British Cycling A Complex story

In life, there are two sides to every story, however so often only one side sees the light of day. British Cycling has been front and centre in the news of late. Here is my perspective.

On my last day at British Cycling, I walked across the concourse of the National Cycling Centre and burst into tears. I don’t have a family to speak of and for the last 6-years British Cycling had become mine. Leaving was like ripping my heart out. Most of my colleagues were a group of inspirational of people who work tirelessly for cycling. I didn’t leave wearing rose tinted glasses. Some of my time was personally challenging. The organisation had developed a bit of a habit for “sweeping things under the carpet” and that did have consequences on peoples' wellbeing including mine. However, the good outweighed the bad and my association with British Cycling is one that I’m incredibly proud of.

I had seen the organisation grow from a few people in broom cupboards into a world-leading NGB. The growth trajectory meant that managers of small teams, who were titled ‘director’, found themselves running a multi-million-pound business. With success and growth came increased levels of government scrutiny which left some operating out-of-their depth. British Cycling was not helped by national and regional boards who were primarily composed of intransigent old men who pushed against modernisation. Yes, these people cared about the sport, but only in their particularly small and murky bubbles. Because of the culture and rules of governance, change was very slow… As we all know, turkeys’ don’t vote for Christmas.

Such barriers to change were exacerbated by funders such as UK Sport and Sport England who keep shifting the goal-posts. When organisational systems were beginning to work, their policy changes meant that they had to be changed. Credit to Ian Drake and some of the directors, who were very good at anticipating what the changes were going to be and dealing with a system that was in a constant flux. Yes, some decisions disappointed us minions no-end. We were responsible for implementing many of these decisions and justifying them to members. This is despite us believing that some were quite ridiculous and not in the best interests of the sport. We were not party to back-room machinations though and there may have been good reasons for implementing some decisions, even if we, the workers, disagreed with them. This is common to most work environments and not unique to British Cycling.

The about to be published ‘independent’ report from UK Sport is likely to be scathing about British Cycling and its governance, with some degree of justification. However, what UK Sport fails to recognise is how complicit they themselves are. The systems and policies that govern sport originate from the sport itself, however in recent years, the UK government, through the Department of Media, Culture and Sport have established guidelines for funding of sport that are implemented by quangos including UK Sport and Sport England.

The current funding formulas mean that world class programmes in the UK have become increasingly dependent upon government funding which is ‘results driven’ and are continually under review. In this reality, the rug can be pulled from under the feet of performance programmes at any time. This can foster the establishment of unhealthy environments, in which a ‘win at any cost’ mentality and a lack of job security pervades the everyday decision making processes of the people who work for the organisation. Coaches, support staff and athletes could potentially lose their jobs at very short notice. Human nature is such that we are often driven by our emotions. If we feel threatened, then unethical decisions become easier to make, even when we know they are wrong.

Rather than blaming everyone, people need to look at who was setting that culture. It doesn’t mean that everyone in British Cycling is flawed like that.


Furthermore, the government is driving an agenda which devolves some of the responsibility for health and wellbeing of the nation to sport. Key performance indicators which relate to participation are unachievable for most sports. This is partly because they are invalid measures of the health of a sport, partly because of the complexity of the ‘market’, and not the least, due to the lack of resources and capabilities of organisations that would enable them to provide more opportunities to take part in their sport. The sport participation market is a relatively saturated one; when participation levels grow in one sport, they drop in another. While efficiencies could be found and latent markets targeted if the sport NGB’s collaborated with each other, the system encourages them to do the opposite as they compete for funding and resources within the same pot from government. Further, funding cycles are too short to encourage long-term strategic thinking. Achieving flawed KPI’s often takes priority over delivering worthwhile change. Moreover, the participation agenda can alienate traditional members because there are few KPI’s associated with their needs. That said, I’ve seen an incredible amount of wasted resource in my time so I agree that NGB’s should be held to account for their actions. However, when funders impose overly bureaucratic and authoritarian systems, they simply breed fear and encourage unethical behaviour.

The Government and the funders were quick to share in British Cycling’s successes but they are even quicker to devolve responsibility for its failings. NGB’s are forced to acquiesce under threat of sanction and cannot complain too loudly. There are deeper philosophical and political issues at play in which the government and some quangos are able to devolve responsibility for their own shortcomings. Blaming British Cycling for poor governance is too simplistic.

Jiffy Bags and Bullying

Most people are far more interested in the elite side of the sport than governance. The story we are hearing about in the press relates to potential doping and a bullying culture within the Great Britain Cycling Team. I’m not going to pretend this is a non-story in which no wrong has been done. Evidence points in the opposite direction.

It was obvious to me from Day 1 that the getting into bed with Rupert Murdoch, his goons at Sky and with professional cycling could only end in one way. For me, the risk for an NGB and the Great Britain Cycling Team to get caught up in the web of doping was simply too great. I know from a few horses’ mouths, out with British Cycling, that Team Sky was very protective of their secrecy and their autonomy. We are now seeing the consequences of the lack of transparency that resulted.

It is unreasonable to expect that every rider, coach and support member is and has always been squeaky clean. People and cultures who crucify others for doping, without taking a look at their own indiscretions, are part of the problem. I’m pretty aligned on my views about doping, with my colleague Dr Paul Dimeo, in which we do not advocate an ‘off with their heads’ philosophy (Paul writes very eloquently on the subject).

However, the jiffy bag scandal involving Bradley, regardless of the ethics of how TUE’s were used, is inexcusable. The fact that Dr Freeman failed to keep adequate medical records or that he administered drugs intravenously to staff members should be considered by the GMC, not a government select committee. Further, for any elite sports organisation to employ medical and coaching staff without a transparent application process leaves it open to infiltration from the ‘old-boys network’. In cycling, this is dangerous.

Although I was quite a distance from the coal face, I was close enough to gain an appreciation of the culture on the performance side. I enjoyed the odd chat with Shane Sutton, even though some of my trusted friends are less complimentary of the man. I think I understand people like Shane. He’s an egocentric alpha-male with behaviours consistent with a middle-aged Aussie bloke stereotype. However, looking into his eyes, I sensed a fearful insecure guy, experiencing emotional turmoil. I have no doubt that he genuinely wanted the best for people too. Be nice to people like Shane and they’ll be nice back. Attack such personalities, you’ll probably lose and you’ll always have a grudge held against you. Challenge them, show weakness or allow them to gain an ascendency and you’re on your way. They’ll be loyal and look after you as a brother, but if they sense're f**ked.

The UK Sport report suggests that it was inappropriate to put Shane in charge because it was known that he was “totally unsuitable for a leadership role”. Certain people did speak up, that I know. But I doubt whether HR or Ian Drake really had much power to control him. It saddens me to hear how people like Jess Varnish and others suffered as a result. Let’s face it, no one breaks the Omertà without good cause and I knew 1st hand some of the problems she was facing. There were enough whispers to suggest there were serious issues for those who were not in the ‘clique’. What’s worse is that evidence points to Jess being hung out to dry by the board. Their actions were wrong and they should now be held to account.

Some riders and staff within the of the inner-circle excelled in such a dog-eat-dog environment and do not recognise the areas of criticism British Cycling faces. That’s because it was an environment that worked for them. The world is not dualistic, where things are either good or bad. One environment can be amazing for some and poisonous for others. However, we must also consider that elite sport is rarely fair or equitable. This was particularly apparent for the BMX, MTB, para, and female road squads. It was an open secret that some coaches, support staff and riders on these programmes felt they were unfairly treated. They struggled to access resources or top-quality equipment and were treated differently to the inner clique. With a limited funding pot, it is unreasonable to expect complete parity between all programmes especially when some have less chance of success than others. But the relationship with Team Sky heightened the sense of inequality. Further, the expectations of all riders were poorly managed and this led to resentment. Jess was the whistle blower and others followed. These were very brave acts as we know that whistleblowing rarely ameliorates the situation. In my eyes Jess did the right thing; however, one unintended consequence may be that staff and riders will lose their jobs through funding cuts. This is heart-breaking, especially because those who have been implicated in the current scandal aren’t short of a bob. Whilst their reputations have been damaged, their bank balances are large enough to suggest they can have a long sabbatical.

“Protecting the business” was a phrase I heard used regularly in British Cycling. However, some members of staff interpret this as ‘we need to cover our arses’. They worried too much about reputation management rather than doing the right thing. That’s pretty common at every level of government and business too, so they’re hardly unique. Skewed leadership can contaminate the culture of a whole system as we see in wider society. I’ve heard people say that British Cycling is rotten to the core but this is simply not true. To those people who criticise too much, I say that they know not what they’re talking about and they should consider the challenges in which their dualistic perspective is too simplistic to understand a relative society.

Rather, I want to shout from the roofs that British Cycling is a wonderful organisation. Many of the people who work there are my friends, people I miss and I love dearly. There’s the Go-ride and Academy coaches who built the foundation for and contributed to British Cycling’s success far more than they are given credit for. These are the people who if they do their job well, winning medals becomes the easy bit. British Cycling became a world leader, not through doping, Shane Sutton or Dave B. It became a world leader because it built the best structure out there to support young riders actualise their dreams.

Staff in the coaching and development teams, club volunteers, club coaches and the wider membership are the secret of success. Many people refer to British Cycling in the singular, i.e. British Cycling “thinks this” or “does that”. However, the reality is that it’s an umbrella term that unites a group of individuals who care about and work tirelessly for the sport. Yes, we must accept the findings of the UK Sport report, and those who have done wrong must be held accountable. Like any employer, it has its fair share of dead wood too. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the majority of the organisation is made up of committed individuals, most paid below the going rate, whose actions speak louder than their words. These actions typically make society better, rather than worse.

Moving Forward

What British Cycling now needs is stronger leadership. It also needs a more diverse board composed of people with a more progressive outlook in life, with expertise in sport as well as well as business. They need to understand the complex, dynamic and ever changing nature of sport and have the agility to deal with it. A culture of transparency needs to be fostered in which issues cannot simply be swept under the carpet. The same people charged with staff and rider welfare cannot be the same ones who are charged with ‘protecting the business’. Limited, but not short-term tenure in strategically important positions should be encouraged to prevent the business going stale. These things are obvious, but government and its quangos must recognise their role in supporting effective governance, rather than being complicit in its failure.

About Andy Kirkland Ph.D.

I’m an endurance sport expert, who works as a Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling, Scotland’s University of Sporting Excellence. I am a BASES accredited sport and exercise scientist with Chartered Scientist status. I worked at British Cycling for 6 years as a coach developer and am a qualified triathlon and cycling coach. I have over 20 years’ experience in triathlon and an extensive personal network in the sport.

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