John Atkinson is being promoted to High Performance “Dictator” right under our noses. And we’re letting it happen.

The 2015 Canadian Swimming Trials, taking place April 1st – 4th in Toronto, will serve as Canada’s selection meet for World Championships in the summer. The best swimmers in the country will race to earn spots on Canada’s national team. However, the country’s fastest swimmers may not be the ones granted the opportunity to represent Canada at World Championships. In fact, results at Trials might not even matter very much.

After examining the selection criteria (which you can download below), I came to a startling conclusion: if Swimming Canada High Performance Director John Atkinson fully exercises his power, he will have complete control to decide who will represent Canada at the World Championships. Allow me to prove it to you, beginning with swimmer selection.

SELECTION CRITERIA – 16th FINA World Championships – Kazan 2015

Priority 1

Just like last year, national champions won’t necessarily get the chance to represent Canada at the top international meet of the year. First and second place finishers at the 2015 Canadian Trials will also be required to meet challenging time standards invented by Swimming Canada to be added to the World Championship roster.

Selection Standards 1
How fast are these times? Let’s use the results from last year’s Canadian Trials, supposing they had occurred this year instead, to see how many swimmers would achieve a Primary Selection Standard. Every swimmer in the country that meets at least one of these standards using the 2014 results is listed below.

Men Women
Ryan Cochrane – 400 & 1500 free Brittany MacLean – 200, 400, 800 free
Sinead Russell – 100 & 200 back
Brooklyn Snodgrass – 100 back
Geneviève Cantin – 200 back
Katerine Savard – 100 & 200 fly
Audrey Lacroix – 200 fly
Erika Seltenreich-Hodgson – 200 & 400 IM

A grand total of 1 male and 7 females are selected under Priority 1. By reorganizing the table by event, we can see how many spots on the World Championship team remain vacant.

Event Men Women
50 freestyle
100 freestyle
200 freestyle MacLean
400 freestyle Cochrane MacLean
1500 / 800 freestyle Cochrane MacLean
100 backstroke Russell, Snodgrass
200 backstroke Russell, Cantin
100 breaststroke
200 breaststroke
100 butterfly Savard
200 butterfly Savard, Lacroix
200 Individual Medley Seltenreich-Hodgson
400 Individual Medley Seltenreich-Hodgson

So far, there are 15 individual events without a single Canadian entry.

Again, let me stress that the above time standards are a Swimming Canada invention. By FINA standards (the international governing body of competitive swimming), Canada is good enough to send at least one swimmer per event to World Championships, if not two. Swimming Canada has the budget to send 52 athletes – it’s stated right at the top of the selection criteria document.

52 Swimmers

Only 8 of 52 possible spots are filled. So why wouldn’t we send each national champion to represent the country at World Championships? In the past, it has been argued that we can’t compare our selection process to that of countries like the USA because it has advantages in financial resources. But how could this be an acceptable excuse when we have the budget to send 52 swimmers to World Championships, same as the USA?

Instead of rewarding the swimmers that have invested thousands of hours into the sport and made a countless number of sacrifices climbing the top of their event, Swimming Canada is opting to send a majority of them a clear message: “You have failed. Go home.”

Priority 2

This priority appears to be nearly as redundant as it is complex. It hinges on a “Secondary Selection Standard” chart that I’m not going to bother posting here because the times are only slightly slower than the primary ones. To be added to the World Championship team, swimmers must meet two of the Secondary Selection Standards in two different events at Trials.

Using last year’s results, nobody accomplishes this. Victoria Poon, Tabitha Baumann, Russell Wood, Tera Van Beilen, Kierra Smith, Evan White, Marni Oldershaw, Alec Page, Luke Reilly, and Emily Overholt all place top two and achieve a Secondary Selection Standard in one event, but not the required two events.

Not a single swimmer is added to the team under Priority 2.

Priority 3

Here’s where we get our first taste of pure subjectivity. “In the event that injury, illness, or unforeseen circumstances of a significant nature inhibit a Swimmer’s preparation for the Selection Trials…” they can submit a request to the Selection Committee to be added to the World Championship Team. The entire quoted phrase is indefinable and could easily be twisted based on varying interpretations, so it’s impossible to predict who might be added to the team under this “Discretionary Selection.”

However, there is another condition: to be eligible, the swimmer must be ranked top 8 in the world in their event in 2014, using a maximum of two swimmers per country per event. The only Canadians meeting this criteria are Ryan Cochrane, Brittany MacLean, Katerine Savard, Hilary Caldwell, and Kierra Smith. These are the only swimmers that could possibly be added to the World Championship team under Priority 3 at the upcoming 2015 Trials.

Let’s continue with our example. Cochrane, MacLean, and Savard have already qualified for the team. Caldwell cannot be added to Canada’s roster because there is a maximum of two spots per event, and the 200 backstroke is already full. Kierra Smith is therefore the only potential candidate, based on her 200 breaststroke that ranked 7th in the world last year. Let’s be generous and assume her preparation for Trials is inhibited in some way, she submits a request, and the Selection Committee likes her enough to add her to the team.

That brings the total team roster up to 9 out of a potential 52, with only a single remaining priority level.

Buckle your seatbelts – this is where it gets interesting.

Priority 4

At first glance, the final priority appears to only concern relays. But read it carefully, and pay special attention to the wording.

Priority 4

Reread that highlighted portion. First of all, notice that John Atkinson has the complete authority to add whoever he wants to the World Championship team, which is insane enough. Second, notice it’s not explicitly stated that the swimmers he adds to the team are relay-only swimmers. It states he “may add swimmers to the team” (pause) “…to enhance the relays.” Yes, the last sentence does read “FINA regulations regarding relay-only swimmers also apply,” but that’s a separate clause that applies to relay-only swimmers. We haven’t determined that the swimmers being added to the team are necessarily relay-only swimmers. They’re being added to the team “to enhance the relays,” which is a vague concept.

Here’s what I’m suggesting: Priority 4 is worded in such a way that if John Atkinson fully exercises his power, he could fill spots on the World Championship roster by handpicking swimmers he likes regardless of results at Trials. Priority 4 is worded in an ambiguous way for a reason: it’s giving John Atkinson room to select his own squad of swimmers to “enhance the relays”, but bring them to World Championships as fully qualified team members and enter them in individual events. Effectively, he would be bypassing the Primary and Secondary Selection Standards to fill the team however he wants.

Let’s continue with our example. Right now, there are no relays to enhance because we don’t even have enough swimmers on the team to actually form complete relays.

Event Men Women
50 freestyle
100 freestyle ________ ________
200 freestyle ________ MacLean
400 freestyle Cochrane MacLean
1500 / 800 freestyle Cochrane MacLean
100 backstroke ________ Russell, Snodgrass
200 backstroke Russell, Cantin
100 breaststroke ________ ________
200 breaststroke Smith
100 butterfly ________ Savard
200 butterfly Savard, Lacroix
200 Individual Medley Seltenreich-Hodgson
400 Individual Medley Seltenreich-Hodgson

The relay events that lack even a single swimmer are highlighted. Based on the way the selection criteria is worded, there is nothing to stop John Atkinson from bringing whoever he chooses to World Championships to swim those individual events, as long as they qualify in FINA’s eyes. By FINA rules, a nation is allowed to enter at least one swimmer per event, provided they have swum a FINA “B” standard after March 1st, 2014. Notice this exact stipulation is included in Priority 4.

Therefore, the swimmers John Atkinson adds to the team theoretically don’t even have to attend Canadian Trials, as long as they’ve achieved a FINA “B” cut within the past year at a FINA sanctioned meet. The “B” times are wildly slower than Swimming Canada’s Selection Standards, but they qualify for World Championships.

FINA B

Check out how many Canadians have already swum a FINA “B” time in each relay event since March of 2014, meaning they’ve already met FINA’s qualification requirement and could be selected by John Atkinson when he’s designing the World Championship team. Note that these numbers will only get bigger over the next few months, through Trials.

Event # of Males # of Females
100 freestyle 16 24
200 freestyle 18 18
100 backstroke 9 17
100 breaststroke 7 11
100 butterfly 3 13

Dear national team members: do you see your name in the highlighted chart above? If not, the only way you would have qualified for the World Championship Team using last year’s results is if John Atkinson picked you. I know you plan on swimming faster this year and I know you must stay hopeful – I respect that, because I’ve been there – but, some questions you might want to consider while approaching the 2015 Trials are: “Does John Atkinson like me? Am I too old?”

For those that don’t know, last year’s selection criteria included “Age Weighted Standards” that allowed slower, younger swimmers to qualify for national teams ahead of faster, older swimmers. It was this discriminatory criteria that prevented my qualifying for any national teams last summer, and ultimately led to my retirement from the sport that I love and grew up with. I wrote about it here. Afterwards, John Atkinson stated without any explanation that Age Weighted Standards would not be included in the 2015 selection criteria. This was a lie. The “Age Weighted Standards” have been embedded into Priority 4, and this time it’s worse because there aren’t even any time rankings to remove bias. John Atkinson is in complete control to pick whoever he wants.

Which do you think is more damaging to Canadian swimming culture: punishing national champions by not sending them to World Championships, or rewarding young swimmers by adding them to the national team when they haven’t earned it yet? Newsflash: meddling with selection criteria does nothing except damage the performance-reward incentive system that is basic to sport. Do you really think a man writing down numbers in an office is going to improve the quality of Canadian performances?

Let’s look back at our example chart one last time. If John Atkinson fully exercises his power, he could pick one swimmer from each of the highlighted events and enter them in World Championships as if they had qualified for the team under Priority 1. That’s 7 swimmers of his choosing, added to the team “to enhance the relays”, which they would be doing, because they’d be swimming relays in addition to their individual events. Then he could handpick an additional 12 swimmers to take to World Championships as relay competitors; FINA allows nations that enter 6 relays to bring 12 relay-only swimmers, as long as they have a FINA “B” time.

That would wrap up Canadian World Championship Team selection. There would be 28 spots filled out of a possible 52, and more than two-thirds of the team would have been chosen by John Atkinson irrespective of results at Trials.

You might be thinking, “this is ridiculous. This won’t happen.” But then let me ask you: why is Priority 4 worded the way it is? If the intention is to add the fastest swimmers to the team, as it should be, why is Priority 4 worded so ambiguously, and why does John Atkinson have sole discretion in selecting swimmers? I’m showing what could happen if John Atkinson fully exercises his power. Any time a person of authority has “sole discretion” on a matter, it ought to raise alarm bells. And by examining the rest of the selection criteria document, we can see how much power John Atkinson truly does have.

Coach Selection

The coach selection criteria for World Championships is arguably more insane than anything I’ve addressed so far. It might as well read, “John Atkinson has the sole discretion to select every coach he likes, based on which ones suck up to him.” No wonder Canadian coaches are afraid to speak up against this lunacy; if they’re on John Atkinson’s bad side, they don’t have a hope of being selected as a coach for World Championships. I could write an entire article on this alone – the criteria should be clear and objective, and coaches should earn selection based on the swimmers they’ve qualified for the team.

We’ve seen how John Atkinson can choose swimmers and coaches to add to the team, but his power doesn’t end there. Even if a swimmer races fast enough at Trials to be selected for the World Championship Team under Priority 1 or 2, they aren’t safe, because John Atkinson can easily remove swimmers from the team if he wishes. Here are three ways he can do it.

1. By refusing to enter them in their event:

Event Entry

Buried in the “General Information” of the selection document is this little gem. Even if a swimmer is selected to the team, they may not get a chance to swim their event at World Championships if that’s what John Atkinson decides with the help of his appointed sidekick. (Of course John Atkinson is going to appoint a coach that will do whatever he says, and the coach won’t challenge him because they’d jeopardize their chances of getting appointed in the future).

2. By deciding they’re too sick, injured, or not fit:

Competitive Readiness

Allow me to summarize: John Atkinson and his appointed sidekick have the authority to decide that a selected swimmer isn’t “competitive ready,” based on whatever factors they choose. They can then force a qualified athlete to undergo a “test,” even when they’re already onsite at World Championships. The “test” could be as impossible as John Atkinson decides, and if the athlete fails, they can be kicked off the team.

3. By digging up dirt on them:

Swimmer Removal

If a swimmer has EVER in their lives done something that is “inconsistent” with Swimming Canada’s Team Rules Regulations and Code of Conduct, they can be removed from the World Championship team. This includes things like: failing to attend a team function, entering a hotel room belonging to an athlete of the opposite gender, and “any action or conduct that is detrimental to the reputation or image of Swimming Canada.” I wouldn’t stand a chance.

If John Atkinson needed a reason to kick a swimmer off the World Championship Team, he could find one, and he could do it using one of the above strategies. He could theoretically remove any athlete that qualifies for the team under Priority 1 or 2, and, with sole discretion, fill the team with whoever he chooses. By putting all the pieces together, we come to one final conclusion:

It is within John Atkinson’s power to subjectively decide with complete discretion which Canadian swimmers and coaches will attend the 2015 FINA World Championships.

How has this been allowed to happen? Who is John Atkinson, and why are we letting him take control of Canadian swimming? Why are coaches and alumni, who have been involved in the sport all of their lives and seen a rich history of success in Canadian swimming, stepping aside for a British man with little credentials and a big ego? Something tells me Hockey Canada wouldn’t invite a random Russian to handpick Canada’s Olympic hockey team.

John Atkinson’s competence has already been called into question: last year he insisted multiple times (evidence here and here) that swimmers should only shave and taper twice a year, at Trials and summer competitions, but then suddenly decided that shaving and tapering in December fit Swimming Canada’s philosophy. When I criticized him for completely backpedalling in a tweet, he deleted his entire Twitter account! Would a confident, capable leader fold like a cheap patio chair after receiving a single justified criticism?

This is not an issue of whether or not you think John Atkinson will be benevolent when designing the World Championship Team, nor is it an issue of whether or not Canada needs to “set higher standards” (as if the secret to fast swimming is writing faster times down on paper). This is an issue of athlete rights. The fact that John Atkinson has so much power, regardless of whether or not he will use it, is a violation of those rights. It’s unacceptable.

Attorney Pia Ek, who specializes in sports law, asserts that clear selection criteria for high-level competitions are part of athletes’ legal protection. “When the governing body successfully drafts clear selection criteria, they eliminate multiple interpretations and potential disputes. Good selection criteria are public, transparent, clear and unambiguous.”

Perhaps nobody is speaking up because we’re accustomed to corruption; after all, it has plagued the Canadian swimming world for decades. Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian and current professor at the University of Toronto, wrote an article back in 1983 titled “Athletes have rights too,” in which he gave examples of cases where athletes were “denied their basic civil liberties due to the unchecked power of authoritarian coaches and sports officials.” One of the cases involved well-known Canadian swimmers George Nagy and Jay Tapp, who were “treated like prisoners” when they were sent home from the 1978 World Championships.

Athletes Have Rghts Too“Put money and power in the hands of a few and eventually abuse will happen.” That’s true in sport the same way it’s true in politics. That’s why democracies divide power and institute checks and balances – to prevent the abuse of power by individuals in government. Without effective restriction by a constitution, laws, or recognized opposition, an elected leader becomes a dictator.

Swimming Canada does have such restrictions in place to prevent the abuse of power – even concerning national team selection policy – but apparently they’re not upheld in any capacity. Swimming Canada’s official selection policy mandates that “The selection processes and standards used must be determined and applied objectively, transparently and in a timely manner, to the benefit of all selection candidates.” The selection policy also includes the following limitation:

Selection Limitations

In case you can’t read the screenshot taken directly off Swimming Canada’s website, here’s what it says: “Selection standards may not be developed that purposefully eliminate a ‘qualified’ individual (swimmer, coach, manager, support staff ) from selection or that advance an ‘unqualified’ individual in selection.”

What could be a clearer breach of this limitation than a single man handpicking athletes and coaches for the national team? Explain to me how leaving national champions at home and bringing slower swimmers to international competitions is not purposefully eliminating a “qualified” individual and advancing an “unqualified” individual in selection? It happened last year and it’s going to happen again this year unless something is done. Hello, Swimming Canada board members? Is anyone there? Does anyone care?

But of course: Swimming Canada’s board members are the ones responsible for granting John Atkinson such enormous power. A footnote at the bottom of the selection criteria states:

Created and Approved

Not only did the Selection Committee create these criteria – they approved them too! The committee members are listed under Swimming Canada’s Governance Structure. At the time of this article’s posting, they were listed as:

Selection Committee

Chair: Chris Bowie – Olympic freestyler, 1992
Bill Humby (CSCTA) – Current Head Swim Coach of the University of Alberta
Stephanie Horner (Athlete Rep) – Two-time Olympic Swimmer, 2008 & 2012
Dean Boles – Current Swim Ontario Provincial Mentor Coach
Cynthia Pincott – Former national level swimmer
SNC: John Atkinson, High Performance Director
SNC: Brian Edey, Senior Manager, HP Programs – Former national level swimmer

In John Atkinson’s Q&A, he explained that “Swimming Canada’s High Performance department prepares [selection] policies, which are then reviewed by the selection committee before publication.” That would implicate the following people as well:

High Performance Committee

Chair: Leslie Cliff – Olympic silver medallist in 400 I.M., 1972
Jim Shaw – Olympic Backstroker, 1968
Kerry Mummery – Dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta
Wade Flemons – NCAA Champion in 1981 and fellow Stanford backstroke alumnus
Peter Szmidt – Former 400 freestyle world record holder, 1984 Canadian Olympian
SNC CEO ex-officio: Ahmed El-Awadi – Former Executive Director of Water Polo Canada
SNC: John Atkinson

Though I struggle to believe that all of the above people had a hand in drafting this year’s selection criteria, I have to assume they did.

Dear Selection and High Performance Committee members: consider this my formal request for an amendment to the 2015 selection criteria. I have already emailed this article to each of you in a hope that one of you, with your vast experience in sport, will see the injustice and take a stand on behalf of all Canadians. Allowing a single man to determine the fate of swimmers rather than leaving it to the natural process is a violation of athlete rights. John Atkinson must be stripped of his discretionary power in national team selection, and the criteria must be changed so that it reads clear and fair. We should all perceive Swimming Canada to be an organization that acts in the best interest of swimmers who are putting their lives into training and competition, rather than one that acts in the best interest of men in offices rubbing their bellies. Don’t forget the commitment you’ve made to swimmers:

“Swimming/Natation Canada (SNC) is committed to providing opportunities for every individual in the sport of swimming to reach his or her potential in fitness and excellence. In keeping with the spirit of this statement, SNC is committed to providing a sport and work environment that prohibits discriminatory practices.”
Swimming Canada Harassment Policy and Procedure

Dear Canadian swimmers, coaches, parents, and associates: Trials are fast approaching, and the selection criteria will not change unless YOU, the person reading this, takes action. If you believe in athlete rights, the value of sport, or even democracy, at the very least please share this article. If you know a Swimming Canada board member personally, please contact them and ask them why they’ve handed so much power to a man who has the arrogance to act like he is above the natural process of sport. Or, best of all, speak up. I can’t be the only voice of opposition. Former world record holder Annamay Pierse and former SNC President Brian Johnson have both publicly supported my blog posts using their full names – it is time that others joined the conversation.

My goal is to warn the entire Canadian swimming community of the implications of this year’s selection criteria, while there is still time to make changes. If nothing is done before April 1st, it will be too late.

The fate of Canadian swimming is in your hands.