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 disloyalty....you'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.
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.