Swimming in problems? Maddie Groves allegations overshadow Olympic trials

On the far wall of the State Aquatic Centre in Adelaide, oversized banners of swimming icons loom over those in the pool below. From Dawn Fraser to Ian Thorpe, the sport has a proud legacy in Australia – and strong medal prospects in Tokyo next month. But as the Olympic trials began on Saturday, something else was hanging over the competition: explosive allegations of mistreatment made by Olympic silver medalist Maddie Groves. Announcing on Thursday she was withdrawing from the trials, Groves hit out at the “all misogynistic perverts in sport”.

The elephant in the room went unaddressed during the opening morning’s heats. “I just swim and do my thing,” was all one swimmer offered, when pressed about the controversy in the mixed zone. But by late afternoon, it was clear the issue was not going away. Eventually, Swimming Australia issued a statement, highlighting it was “consciously working” on issues of “institutional concern”.

These were vague words. But the sentiment in Adelaide was less of deliberate ambiguity to evade scrutiny, and more that Swimming Australia is truly in the dark about Groves’s allegations. That was underscored at an impromptu press conference with Swimming Australia’s new chief executive, Alex Baumann, by the pool deck.

“We want to be proactive about some of the issues that have been raised in the last couple of days,” he said, announcing an independent female-only panel to “investigate ongoing issues related to women and girls’ experience and advancement in our sport”.

Groves first raised concerns on social media last year. “Woah guys this may have worked,” she added the next day. “Next time you have a weirdo stare at your tits and your complaints fall on deaf ears, try tweeting about it.” In an Instagram post on Friday, she expressed additional concerns about body shaming. “My decision [to withdraw] is partly because there’s a pandemic on, but mostly it’s the culmination of years of witnessing and ‘benefitting’ from a culture that relies on people ignoring bad behaviour to thrive. I need a break.” Baumann said that Swimming Australia had reached out to Groves this week, but that she had not responded.

Does swimming in Australia have a culture problem? “I don’t think we do,” Baumann said on Saturday. “But we’re setting up this panel to exactly take a look at that.” Tracy Stockwell, the Swimming Australia board member who will oversee the panel, added “we’ve made lots of improvements, but we need to do more looking into this to see what the issues are, are there issues, and what do we do moving forward to protect our athletes”.

Baumann and Stockwell were pressed on whether the panel was convened solely as a result of the Groves accusations, or whether they harboured broader concerns. Their answers were hedged, and unconvincing.

If it is solely this incident, why aren’t existing processes sufficient to address Groves’s concerns? (Swimming Australia says it has never received a formal complaint from Groves. “We would investigate,” Baumann insisted, “but we need the information and the evidence to be able to investigate.) If the concerns extend beyond one athlete’s experiences, why now? (Other than as a reflexive PR exercise). Can a panel overseen by a Swimming Australia board member be truly independent?

Swimming is not the only sport in Australia to be grappling with cultural concerns and allegations of mistreatment and abuse. Last month, the Australian Human Rights Commission published its independent review into gymnastics in Australia; it outlined abuse, misconduct and bullying and identified systemic risk factors.

A key recommendation was that the sport should not investigate itself when allegations are raised. “The Commission considers that an external investigator or process will limit any potential, actual or perceived conflict of interest or loyalty to organisation rather than the individual that may be felt within the community,” the report found.

When this finding was flagged with Baumann, he was non-committal. “We do believe our Safe Sport Framework – we’ve been doing this for about 10 years now – is quite robust. But the question is do we need more independence?” He paused. “That work is going to be done in the next couple of months.”

It was apparent in Groves’s initial Instagram post on Thursday that she did not intend for her withdrawal to overshadow the Olympic trials. “I’m so excited to watch everyone at trials,” she said in her post. “I genuinely think this will be one of the fastest Australian Swim Teams ever and I encourage everyone to get on the bandwagon early.”

But on the first night of finals at the trials, her allegations lingered on the pool deck. Headlines were dominated by Groves’s concerns, not a blistering men’s 400-metre freestyle final or Emma McKeon’s red-hot form in the 100-metre butterfly.

With six weeks to go until the Olympics, all eyes would ordinarily be on the Games. Suddenly, Swimming Australia has to look in the mirror. That is no bad thing. But questions remain over what, why and how.