A wave of despair in Sydney, a pool of expectation in Athens

British swimmers are feared again. Simon Turnbull in Paphos finds how tide turned

Jonathan Edwards got it wrong when he launched his scathing attack on the British swimming squad at the Olympic training camp on Australia's Gold Coast four years ago. "Ninety per cent of them can't win medals," the triple jumper wrote on his website. As it happened, 100 per cent of the British squadron failed to win medals in the Sydney Aquatic Centre.

In the heat of Olympic battle, Britannia sank without trace. If there was cause for any optimism, it was along the lines Peter Byrne followed after Ireland's swimmers were all knocked out on the opening day of competition in Los Angeles in 1984. "First the good news," he began in his report for the Irish Times the next morning. "None of our swimmers drowned in the Olympic Pool here yesterday."

It promises to be different in the Olympic Pool in Athens - for Britain, if not for Ireland. British swimming left Sydney with no precious metal in the autumn of 2000 but it returned with an Aussie nugget whose Midas touch has effected a dazzling transformation in four years. At the World Championships in Barcelona last summer Bill Sweetenham's charges amassed eight medals. They finished sixth in the medal table, beaten only by the global superpowers of swimming: the United States, Australia, Germany, Russia and China.

Four years ago the big eve-of-Games story from the pre-Olympic British training base was the broadside Edwards launched at the aquatic team. "The swimmers are awful," he wrote. "They finish their competition and stay in the village and party for the rest of the Games. They are there to have fun."

Not this time. The big story from the training camp here on the west coast of Cyprus has stemmed from the monastic devotion to duty of Britain's swimmers. Sweetenham has had them toiling twice a day in the open air 50m pool specially built for them on the outskirts of Paphos. He shielded them from media attention until yesterday and, if his past practice at training camps has been implemented, he has removed the television aerials from their bedrooms.

The former head coach of Australia's swimming squad has demanded an adherence to total commitment that Edwards never followed in an athletics career that earned him Olympic gold and world record breaking success. Sweetenham has made all of his team sign what he calls "a contract of commitment", a pledge of allegiance to his methods. He has also ordered his squad to come home from Athens when their events finish midway through the Games, so that they can compete in the trials for the world short-course championships in Stockport. Those who stay for the closing ceremony will be presumed to have retired.

Sweetenham has been called "a bully" and an "Aussie tyrant", to quote just two of the less than flattering headlines about him in recent weeks. In truth, he is simply the consummate professional coach.

If the portly 54-year-old has a hard-edge to him, it is entirely understandable. As a teenager, he had endured enough of life in the outback town of Mount Isa in northern Queensland. He packed his bags and was caught in the act of leaving by his father, a miner, who informed him that if he wanted to make his own way in the world he could so without the clothes that had been bought for him.

The items on his person and in his suitcase were removed, one by one, until the young Sweetenham was obliged to leave in his underpants. He tramped for two days before reaching a farm, where he was fed and clothed.

It is not the only pivotal moment that has shaped his character. At 33 he was with the Australian team in Germany, when the back door of their minibus suddenly opened and he was flung out, smack into an autobahn traffic sign. When he pulled his left leg out of the mud he found it to be hanging off below the knee and watched in despair as the minibus disappeared into the distance.

Luckily for him, the next car on the road was equipped with a CB radio and a helicopter was hailed from the nearby German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. He was also fortunate that there happened to be a convention for Germany's best orthopaedic surgeons at the local hospital. After a 12-hour touch-and-go operation, his leg was saved. He stayed in hospital for 13 weeks and spent two years on crutches.

If Sweetenham is tough with his swimmers, he insists, it is simply because in the world of top-class sporting competition is a tough one in which any weaknesses in preparation, mental or physical, will be exploited.

Before his squad emerged for their afternoon training session on Friday, he had Sir Steven Redgrave talking to them for two hours. The previous day Sweetenham had sent each one of his swimmers a letter telling them: "This is a team that will represent Britain with a fighting spirit as never witnessed before. The courage and conviction of this team is complete."

He was still in Churchillian mood when he broke from his team work to address the media. "Britain has the most revered defence forces in the world," Sweetenham said. "Army. Navy. Air Force. Revered. The best discipline. The best attitude. So why aren't their sporting teams showing the same aspects as their defence forces? It's the same values - maximum effort for whatever return comes in."

It was easy to understand why Melanie Marshall would be heading for Athens at the top of the world rankings in the 200m freestyle and why Katy Sexton and James Gibson would be going as world champions. It was easy to understand, too, why British swimming had gone to great lengths to get Sweetenham to sign a new four-year contract before leaving for Cyprus.

It was not so easy to imagine England's football coach pouring quite so much heart and soul into his new £4m-per-annum four-year tenure. Nor being quite as successful.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital