Risk rises when duty of care is ne­glected in pur­suit of glory

Ruth­less ap­proach can turn some elite ath­letes into bul­lied vic­tims, writes Oliver Brown

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Sport -

Piece by piece, the ugly flip side of Bri­tain’s Olympic medal fix­a­tion is be­ing un­masked. Since Syd­ney 2000, the coun­try’s ever-more suc­cess­ful gold rushes at the Games have been held up as proof of national viril­ity.

Out­num­bered in pop­u­la­tion we might be by Ger­many, Rus­sia and China, but show us the five in­ter­laced rings and we swell in stature, for 17 days at least. Once the sea­far­ing race, we now de­rive pa­tri­otic pride from be­ing vir­tu­osos of the velo­drome.

Such a step change has been en­gi­neered by cut-throat means. Com­pe­ti­tion for fund­ing is a zero-sum game, with sports hit­ting their medal tar­gets show­ered with lottery money and those miss­ing out, even frac­tion­ally, left to wither on the vine. It is a lit­tle over four months since an in­de­pen­dent re­view of Bri­tish Cy­cling con­cluded that medals were hav­ing a “blind­ing ef­fect vis-à-vis cul­ture”, but still the malaise seeps deeper. The lat­est al­le­ga­tions that a Bri­tish swim­ming coach presided over a “cli­mate of fear” are grimly fa­mil­iar.

The bom­bard­ment of bul­ly­ing claims across our Olympic sports is such that the prob­lem ap­pears not iso­lated, but in­sti­tu­tion­alised. Athletics, row­ing, ca­noe­ing, taek­wondo, archery and bob­sleigh­ing have all been sucked into the cri­sis, with sail­ing, judo and short-track speed­skat­ing also un­der­stood to have shown de­fi­cien­cies over ath­lete wel­fare.

This is the first time that swim­ming has found it­self part of the wel­fare scan­dal, al­though rum­blings of discontent have rarely been far away. Bill Sweet­en­ham, for­mer head coach of Aus­tralia and widely cred­ited with el­e­vat­ing the per­for­mance and pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the Bri­tish team, was at the cen­tre of a bul­ly­ing in­quiry in 2005 as Karen Pick­er­ing, win­ner of eight world ti­tles, de­clared that he was treat­ing se­nior swim­mers “like chil­dren”. He was cleared two years later.

The par­al­lels be­tween the al­leged cul­tural break­downs in swim­ming and cy­cling are

Power can have a strange, warp­ing ef­fect on even rea­son­able peo­ple. Sport is no dif­fer­ent

dis­turb­ing. Shane Sut­ton has con­sis­tently de­nied claims that he re­ferred to Bri­tish Par­a­lympic cy­clists as “gimps” and “wob­blies”, but the mud has stuck. A slick and re­lent­less medal-win­ning ma­chine Bri­tish Cy­cling might have been, and yet with Sir Dave Brails­ford the great un­touch­able and Sut­ton his ruth­less en­forcer, it was hardly a model wor­thy of breath­less ad­mi­ra­tion. Now there are con­cerns that swim­ming has suc­cumbed to the same per­ils, with al­le­ga­tions that dis­abled ath­letes have found them­selves “be­lit­tled and crit­i­cised”.

A pic­ture is emerg­ing, at the heart of all this, of the mis­use of power. For­ti­fied by am­bi­tious medal tar­gets and un­par­al­leled re­sources, too many of those in charge of our Olympic fief­doms have taken this em­pow­er­ment to ex­tremes. Cy­cling was merely the first domino to fall. Bri­tish Bob­sleigh, for in­stance, is ac­cused of in­hab­it­ing an at­mos­phere of un­usual tox­i­c­ity. Just four months out from the Win­ter Games, it finds it­self be­sieged by ac­counts not just of bul­ly­ing, but sex­ism and racism to boot. Blame has been pinned on an ex­ces­sively hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­ture, with lit­tle in­de­pen­dent thought tol­er­ated and any dis­senters os­tracised.

Power has a strange, warp­ing ef­fect on even rea­son­able peo­ple. In sport, it is no dif­fer­ent: five min­utes of fame, and a foot­ball man­ager can feel as if he rules the world. Take Phil Brown, who in 2008 fleet­ingly guided Hull City to third in the Pre­mier League. By Christ­mas, with re­sults on the turn, he was frog­march­ing his play­ers to­wards the away end at Manchester City, so that he could lac­er­ate them with his half-time team-talk in pub­lic. It was a ris­i­ble ex­am­ple of how man’s God com­plex con­vinced him that the rit­ual hu­mil­i­a­tion of grown men was good lead­er­ship.

Paul Thomp­son, the Bri­tish women’s row­ing coach, has long been an ur­bane and ami­able in­ter­vie­wee but he was la­belled last year by one of his ex-pro­teges as a “mas­sive bully”. An in­ter­nal re­view ex­on­er­ated him of that charge but con­ceded that his meth­ods were “un­re­lent­ing”. Too many of our Olympic sports, sadly, are be­ing run by strut­ting sergeant-ma­jors with too lit­tle ac­count­abil­ity for their ath­letes’ well-be­ing. They have be­come so be­daz­zled by the gold rush that they risk ne­glect­ing a fun­da­men­tal duty of care.

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