British Cycling Problem: Bad Leadership?

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By Chris Garrison

I was determined to not write some TL:DR piece about Shane Sutton and the general situation at British Cycling. I’ve made my views on this drama quite clear on social media, and didn’t think having a long form piece would really add anything to what I’d already said.


Then I woke up to the announcement that Sutton was resigning, and to BC top man Ian Drake referring to the situation as a ‘distraction’. Voicing concerns about castigating treatment by a person in a position of great power within an organisation is a ‘distraction’. The only people who would label such behaviour in that way are others in positions of power who are culpable.

While some might hail Sutton’s resignation as a victory of sorts, it is far from the only step required to fix the very broken system within British Cycling. This is clearly evidenced by Drake’s suggestion that duty of care is paramount, despite the fact that, until this week, allegations by athletes about the treatment they received were ignored – not just by the organisation, but by the media as well. The list of these allegations is long, and they aren’t all that recent.

What’s worse is the lengths that those in power will go to in order to discredit those making the allegations, a fact that we’ve seen in full effect since the news broke. Public opinion – and worse, many media outlets – were quick to jump on this bandwagon, echoing the notion that Jess Varnish hadn’t produced results and demonstrating a tremendous failure to investigate even the most basic of facts, such as her list of accomplishments on her Wikipedia page. I challenge anyone to look at her results and suggest that she isn’t Olympic material. They should also make it clear that her credibility should not be called into question regarding her statements.

The news coming out of Manchester simply highlights the problem onion that is British Cycling. It’s not just about sexism. As Suze Clemitson has described BC, it’s also ‘pale, male, and stale.’ There are few examples of any sort of diversity among the organisation or the team. There’s controversy on the BMX side, with the omission of Tre Whyte and Quillan Isidore from the Worlds team. Mountain biking is a shambles, with not a single rider qualifying for Rio and examples of XC racers being made to do road races instead of XC races with valuable UCI points up for grabs. And gravity events are all but ignored, which might actually be a blessing in disguise.

Winning at all costs

Those that have come to the defence of Sutton by pointing out how many victories have been achieved under his tutelage have used this to label him as a ‘great coach’. This adoration makes clear a complete lack of understanding: victories are the last thing that indicate someone falls into a category of the best coaches out there. Such thinking fails to recognise a very basic idea – that athletes want to win. They don’t spend hours and hours training, days eating the same meals over and over, and sacrificing the ‘normal’ aspects of a social life in order to not achieve victory. A coach is meant to be the guide that helps athletes develop their talent, and implement it in order to perform at their best. This is hardly just about physical ability. It’s as much about mental preparation and well-being, and it is the latter area that Sutton has very clearly failed a significant number of athletes.

Yet many people are willing to forgive what they think are his occasional indiscretions because British Cycling has been the vanguard of performance for a number of years now. Again, this suggests that the only way for elite athletes to succeed is via ‘abrasive’ coaching. There are countless examples of coaches who fully understand the role they play, and do so with not only technical expertise, but also a grasp of the influence they have over athletes.

Leadership needs to see themselves as giants

Sutton is part of a system at BC that to the trained eye is simply a collection of elite individuals. There is very little that demonstrates that BC fosters a sense of ‘team’ among its athletes, or that the leaders really understand the impact of their words and actions on the athletes they coach.

What this all boils down to is the quality of the leadership, and its ability to find the balance between the pressure to excel, and the provision of high-quality motivation and support. It is ridiculous to assume that a different coach wouldn’t have been able to achieve the same level of success as Shane Sutton. It is entirely plausible to suggest that the success of BC could have been even greater, had a coach with a more holistic approach been in employment. And while it’s evident that Sutton often did things outside of the norm for some riders, these actions in no way eliminate the negative mental impact that his various comments and other behaviours have had.

Coaching isn’t just about victories. It’s about understanding that you are a giant to the people who are seeking your guidance. It means having the ability to comprehend that everything you say will have an impact on the people in your care. Coaching is just as much about being a role model as it is about helping athletes channel their technical ability. There is no question that Sutton knew how to direct technical efforts. But it’s clear that he was selective with his affirmative motivation and support, and he was ignorant in thinking that his ‘banter’ was acceptable.

“You have to ask yourself if you would be willing to send your child away to be coached by someone who might use insult, body shaming, and negative reinforcement as part of their coaching repertoire”

In the response to what’s happened this week, one of the most troubling things for me has been the fact that BC didn’t take any action until Darren Kenny revealed Sutton’s comments about the para team. It is hugely indicative that it was these allegations that lead BC to act, rather than the numerous references, current and historical, of Sutton’s behaviour towards women. To me, this makes it clear that not having access to the same equipment isn’t the only way that BC views women as ‘less than’. While we shouldn’t have to place any sort of ranking on the crudeness of Sutton’s behaviour, it appears that it’s more acceptable in the eyes of BC (and the public) to disparage women, than it is the disabled. It is an indictment of not just the BC culture, but that of what the public feels is important for sporting success.

Institutional sexism doesn’t mean that all women will experience sexist attitudes. There will always be examples of women who don’t see it for themselves, and this is usually down to the performance level they’ve achieved. This is why some members of the elite BC team have attempted to defend Sutton with their anecdotal accounts of their personal experiences. Institutional sexism is as much about the denial of opportunity as it is about the words someone says. The former is a more sinister and stealthy version of misogynistic behaviour, and the harder to prove. Despite the favourable comments from some riders, these in no way should be used as evidence that a problem doesn’t exist.

You have to ask yourself if you would be willing to send your child away to be coached by someone who might use insult, body shaming, and negative reinforcement as part of their coaching repertoire. Would you consider this acceptable behaviour in parenting methodology? If not, then why would it be tolerable in a sporting environment? Would you want an exuberant and abusive ‘sideline coach’ at football games to be tasked with the crucial role of mentoring your child?

Reasonable people will look at the situation with British Cycling and apply a healthy dose of skepticism to it. How many women hold senior positions among the coaching staff? Do you think the facts presented by Nicole Cooke and Victoria Pendleton demonstrate a fair and equal environment for all women? Who are the people who have come out in support of Sutton?

When presented with these details, it should be impossible to suggest that the medal haul of the BC program is entirely due to the coaching and the existence of a healthy environment. Athletes are willing to suffer to achieve great things. Having a toxic environment that doesn’t foster the best possible scenario both physically, and mentally, shouldn’t be acceptable no matter how many podium places the system achieves.

Comments (3)

    Excellent piece, asking many of the right questions. It certainly is of concern that society was willing to give BC more of a free pass on sexism than anything else. Perhaps, before affecting any real change on BC, a bit more work is needed on society.

    No mention of cycle trials in there, which doesn’t surprise me as BC don’t care about it anyway. They are a joke and deserve to go under.

    Yet another piece on elite athlete development and the tensions between the Olympic disciplines, as though that is the be all and end all of BC.

    You’re aware BC also do local coaching, club support, GoRide, Breeze network, regional sport, campaigning, disciplines other than the Olympic ones, etc? Visit right now, you’re invited to click on 20 articles before you get to a competition result.

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