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
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.