UK Sport has long prided itself on a high-performance system that it insists is “the envy of the world”. Yet the way it deflected and muzzled criticism of how it had failed to spot deep-rooted problems at British Cycling on Wednesday suggested world-class levels of obfuscation, too.
It had been expected Annmarie Phelps’s independent review into the climate and culture of British Cycling, which appeared after 14 months in utero, would be slimmer and more watered down than a draft version of the report leaked in March. And so it was.
Criticisms of figures such as Sir Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton were softened. There was no mention of the word “bullying”, and some of the draft’s more damning phrases, such as the “systematic and deeply cultural malaise” at British Cycling, were also struck from the record.
Yet even the softer language could not hide just how dysfunctional British Cycling had been for the past decade or how UK Sport either missed, or wilfully ignored, numerous attempts to do something about it.
During the late 2000s and until 2014 the report noted that the relationship between the performance directors of British Cycling and UK Sport had “deteriorated to the point of being nonexistent” because of two reviews carried out by Deloitte which were critical of the conflicts of interest between Team Sky and British Cycling, and that as a result Brailsford did not meet UK Sport for several years. That surely should have been a red light. There were also whispers among English Institute of Sport staff for many years about the problems inside the velodrome. That should have been another.
Then there was the report by Peter King written in 2012. King, having interviewed almost 50 riders and staff, found that “any semblance of a management structure had clearly disintegrated” by 2012 and that the leadership was viewed as “autocratic”. More damning still, he found “a culture of fear, intimidating and bullying” in the velodrome. His report was passed to only three people in British Cycling, including Brian Cookson – who is now the president of cycling’s governing body, the UCI – and the British Cycling chief executive, Iain Drake, who gave a bare summary to UK Sport’s Liz Nicholl.
Even so, as Nicholl admitted: “We should have pursued it, we should have demanded it. But we were unsighted. I had a long email from the CEO at the time and I trusted it was a full and frank.”
But the independent review says that she should have done more. As its author, Phelps, writes: “The panel is also concerned that UK Sport did not act upon knowledge it possessed as of December 2012 that there were behavioural issues which needed to be addressed within the world-class programme.”
There were other opportunities, too. Every year all UK Sport-funded athletes participate in an Athlete Insights Survey, which feeds anonymised results back to UK Sport. Between the 2013 and 2014 studies athletes who agreed with the statement “Morale is high” declined from 86% to 66% – and such dips were mirrored in other areas including effective leadership. As the report notes: “From 2012 to 2016 UK Sport did not dig deep enough into the cultural reality of the WCP [world class programme].”
However, when it was put to Nicholl that the inevitable conclusion was that the success of British Cycling’s medal factory trumped human decency and kindness, she rejected it out of hand.
“We have never promoted or condoned a win-at-all-cost mentality or approach,” she said. “We promote a commitment to excellence, to being the very best in the world, to surrounding every athlete with the very best support. That’s what the world-class programmes are about. It’s not a win-at-all-costs mentality – it’s a winning mentality focusing on excellence.”
The recent revelations about bobsleigh and canoeing suggest that what went on at British Cycling may not be a one-off. Yet Nicholl disputed this too. As she put it: “99% of this system is working really, really well. It has been exposed here quite rightly and we are addressing those issues.”
However, the biggest criticisms of the review were rightly saved for British Cycling. For a decade it has been as a Rolls Royce organisation, but it clearly also had a whiff of the Del Boy about it too. As the review explained: “Several contributors, including both past and present British Cycling employees and riders, made allegations about financial impropriety within the WCP, including the selling of bikes and equipment and the alleged hiring of friends of family into roles within the organisation.”
The panel did not investigate the allegations because they did not have sufficient expertise, there was no primary evidence and because it would have caused a significant delay to the production of the report. It also declined to investigate historical allegations of drug abuse, made against two members of the world-class programme “but not past or present riders” for much the same reason. Yet those issues, along with UK Sport’s woeful lack of curiosity, should not be allowed to fade or be forgotten.