Masters Revamp? Hardly Rocket Science But It May Need A Rocket Scientist For Lift Off

Jim Boucher, rocket scientist and masters swimmer

Sports governance and the structures that underpin it, from domestic to international competition, are coming under scrutiny like never before. For good reason, too. Be it abuse – sexual, doping and on a variety of other levels and issues – shiny suits, granting awards to questionable regimes, politicians, officials  handed criminal records by national courts and on down to the locking out of genuine access to the decision-making process in democratic manner in systems of grace and favour long past their sell-by date in 2018, a tipping point has been reached. The issues and consequences stretch along a broad spectrum and are multi-layered. SwimVortex will be considering some of the issues and communities affected by them over the coming weeks.

We start by considering developments in Masters swimming, with a look at events in Great Britain and how those speak to the nature of representation, transparency and access to decision-making. We will then look at developments in the United States and the pressure the United States Olympic Committee and USA Swimming are coming under in the wake of the Larry Nassar case in USA Gymnastics; and ponder why we find Michael Jamieson, the Olympic silver medallist, saying “I think the way FINA have conducted themselves the last couple of years is an absolute disgrace”, the timeframe only objection a sound mind might have to that view, given that awards given to GDR doctors who rammed syringes full of steroids into the backsides of 13 and 14 year olds girls are still in place and calls for action, from inside the federation and beyond it, have gone ignored.

Looking for a Master(s)stroke? Call A Rocket Scientist

You’d hardly think reorganising Great Britain Masters was rocket science but if can’t harm to have a rocket scientist at the helm to drive the process through to lift off.

Jim Boucher wants swimming to catch a wave of progress when it comes to best governance practices

This past week saw the announcement that the Home Countries Masters Swimming Management Group (HCMSMG) – the group that “represents” Masters at GB-wide level, and whose role includes LEN/FINA issues – has filled the most glaring “hole” in its small Committee with the appointment of Jim Boucher as the Swim England Representative.

Masters swimmers have welcomed Boucher’s arrival to the management group and clearly  look forward to discovering whether or not this signifies a “Loughborough Spring” of improved democracy and improved governance for the GB Masters community.

The appointment process itself followed a characteristically unclear, hurried and ill- thought-out approach that newly-elected Boucher, 57, hopes will soon become history.

Boucher moved to London from Northern Ireland in 1979 for his University studies, and has been on missionary duties in England ever since. Swim England yes, but most certainly not English, this resident of Surrey once ranked first in Ireland on breaststroke before leaving the sport, not to return until 1997 as a Master. Inspired by the warm welcome and brilliant atmosphere of his first Masters Meet at Barnet Copthall, he continued to race, train and socialise with Guildford City Masters whom he joined in 2000 when taking up a role as a consultant in the Space industry.

Boucher has worked for nearly 30 years in the space industry and his current role is leading the build and test of an imaging sensor (aka camera) that will be launched one million miles into space in 2021. For six years, the Euclid mission will look for evidence of what Einstein described as his greatest mistake, namely Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

It is an industry that requires discipline in its actions and communications, a strong ethos of collaboration and co-ordination rather than individuals’ operation in isolation. Boucher sees a number of parallels in how the Masters management must change its working approach.

Jim Boucher – aiming to tackle some of the issues that have met with a frosty response when raised in the past

We’re talking a 12-string guitar rather than a few strings on his bow when it comes to Boucher’s involvement in aquatics. An accomplished open water swimmer, he completed English Channel solos in 2007 and 2011, along with world-wide marathon swims in New York, Lake Zurich and Greece. The unique “head-up” style in Winter Swimming has provided an outlet for a breaststroke has-been, and he has made World finals in the icy waters of Lake Bled, the Arctic Circle and Siberia.

Boucher has looked after his County Masters Championships and team since 2005, and is part of Surrey’s mainstream Age Group Committee and Management Board. Boucher works with fellow Masters representatives on Regional and National Committees. An enthusiastic, if less skilled, water polo player, he also coaches the University of Surrey Men’s and Ladies’ teams.

A member of the Swim England’s Regional Management Board, Boucher is well-versed in the processes and machinations of mainstream swimming’s governance and management, and concludes that:

“… some of the daft stuff we see impacting Masters is not a lot different from the daftness that pervades the NGB at times. But that doesn’t make it right or acceptable!”

So how does this aquatics polymath view the masters landscape and how can he make a difference?

“People tell me Masters aren’t interested in how they are governed, even by those who represent them, and of course this has, in the past, provided a reason to the NGB not to take them too seriously.”

Avoiding a Bob Geldof-esque response, Boucher, in common with fellow Masters, points to the fact that five candidates stood for the post and many more would have done so had they not collectively realised that the sensible approach was to unite behind a single candidate who shared their key concerns and had the right skills to get them addressed – not to mention the fact that otherwise the candidates would have massively out-numbered the voting population.

Attendance at Masters conferences is up, a recent open letter on Masters governance received hundreds of shares on social media and thousands of views, and articles on Masters published in SwimVortex are regularly and widely shared on social media.

Jim Boucher: governance is inseparable from the wish of many to “just enjoy training, racing and socialising”

In Boucher’s view, management and governance are inseparable from the wish of many to “just enjoy training, racing and socialising”. In the last week we have resolved a “glitch” with entry to this year’s European Masters in Slovenia.

Whilst most swimmers are now able to organise their entries and their accommodation, others decided not to enter, or sought competition, or just a holiday, elsewhere. Leaving aside the well-known embarrassment of the “organisation” of the 2016 London European Masters event, other recent international fiascos include the failure to answer divers’ concerns over competition facilities and the upset caused by rescheduling (and then re-rescheduling) of the Open Water events at last year’s World Championships.

There is a need to have properly-elected representation of British Masters and an international appointment that bats for British Masters on the international scene made by that elected representation. Says Boucher:

“Post London 2016, expectations on both things were  initially pointedly ignored and this, alone, provides one reason why Governance is important to us all and requires outspoken efforts to make it happen.”

Boucher was one of an outspoken few who fought for the appointment of Sharon Lock as Swim England’s Masters Officer, an appointee who has, by her skills and personality, achieved far more than could have been imagined in those formative discussions.

Boucher believes that it is now time to review and rebuild the volunteer organisation and representation structures that were foreseen at the time of Lock’s appointment. He notes that an :amazing amount of work is performed by unpaid volunteers in Masters, organising meets at all levels, development days and so on”.

Without this effort, the competition scene for Masters would, inevitably, decline. The cost of pool hire would, inevitably, mean a choice between  higher entry fees, the use of sponsorship or even further funding by the NGB, so Masters need to be able to negotiate the way ahead on major meets and even take a stance with other disciplines, principally mainstream swimming, over access to pools and Officials. Says Boucher:

“While the NGBs may be dragging their feet over ensuring that the highest standards of governance are adopted, Masters have no excuse for neglecting the  push to ensure that we have proper procedures, terms of reference etc as we develop our representative structures to take care of the issues above.”

“Masters for Masters by Masters”

Boucher’s view: there is far more to be done, both by the professionals in Swim England whose salaries are contributed to by Masters fees, and by the vast pool of talent in the Masters community at large. The challenge is to harness Masters’ skills in a transparent self-governing structure, and get a fair share of the professional resources in the NGB to support them. And then be allowed to get on with it. Says Boucher:

“With CEOs, financial directors, marketing directors, investment bankers, scientists, lawyers, artists, and media experts in the ranks of Masters swimmers, the challenges faced and dealt with by Masters in their day jobs outflank the activities needed to run our sport.”

Boucher, however, believes that before Masters can take complete strategic control and make claim to manage their own destiny, they must be able to demonstrate competence in the “grunt”: organising Masters meets, ensuring that clubs have a positive attitude to Masters including provision of coaching and development, and resourcing officials.

His own involvement in these hard yards, and in Masters and Age-Group meet organisation, gives him the experience to encourage colleagues and clubs to do more. With his own County taking one of its 2018 mainstream championship weekends to the London Aquatic Centre, Boucher will be up close and personal with the financial facts and operational constraints of this facility, examining what is needed to run a Masters meet there.

“A camel is a horse designed by Committee”

Boucher, right,  has nothing personal against camels but remains unconvinced of the way the NGB hierarchy – split into BS and Swim England – interacts with Masters and believes that it has to be refined. His view is that the shortcomings in governance were never more cruelly exposed than in the debacle that was the European Masters in London in 2016. The initial reaction of the Swim England Board was that the European Masters was a “British Swimming thing”.

BS in turn pointed to LEN, who pointed the finger back at British Swimming and its subsidiary company set up to run the event.

Before it all, the GB Masters Committee and others had forecast that it would be a bumper attendance and after it all they were disbanded. Boil it all down, and a simple assessment is that there simply isn’t any democratic voice, upheld by transparent governance, for Masters. Says Boucher: “It must change.”

Strong moves to confront glaring weaknesses have been led by Sue Arrowsmith and others at the helm of those pressing for best practices in sports governance. One of Boucher’s key objectives is to ensure that the groundswell of views and opinions of Masters, as well as agreed actions by BS, are not swept back into the mists of time. He will work to ensure that the future of the Masters Committee and its Swim England equivalent, is built upon legitimate governance and management principles.

With British Swimming’s mission clearly defined as managing the elite end of the Sport, it is hard to see how Masters fits into its structure and Boucher will be seeking clarity on the future role of BS and how GB Masters can link effectively and constructively, through and with the support of BS, with its European and World Governing bodies.

A qualified accountant, Boucher will also be seeking clarity on Masters funding. It could be concluded from historic actions of the NGB, that Masters has been a “cash cow” to, at least, the Swim England side of the equation. Hand in hand with transparent and effective governance comes transparency of information for decision-making.

“We have to grow Masters…….well, excuse me, what about us?”

A major quid pro quo of the appointment of Sharon Lock was an agreement that one objective would be to grow Masters. Statistics show that the one growth area in membership post-London 2016, is indeed Masters membership. However, the NGB’s reticence to use any more of the substantial contribution of Masters’ fees to improve the lot of the existing membership is unacceptable to Boucher:

“With the showcase Swim England Masters Meet, each year at Sheffield, being targeted at an, at least, cash neutral, it is abundantly clear that Masters are generous net-contributors to Swim England coffers and Boucher considers that the existing membership deserve a better deal for their cash.”

He notes that this contribution, in the region of £210K to £250K per year to Swim England, runs way beyond the investment in the star that is Sharon Lock, particularly with her role now shared with Open Water. Even a £5-£10K annual contribution could make additional LC or long-distance meets practical and financially viable. Boucher considers Masters also deserve a fairer share of support from internal Swim England departments including website, communications, insights and membership.

“That old motherhood and apple pie stuff….communications and consultation.”

Swim England and its Welsh and Scottish analogues describe themselves as “Membership Organisations” but the experience of trying to communicate effectively through the membership is thwarted by systems and procedures. Many Masters, bored of being spammed with pointless offerings, tick boxes in the membership system that in turn prevents them from receiving structured communication.

Upcoming data protection legislation may make this communications channel even more difficult to use for the benefit of Masters and the existing hierarchy has refused to engage “officially” with the social media channels that see most of the traffic amongst Masters.

Jim Boucher – plain sailing ahead … beyond some rough seas and a few new charts…

In Boucher’s view, the ability of the Swim England membership system to consult and communicate with the membership is unfit for purpose, and partially contributes to the lack of consultation and communications in the existing Masters hierarchy. There should be no need to develop parallel volunteer-based systems for communications. Masters pay good money to be Swim England members and deserve a system that is fit for purpose.

“Our national Masters Meets should be a celebration of Masters Swimming”

GB is one of the big countries in Masters Swimming and there is a risk that the annual LC and SC competitions become a victim of their own success. Qualifying times have been introduced as a means of controlling numbers and making the events manageable, but the process has been appallingly consulted upon, communicated and implemented. We have managed to upset people who wouldn’t even have been affected by the QT.

There is a defined rotation of the LC meet but there are very few location options for the meet due to operators and BS’ commercial considerations. The SC meet is more or less destined to stay in Sheffield until Ponds Forge collapses, and, presently, it would be hard to imagine how our premier meet could ever be held in the London Aquatic Centre. But shouldn’t we be in there? Boucher has long held the view that Masters must consult on what the membership want, and then go make that work for the members. He says:

“For too long have the powers that be have told Masters what they are getting and there has been no pushing back. Most Counties and Regions regularly manage over-subscribed age group championships. It is not trivial, but it is most certainly not solved by first-come first-served bases either. One thing it most certainly is not, is rocket science when it comes to options for managing national Masters’ competitions numbers equitably.”

Boucher would also invite the NGB hierarchy to come at witness and engage with the Masters in their showcase events. A previous, now departed, CEO [David Sparkes] commented that he hadn’t realised what we meant by “Elite Masters” swimmers until he visited Sheffield. Says Boucher:

“There is a long way to go to educate the hierarchy that we Masters actually like to race. In our ranks we have some of the most amazing athletes on Earth. Way beyond the prime flush of youth, we have World and European Record holders who have to swim fast to win, not just jump in. Sure we can be all smiles at the end, and in the bars afterwards, but the expressions on Masters’ faces 10m out from the finish are not full of the joy of participation and camaraderie!”

In conclusion, he says that “this is an exciting time for Masters Swimming … there is more than a passing interest in our sport, piqued in a big way by the 2016 European Masters, for improved governance and communications.

Boucher is delighted to have bene given the chance to try to contribute to this change.

Sports governance and the structures that underpin it, from domestic to international competition, are coming under scrutiny like never before. The spectrum of issues in play is vast, from abuse – sexual, doping and others forms of what ought not to be. In a series of features over the coming weeks, SwimVortex will be asking why, how did it comes to pass and what can be done to exorcise ghosts through proper investigation and understanding of the past so that the future can hold a safer and healthier place for athletes, coaches and those who support and work with them. We start by looking at access to decision-making, developments in Masters and a hope in Britain that the days when the status quo decided who could represent fellow swimmers and have a say on their behalf may be coming to an end


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