The debate over whether medals have been prized over morals in Olympic sport has been escalated by the revelation that talented young women training with a view to sporting glory now allege they were sexually abused in pursuit of their dream.
British Canoeing and the police are currently investigating the claims. These were sportswomen who put their trust in a coach who they claim took advantage of them in the most deplorable way. Once more it gives rise to serious questions about duty of care for athletes, a discussion which will reignite on Wednesday with the long awaited publication of the independent report into the culture at British Cycling that was sparked by claims of bullying and discrimination first made by the cyclist Jess Varnish.
It has been 14 months since Varnish claimed that then performance director Shane Sutton cruelly advised she “get on with having a baby” after she was ditched from the high performance squad. He also remarked her bottom was “too big” to ride certain roles on the team.
The affair took a further twist when an independent British Cycling review that cleared Sutton of eight of nine charges was itself found to have “sanitised” the findings of its grievance officer by a leaked UK Sport report, the final version of which will be released this week.
Disabled riders said they had been referred to as “wobblies” and “gimp”, with six-time Paralympic champion Darren Kenny claiming he felt so bruised by his experiences with British Cycling that he could not bear to publicly display his medals at home. Sutton denied the claims.
But Kenny’s sadness in the face of enormous success raises a potent point about whether the joy of sport was lost in a relentless clamour for more shiny metal to wave around. And of whether UK Sport, the funding body, allocated millions of pounds of exchequer and lottery money should have asked robust questions about safeguarding, mental health and athlete representation.
The independent report is expected to make uncomfortable reading for the governing body, British Cycling, discovering over the course of more than 90 separate interviews that many riders and staff felt bullied and discriminated against. But it is also expected to criticise the funding agency UK Sport for failing to demand accountability, missing opportunities to identify management shortcomings at British Cycling years earlier and therefore spare much heartache.
It is not just cycling and canoeing, two of Britain’s best funded Olympic sports – in receipt of more than £50m between them over the last four-year cycle – conducting internal investigations. British Swimming is looking into claims of bullying made by Paralympic athletes. An elite coach was alleged to have belittled and criticised athletes, leading to a “culture of fear”.
Meanwhile medical staff at GB Taekwondo raised concerns with UK Sport over coaches’ practices with regard to concussion, weight loss and training loads, including suggestions that athletes were asked to train in saunas. According to UK Sport, an independent review found insufficient evidence to support the allegations.
It is not overblown to say UK Sport is in the midst of a crisis. The contrast with medal-based success is stark. In Rio, British athletes had their best ever medal haul. While there is clearly much good being done behind the scenes – world class facilities, coaching and an enviable attention to detail in training and competition – there is a case for the “no compromise” model to be reviewed entirely.
The idea of “no compromise” was minted by Peter Keen, who set in motion the “marginal gains” led transformation at British Cycling in 1998 and five years later oversaw its introduction to Olympic sport as a whole. It was enormously successful. Great Britain catapulted up the world standings, from 36th place and a solitary gold at the Atlanta Olympics of 1996 to second behind only the USA last summer.
The accompanying lottery money allowed athletes to devote themselves entirely to their training, paying for accommodation, food and a range of support services, from physiotherapy to sports science and nutrition.
Alongside that a performance director culture took hold, whereby one individual was given power to run their programme with relative autonomy. Varnish said it was a case of a select few at the top of British Cycling having ultimate power to decide on the future of athletes. She maintains the decision not to renew her contract was personal rather than an objective assessment of ability and potential, while there was scant opportunity for recourse.
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, an 11-time Paralympic champion, conducted a government-ordered year-long review into duty of care which was published in April. It had seven broad recommendations, one of which was to create a Sport Ombudsman, an organisation with the power to hold national governing bodies to account for duty of care failings.
It also suggested that the British Athletes Commission, an organisation which currently supports athletes who feel they have no route for making complaints to their own governing body, be independently funded by the government. It is presently funded by UK Sport which presents its own, perceived if not real, problems of conflict of interest.
If Grey-Thompson’s proposed reforms are acted upon it will go some way to making sure athlete welfare has the same gold standard as Great Britain’s Olympic performance.