The Church and the State

by Casey Barrett

How do you judge a nation’s swimming success? By Olympic medals or by broader measures like membership and revenue? With Swimming Canada at a crossroads, a case study for every nation… 

When the CEO came to power spirits were low. So were revenues. At meets across the country, there was a heavy mood of doom and gloom. Leadership was being questioned and medal counts were anemic. There was the palpable sense of losing ground, of being passed by competing countries that seemed to be getting more out of their talent and resources.

In 2005, Pierre Lafontaine arrived to a hell of a task. Swimming Canada needed not only a turnaround artist, it needed an attitude adjustment. They got it in Lafontaine. With an infectious energy of relentless positivity, he began to lift Canada’s sagging swim spirits. He also started generating a lot more dollars, and brought a lot more Canadians into the sport. He did what a CEO is supposed to do: He improved the business.

After eight years at the helm of Canadian swimming, Pierre Lafontaine resigned this week. He’s moving on to become the CEO of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), starting next month. He leaves Swimming Canada in far better shape than he found it. Yet, he also leaves it at a crossroads – one shared by other swimming nations across the world, as they look to regroup and chart new courses in the next Olympiad ahead.

During Lafontaine’s tenure as the top aquatic man in Canada, he held two powerful, though inherently divergent, positions at once. He was the CEO – where success is largely tallied by dollars – and he was also the National Team Director – where success is mostly about medals. He was the head of the church and the state. It’s a lovely state of affairs when these two entities sail along together in happy unison, but as you might imagine, that’s not always the case. The needs of the organization, the state, are not always in line with the church of competition, and its sometimes holier-than-thou pursuit of the podium.

To Lafontaine’s credit, he was able to juggle these two roles with impressive dexterity throughout his eight years. On the state side, as CEO, he crushed it. In the year before he took over, in 2004, revenues at Swimming Canada were $3.5 million. In 2012, they were $8.4 million. That’s a 234% increase in those eight years. If this were a publicly traded company, the shareholders would approve. Though, we’re talking about a national governing body of sport, where membership might be a more important number than dollars. On that end, Swimming Canada also made big strides. In 2004, membership was around 35,000. In 2012, it was over 45,000.

Some context: There are roughly 300,000 members of USA Swimming, in a country of 300 million — or 1% of the total population. According to the latest census, Canada is a country of 33 million – meaning that a higher percentage of Canadians are members of Swimming Canada than Americans are members of USA Swimming. (In a land that’s less than hospitable to year-round outdoor pools…)

Now, across the aisle on the church side of things, let’s take a look at those all-important medal counts. As National Team Director, Lafontaine inherited a 2004 Olympic squad that won a grand total of zero medals in Athens. There was nowhere to go but up. In 2008, Ryan Cochrane grabbed Canada’s sole spot on the podium with a bronze in the 1500 free. In 2012, Team Canada climbed the podium three times – with Brent Hayden’s bronze in the 100 free; Cochrane’s silver in the 1500; and Richard Weinberger’s bronze in the 10k open water. We can admit that all involved hoped and planned for more, but the progression is there. And so is the talent. Indeed, Canada’s Junior Team has been ranked the 2nd best in the world, based on its performance at the Junior Worlds in 2011.

Still, just three swimmers standing on an Olympic podium in eight years, just two in the pool, and no women – this isn’t the stuff of High Performance dreams. Canada knows it can do better, and it will. Thus, it seems fair to say that while Lafontaine earned glowing marks across the board as CEO, the job of National Team Director still has room for improvement. Which is why these two roles are now being split between two men. The new High Performance Director at Swimming Canada is a Brit named John Atkinson, who comes across the pond after leading Great Britain’s Paralympic program. The position of CEO is yet unfilled, with Swimming Canada’s longtime Director of Operations, Ken Radford, taking the reins until the new chief is hired.

Whoever it is would be wise to gaze across the border and take a look at both the model of success and the cautionary tales that have come out of USA Swimming in recent years. It goes without saying that, both on the podium and on the bottom line, USA Swimming remains the gold standard in world swimming. It continues to win the most medals, by a mile, and continues to have the richest coffers. Its church and state have been clearly divided forever. Its CEO (officially titled “Executive Director”) Chuck Wielgus focuses on the big picture stuff like membership and revenues. While its National Team Director (Frank Busch) can pour his energies into those heavy medal counts without overly concerning himself with budgets. That’s not to say these two roles don’t intersect constantly; of course they do. But it’s a matter of energies and priorities. They are two distinctly different job descriptions.

When it works, it works. The proof is everywhere you look. But when it doesn’t… Well, just take a look at the festering mess left by the former ‘wet side’ head of Team USA, a guy named Mark Schubert. As Swimming World reported a few days ago, it appears Schubert left a scorched earth trail of irresponsibility in his wake, on his way out of USA Swimming. Before he was fired in 2010, it appears Schubert over promised the moon to rising stars like Dagny Knutson and Kate Ziegler. Then, surprise surprise, he left his former employers holding the bag to make good on his empty promises after he was sacked. It clearly didn’t hurt the medal count in London for Team USA, but it left lasting harm on a few world class ladies whose careers were derailed as a result.

In a nation with such bottomless Olympic riches, this might be a blip on an otherwise successful march to another Games domination, but for virtually every other nation, this is the sort of thing that can shatter all the good work that’s been planned by the State. Indeed, for this arrangement to work, the most important element is an implicit trust and appreciation for the other side.

For the rest of the world, in countries not called the US or, perhaps now, China, the margin for error is razor thin. To succeed, on both the church and state sides of the equation, you need leaders of talent and integrity in place. In Canada, Pierre Lafontaine had both. But a crossroads awaits…