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
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The Independent Online

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.