KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) - The head coach of Australia's national swim team has defended his country's decision not to enter the mixed gender relays at the world championships, saying they were not a "high priority."
Australia, currently joint top of the medals table at the championships, which end in Russia on Sunday, would have among the favorites to win gold in the mixed medley and mixed freestyle events, which have been added to the world championship program for the first time.
But with neither event on the schedule for next year's Rio Olympics, the Australians decided not to enter them at the world championships, failing to show up for the heats.
Australia's absence triggered a wave of criticism on social media, with bloggers and tweeters accusing the Australians of being hypocritical, pointing out that they entered all the single-sex events that were not on the Olympic schedule, including the 50 meter backstroke, 50m butterfly, 50m breaststroke, women's 1,500m freestyle and men's 800m freestyle.
But Australia's head coach Jacco Verhaeren was unrepentant and stood by his decision to pull out of the mixed relays.
"Whatever you think of it, we want to maintain our focus on what's important and we consider Olympic events more than mixed relays," he told reporters on Saturday.
"You have to make choices. In high performance this is the best thing to do. It’s not a high priority."
In mixed relays, teams enter two men and two women, but there are no rules on which order they have to swim in, which invariably leads to more lead changes and more strategical planning than traditional single-sex relays.
Although the events have not yet been approved for the Olympics, swimming's world governing body FINA and the International Olympic Committee are both in favor of mixed gender races.
With the exception of the Australians, the world's traditional swimming powers have all embraced the idea, with five-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte leading the U.S. team in Saturday's mixed freestyle heats.
Australia would have been a heavy favorite to win the mixed freestyle gold after finishing first (Bronte Campbell) and third (Cate Campbell) in the women's individual final and second (Cameron McEvoy) in the men's individual final.
But Verhaeren said he didn't want to use his best swimmers because they still had other events to finish and he saw no point in letting other team members compete in their place.
"There are too many freestylers still in competition and in the medley relays and we are focused on them," he said.
"You don’t want to race a relay with your second tier. We considered it, if it was necessary for experience, but that is not the case here."
Verhaeren, who was formerly in charge of the Dutch national swimming team, was appointed as Australia's head coach after the Australians won just one gold medal in swimming at the London Olympics, the country's worst result in two decades.
A review into the team's poor performance later revealed misuse of prescription drugs along with allegations of drunkenness, breaching curfews, deceit and bullying.
Reporting by Julian Linden; editing by Amlan Chakraborty