Sport as Diplomacy? USA Swimming says absolutely

Many recognize sport as a form of public and cultural diplomacy. While some sports do not do well crossing America’s borders either outward (American Football) or inward (Football according to the rest of the world), swimming does. The worldwide reach of swimming is immediately evident at any Olympic Games, let alone the numerous other regional championship games held around the world. Remember the African athlete finishing the swim the 100m at the Sydney Olympics who had never swam that distance at once or in anything other than a hotel pool before.

The sport also crosses age barriers allowing athletes to continue to train and compete into their nineties as one National (or World?) champion 500yd swimmer proved recently (at a pace I know many people a fourth his age couldn’t). In short, it is one of the widest reaching sports, not as far as soccer, but with tremendous visibility and a huge national and international following around the globe.

With this in mind, Chuck Wieglus, Executive Director for USA Swimming, published an open letter to the National Team athletes, coaches, staff, board of directors of USA Swimming, and others within the US Olympic establishment. To be sure, this open letter shows a clear awareness of the value of swimming to highlight America and to raise awareness of the intense media spotlight that will be the Beijing Olympics.

Below is the full letter, also available here

Dear National Team Athletes:

As I watched the Winter Olympic Games and observed some of the more unfortunate incidents and reports that came out of Torino I reflected on just how special the performances of USA Swimming athletes have been over the years. You and your predecessors won 28 medals at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, 33 medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, and equally impressive numbers in all preceding Olympic Games.  It is no surprise then that USA Swimming has been the world’s #1 ranked international swim team for so many years. These Olympic performance results are even more impressive when considered in the context of growing worldwide competition in our sport.  Today there are more than 190 member federations in FINA and winning Olympic medals is only going to get tougher in the future.

But there’s more than a medal-winning history to give you reason to be proud.  Of equal – and perhaps even greater importance – is the manner in which USA Swimming athletes have represented their country. U.S. swimmers have consistently reflected everything that most people think is good about American youth.  Beyond being prepared for optimum physical success, U.S. swimmers have presented themselves in a way that has reflected enthusiasm, humility, maturity, sincerity, team spirit and patriotism. 

For USA Swimming, the notion of team spirit is especially important.  While many may view swimming as an individual sport, USA Swimming has always gone into international competition as a TEAM.  Our coaches have continually stressed the importance of the team concept, and there is a true belief that when we act and function like a team we maximize the potential for greater performance results.  Supporting each other as teammates, no matter what the sport, is something that the average fan notices and appreciates.  Michael Phelps may have endeared himself to more American television viewers for the race he didn’t swim in Athens than for any of the six gold medals that he won.  When Michael gave up his relay team spot so that Ian Crocker could swim he showed he cared as much about a teammate as he did about himself.  And when the television cameras caught him leading his U.S. teammates in cheering for that relay team, Michael won hearts throughout the world. 

As harsh as the media spotlight may have been in Torino, it will burn even hotter at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.  The media coverage in Beijing will dwarf that of any sporting event ever held.  Television cameras will capture every movement and microphones will record every word.  An off-hand comment, a surly facial expression, any negative body language will become fodder for a reporter’s negative story.  As good as we have been in the past about conveying positive images, we are going to have to be even better in the future. 

Following Torino, the press is going to be watching very closely to see how U.S. athletes behave.  It is now going to be more important than ever that you and your teammates commit yourselves to protecting the overwhelmingly positive image and reputation that has been the hallmark of American swimmers in the past.  You are representing not only yourself, but your family, your sport and your country and this should be a responsibility that you embrace with careful thought and sincerity.

The USOC has announced its intent to address athlete behavior more seriously in the future.  I ask you to join together with your teammates, coaches and others in the “swimming family” to lead the way.  As we prepare for the Beijing Olympic Games,  let’s include in our preparations a commitment to considering how we can best represent our sport and our country.  At a time when so many people in the rest of the world seem to dislike – or even hate – Americans, let’s use our participation in international competition as an opportunity to change attitudes.  Put bluntly, our objectives for Beijing should be twofold:

1.      To win medals!

2.      To win friends for the U.S. by the manner in which we conduct ourselves individually and as a team!

If you accomplish both of these objectives, I can assure you that not only will many awards and accolades be heaped upon you, but that you will have done something extraordinary that will be with you for the rest of your life.  Challenging times provide enormous opportunities.  You would not be a member of the USA Swimming National Team if you were afraid of tough challenges.  That challenge is now even greater and I encourage you to embrace it!


Chuck Wielgus Executive Director USA Swimming

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