New British Cycling performance director - 'There is a disappointing desire to sensationalise and hang people out to dry'

Tom Cary
Stephen Park is not afraid to defend British Cycling - Getty Images Europe

Stephen Park thinks carefully about what he is about to say, and then goes for an answer that takes me a little by surprise. “Look, I wasn’t there,” he says. “So I can’t say for sure whether that was the case or not for all the people. You can only take on board what they have said. But there’s almost a desire at the moment to sensationalise and hang people out to dry and I find some of that quite disappointing actually...”

I have just asked British Cycling’s new performance director what he makes of all the allegations swirling around the sport he is soon to be running. Wendy Houvenaghel, the Northern Irish rider who was dropped in the build-up to London 2012, was the latest to allege this week that she was discriminated against by ex-British Cycling bosses Shane Sutton and Sir Dave Brailsford, accusing them of sexism and ageism.

Park, who was appointed back in December to fill a position last held by Brailsford in 2014, has until now kept completely schtum as the controversy has obstinately refused to go away.

The Scot, 49, has been serving his notice period as the Royal Yachting Association’s Olympic manager, a post he has held since 2001.

Park was in charge of Team GB's sailing efforts at Rio 2016 Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Given the fact that he was not there at the time, I thought he might go for the safe option; to say something along the lines of ‘I cannot possibly comment on things that did not happen on my watch and I’d would really rather look forwards rather than backwards anyway, if you don’t mind.’

Or if not that, then perhaps to go for the safer option of trotting out the party line as espoused by Jonathan Browning, British Cycling’s new chairman, and Liz Nicholl, UK Sport’s chief executive, a couple of weeks ago. Something along the lines of: ‘Clearly, mistakes were made by the previous leadership. We apologise. It was unacceptable. We will do better’.

Park, though - or Sparky as he is universally known within sailing - declines to reach for the Sackcloth. It appears he is up for defending British Cycling’s damaged reputation. He admits the allegations were, and continue to be, a serious concern, to the extent that they made him think twice about accepting the position.

But ultimately, he says, from his own experiences of dealing with the programme [there is plenty of ‘cross-pollination’ between UK Sport’s world class performance programmes], from the conversations he has had with people directly involved, he feels the stories coming out are not representative of the wider picture across the programmes.

Wendy Houvenaghel (right) is the latest to allege that she was discriminated against Credit: REUTERS

“Of course it [the independent review into the culture at British Cycling] was going on through the tail end of the interview process,” he says of the review, which was launched following Shane Sutton's resignation amid allegations of bullying and sexism. “But they [the panel] hadn’t come to any conclusions prior to my appointment.

“So was it on my mind? Of course. Yes it was. And yes it is. But I suppose I see all that as being a great opportunity. A lot of the things being raised in the various reviews and reports, there is already a lot of work being done to address a lot of the concerns; to improve the governance and organisational structure. That journey has already begun. So I wasn’t so worried about that.

“Also, because I knew from the conversations I had had with riders I had met - at the Olympics or in previous visits, and from coaching staff and support staff - that some of the things that were coming out [the bullying allegations] were not representative of the whole programme.

“They may or may not have been representative of one or two people’s individual experiences within the programme - and of course that doesn’t make it alright - but they weren’t representative across the programmes.

“And now we are starting to see athletes coming out and saying ‘Actually, do you know what? I didn’t get involved [when the controversy first erupted] because it didn’t feel it was relevant to me. But actually now I feel I need to speak up because this doesn’t represent the view that I have. Dani King last week for instance who said something along the lines of: ‘Were they tough and were they harsh? Well yes, they were. But no more harsh on me than on the men.’”

Dani King has defended British Cycling Credit: GETTY IMAGES

It is rather refreshing to hear someone standing up for British Cycling. For all that Park says there has been a hysterical reaction to all the allegations that have surfaced in the last 12 months, it has not been that easy to find people - riders or staff - prepared to speak for the defence.

Park, though, appears up for the challenge of going in to bat for cycling. A 49-year-old Glaswegian with a strong work ethic – (Park is just back from ski touring in the Alps where he and a few friends did the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt “although in three days rather than the usual six”) - Park progressed through the UK youth sailing squads before joining the RYA in 1992 as a national racing coach in Wales.

From 1997 he joined the Olympic programme full time, initially coaching Ian Barker and Simon Hiscocks to silver at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and then taking over as team manager in 2000.

“Sixteen years,” he says. “They’ve flown by. Flown by.”

Park is justifiably proud of British Sailing’s success under his watch. The squad finished top of the medals table at three of the last four Games, and at the one they didn’t [London 2012] they won the most medals of any nation. He admits he was blessed with once-in-a-generation sailors such as Sir Ben Ainslie and Iain Percy, but clearly feels he put the structures in place that allowed them to flourish.

Stephen Park was blessed with once-in-a-generation sailors such as Sir Ben Ainslie Credit: GETTY IMAGES

The challenge now will be to replicate that success in a new sport, one alien to him. “Clearly there’s no way I would ever dream of coming in and saying ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to be replacing Shane Sutton on the coaching front’. The knowledge and experience of the sport which he has. But that’s not my role. There are brilliant coaches [at British Cycling]. It’s about trying to provide the leadership for the team. To drive that on.”

One area on which he is adamant he will not be compromising is in the demand for excellence. Again, this is dangerous territory into which to be straying, with an explosive independent report set to be published which - if the leaked draft is anything to go by - is likely to accuse British Cycling of prioritising medals over athlete welfare.

Park, though - who will travel with the team to next month's Hong Kong track worlds before officially starting in Manchester - is clearly anxious that cycling does not go too far the other way in the face of all the criticism.

“I want people to talk about the cycling programme as being tough, as being robust, as being challenging,” he concludes. “The last thing I want is that people would use the word ‘bullying’. But equally, we are not going to change the programme to be serving afternoon tea after every session.

“All the athletes are not going to be happy all the time. That is a given. The important thing is that they understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, that you have sound reasoning, that you have been happy to talk and explain to them about what it is. They might not agree with it but they understand it.”

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