When two Australian Olympic swimmers posted a Facebook picture of themselves posing with guns at a Californian shooting range it made them look silly and immature.
But for Swimming Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee it threatened a much more troubling reputational crisis, exposing mismanagement, dithering and delay.
Swimming Australia was already under question for reinstating Nick D’Arcy, who was booted off the 2008 Olympic Team for assaulting a team-mate, while fellow swimmer Kenrick Monk had created headlines after lying to police about being the victim of a hit and run.
Australian Olympic Chief Nick Green called the latest gun-toting photos “foolish and inappropriate” and ordered them taken down. “One of the questions,” he said, “is have they brought themselves into disrepute, or have they brought the Australian team into disrepute.”
Excellent question, but sports administrators failed to adequately respond to the predictable storm of media and online protest, and left it to others to comment. Like swimming legend Dawn Fraser (herself no stranger to Olympic high jinks) who offered the unhelpful response that “boys will be boys”.
Two days into the controversy, Australian Swimmers’ Association boss Andrew Kowalski decried the “over-reaction,” and optimistically declared: “The only mistake was not realising the image was potentially controversial.” Meanwhile the two swimmers appeared to lack counsel on what to say. Nick D’Arcy trotted out the classic non-apology which every crisis expert says to avoid. “The photos were just a bit of fun. If anyone’s been offended, obviously I deeply apologise.” Where were the experienced minders who should have been advising on a more sincere response? It’s little wonder the Sydney Morning Herald called D’Arcy “the embodiment of the modern sporting idiot.”
The Australian Olympic Committee finally announced its decision, labelling D’Arcy and Monk “repeat offenders who had shown poor judgement in their decision-making.” And the penalty? The two swimmers will have to come home immediately after their events rather than staying on in London and are banned off social media. Then it was revealed Swimming Australia itself had organized a team-building athletes visit to a local shooting range in 2007, and the AOC rapidly distanced itself from the issue.
After almost a week of delay, Swimming Australia opined that posting photos on social networks encourages potentially negative debate. Oh really? They said they had reminded the duo of their responsibilities but would take no further action. And what about the undoubted damage to the reputation of both Swimming Australia and the Olympic Committee? Publicly at least, not a word.
While most of the headlines focused on the behaviour of the swimmers, the sports administrators showed little evidence of effective action. Proactive issue management demands process and planning, maintenance of standards, and prompt, decisive leadership. Regardless of whether the “punishment fits the crime” in this case, it’s a warning of the reputational risk when such leadership is lacking.