Swimming – “Competitive Swimming in the 1980s”
Scottish swimming experienced two particularly significant developments during the 1980s, firstly, some of the sport’s most fundamental development structures were rationalised and secondly a more commercial approach was adopted.
At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, David Wilkie (Warrender) became the first Scot to win an individual Olympic gold swimming medal when he won the 200 metres breaststroke in a world record time of 2m.15.11s. and it was a great moment for British sport and the finest ever individual achievement by a Scottish swimmer.
Unfortunately however, it appears that Wilkie’s performance had little effect on generating significant new levels of interest or raising levels of performance in Scottish competitive swimming. This was partly because the Association had neither the marketing expertise to capitalise on Wilkie’s success, nor the developmental structures in place to enable resident Scots to replicate his performance.
It was 1980 before the Association started to introduce new revised Sports Development structures to provide swimmers with improved opportunities to fulfil their performance potentials.
Steady progress was made and by 1985, competitive Coaching and Training structures had undergone considerable rationalisation. Ron Braund, the Director of Swimming from 1979-83, initiated this new approach to Planning and Development which he began in 1981 with the National Competitive Calendar.
Revision was overdue as the existing calendar was causing a variety of problems: it was out of step with other significant National and International calendars, some major events clashed with School Examination periods and some swimmers found it difficult to peak for particular Events.
Despite some opposition, Braund’s new look calendar was eventually adopted in 1982 and the main change was that the Association’s National Championships were moved to fit more logically into existing Club, District and International programmes. Hamilton Smith, who succeeded Ron Braund as the Director of Swimming in 1984, sustained the impetus for new Planning and Development ideas and he concentrated on National Coaching and Training structures and produced a revised National Squad programme.
Four National Squads were established (Junior, Youth, Senior, Elite) to enable talented swimmers of National standard to progress through the ranks and the new structure was well supported by Scotland’s leading coaches and was very successful in extending both the quantity and quality of talent.
The number of Scottish swimmers competing in the whole range of International Competitions increased markedly and there was a nucleus of young swimmers showing particular promise. The rationalisation of Sports Development structures was followed by the growing commercialisation of top quality Competitive Events. Competitive presentations were re-packaged and ‘Grand Prix’ events introduced.
The 1986 Commonwealth Games was the crucible for these new creative approaches to the staging and presentation of competitive swimming in Scotland and the Association was heavily involved in the planning of the Championships and it liaised closely with the B.B.C. to produce a very attractive television package.
To bring the presentation of swimming in line with other sports, the traditional emphasis on Team performance was replaced by a concern for the achievements of individual swimmers and a range of techniques were used to encourage viewers and spectators to identify with particular personalities. For a brief period during the summer of 1986 the achievements of Scotland’s medal winners Jean Hill (Cumbernauld), Ruth Gilfillan (City of Dundee) and Neil Cochran (Aberdeen) were keenly followed by the Scottish public and after the Commonwealth Games further progress was made to enhance the media image of swimming and swimmers and a Grand Prix series of competitions was organised. Although this was a British development, Scotland was in the forefront of developments.
Murdo Wallace, a Dundee businessman with considerable experience in the entertainment industry, Danny McGowan, one of Britain’s leading coaches and Hammy Smith, the Director of Scottish Swimming, were all heavily involved. The series attracted extensive television coverage and various techniques, some of which were first used at the 1986 Commonwealth Games, were introduced to make the events as entertaining as possible. These included: revised Race Programmes, new styles of announcing swimmers, improved forms of race commentary, new methods of presenting results and poolside interviews.
To ensure that the country’s best swimmers competed in every Grand Prix event, a cumulative points system was developed and prize money was awarded for both individual and cumulative performances.
As well as attempting to modernise the media presentation of swimming the Grand Prix events were aimed at raising performance standards and encouraging experienced swimmers to stay in the sport.
Today there is no amateur law, suitable financial arrangements are in place which allow swimmers to sustain their training commitments (and at the same time maintain attractive lifestyles) and there are opportunities to win prize money.
In 1976 David Wilkie was obliged to retire from swimming because the existing amateur laws and competitive structures prevented him from capitalising on his success.
Hopefully, these changes have encouraged Scotland’s most gifted swimmers to sustain their commitments and encourage them to emulate Wilkie’s performances.