she highlighted incidences of sexualised misconduct.

But it has been Groves’ broader concerns about body shaming and institutional mistreatment that were echoed by other swimmers at the Olympic trials, which conclude on Thursday.

On Sunday, after becoming only the second Australian swimmer in history to qualify for a fourth Olympic Games, Emily Seebohm offered further stark revelations. “A lot of people said that I wasn’t going to do it,” said a tearful Seebohm. “I was too old, I needed to lose weight, I needed to look different, I guess I just stuck to my guns.” The veteran said that, at the equivalent meet two years ago, she had felt uncomfortable in her swimsuit.

SA has gone into damage control. The peak body says that it contacted Groves in December, and again last week, but had not received a response. Baumann said on Tuesday they would try to make contact again “in the next week or so”.

Asked if the organisation’s image has been tarnished by the allegations, Baumann said: “Obviously I’m quite worried. We have some fantastic performances in the pool but our reputation is getting tarnished. It is always important for me to ensure that we have a strong reputation that’s in line with our performances.”

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