Swimming: Pools of controversy: Owen Slot hears the frustrations of Britain's top swimmers who feel let down by officialdom

Click to follow
THEY had just won national titles, but you wouldn't have known. Neither Sarah Hardcastle nor Mike Fibbens felt like shouting about their victories on the first day of the National Swimming Championships at Crystal Palace on Thursday. Hardcastle has been complaining about the Amateur Swimming Federation for not selecting her coach to go to the World Championships; Fibbens has been complaining about the federation full stop.

On Thursday, Fibbens won his 12th national title, collected his medal, and then launched into a 20-minute invective that spoke of his disdain for the officials who had presented him with it.

'They're no help in this sport . . . They don't want other people to get power . . . Anyone outspoken they bully out of the sport . . . They behave like schoolteachers . . . They've got the gall, when I turn up to meetings like this, to put their hands out and welcome me with open arms . . . I used to lie awake at night thinking 'Why did I pick such a backward sport?' or 'Why wasn't I born to swim for a different country?' ' And when Fibbens paused for breath to reload his guns, he glanced momentarily round at Paul Bush, the Amateur Swimming Association's director of swimming and one of his chief targets, who was just five yards away, and then he looked back, smiling. 'He'll be terrified to see me talking to the press.'

Fibbens, it would seem, is in search of retribution. The reason, he would have it, is years of mismanagement. He has never been slow to speak his mind, though he knows his words will not help his cause. 'Mike is his own worst enemy. He can't bite his tongue,' Doug Campbell, his coach, said. However, at 26 he is in the twilight of his career and he doesn't intend to go out without a fight. And as he says, 'I've got a job now, I don't need the federation'.

The catalyst for this outburst was the punishment meted out to him and Mark Foster, the 24-year-old world short- course champion at 50 metres and his close friend, for breaking a 12.30am curfew when competing in Paris in March. In fact they had completed their races and had sidestepped the city bus tour that was laid on to go to the Champs Elysees for a pizza. They had returned, sober, less than 15 minutes late. Two months later they discovered that the federation had withdrawn their invitations to a two-week pre-Commonwealth Games and World Championships training camp in Florida.

Foster had long been described as the bad boy of British swimming: he was expelled from school, received a six- month ban for attempting to steal a souvenir number-plate on a training trip in the United States, and twice turned his back on the sport, citing the pub as a better alternative. 'He was an exceptional child, his potential was always brilliant,' Doug Campbell, his coach, said, and finally Foster has started to fulfil it. His dancefloor days are now behind him and his determination is implicit in his decision to compete at the Nationals yesterday, despite having a burst eardrum which accounted for his failure to reach the 100m free final.

Many believe he is the fastest in the world in the 50m: he is certainly the quickest starter in the sport and has a phenomenal turn. But there is no turn required in his event in the 50-metre pools where the big championships are swum and where Foster is as yet unproven. To be disciplined in such a way, and to lose two weeks of essential long- course training, benefited neither him nor the ASA.

It seems that the federation has another own-goal on its hands with Sarah Hardcastle. The officials have applied, she says, a 'psychological hammer- blow' to her aspirations. 'They have got to treat me with a little more respect now.' Fibbens described it as 'another example of mismanagement': if Britain were to go to the World Championships in Rome at the beginning of September with an underprepared Foster and without Hardcastle at all, he may have a point.

Bush, however, is quick to reply. 'We have legal responsibilities when we're taking people away under the age of 18,' he said, which means a curfew and action if it is broken. For pre-race nights, it is set at 10pm - isn't that a bit strict for twentysomethings? 'The code of conduct was developed with the athletes. Ninety-nine out of a hundred are quite happy with it.'

The problem is the new-age swimmers: with financial incentives, seniors are now staying in the sport longer but are having to abide by rules drawn up for teenagers. As Campbell says: 'The ASA are used to dealing with kids.' Fibbens, meanwhile, is dreading those moments at 10pm at the Commonwealth Games when he is chatting away to Christie, Jackson and the like, and the arm of authority arrives to tell him it is time for bed.

(Photograph omitted)