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Sweetenham rules with iron fist and a smile

For someone alleged to be an "Aussie tyrant" and "a bully," to quote just two headlined appraisals of him in recent months, Bill Sweetenham was doing a fairly convincing impression of being a caring uncle yesterday.

Sure, the Aussie who has dragged the British swimming team from the depths of no medals in the Sydney Olympics four years ago to the heights of great expectations for the Athens Games, had his charges toiling through two gruelling two-hour training sessions in the scorching Mediterranean sun yesterday. But, at the same time, he went to great lengths to protect his young squad from the glare of the public spotlight on the eve of the 2004 Olympics.

Even though the British Olympic Association had invited the media to interview members of the swimming team at their new purpose-built outdoor 50-metre pool at the Team GB holding camp here on the west coast of Cyprus, Sweetenham refused to allow any of them to be distracted from their preparations for Athens. Instead, the performance director of British Swimming did all of the talking himself - and took the opportunity to denounce his burgeoning portrayal as a bullying boot-camp commander.

"I resent the description immensely," Sweetenham said. "I think it's been a nice headline catcher for the newspapers and everybody's jumped on the bandwagon. I don't think any of the swimmers would agree with it. I think it's totally inappropriate."

Sweetenham's public image has been fostered by his policy of demanding total commitment that yielded a haul of eight medals at last summer's World Championships in Barcelona. "The media enjoy labelling me as a bully boy, but it hasn't taken that sort of attitude to get the swimmers and the coaches to step up," Sweetenham said. "These people have done it willingly. They've moved on and addressed new issues."

Moving on from the nadir of Sydney was one reason Sweetenham cited for ordering his swimmers to save their "talking" for the Olympic pool in Athens. "The ghost of Sydney still haunts a lot of senior athletes and senior coaches," he said. "I'm telling them that this team can turn against the tide of Olympic success but we have a lot of young swimmers going to Athens who have a chance to do something very special."