One hundred days from Rio, Britain’s national cycling team has been thrown into chaos following the sudden resignation of its head, technical director Shane Sutton, as allegations of bullying and discrimination against women and Paralympians accumulated on Wednesday.
The cycling team, which won more than 30 medals in both London and Beijing across the Olympics and Paralympics, now faces the run-in to Rio without a key figure indelibly linked to its success over the last three Olympic cycles.
In spite of his attempts to step back in recent years, the Australian’s direct involvement across the board has been so deep that his departure has major implications. That it comes exactly 100 days from the opening ceremony of the Rio Games merely underlines the urgency now that the team has been left in effect headless. The former GB cycling head, Sir Dave Brailsford, described himself as the conductor of an orchestra. His successor, Sutton, was simultaneously conductor and composer while also in charge of keeping the power supply to the concert hall going. While Brailsford directed, Sutton drove.
Therein lay the root cause of recent events. Some insiders claim that without Sutton the atmosphere around the team will be lightened, because of the way his personality weighed on every decision. The flipside is that those athletes who are closest to him will be bereft. Unfortunately for Great Britain’s medal chances in Rio, those athletes are probably the ones who are carrying the principal weight of the nation’s medal hopes in the velodrome, among them Becky James, Laura Trott and Sir Bradley Wiggins. Sutton had been committed to their cause for more than 10 years.
While what Sutton allegedly said and the way he behaved towards some of his charges cannot be defended, there is no dispute over how close Sutton was to his chosen athletes, or the depth of his commitment to their every need. He has spoken of decorating Victoria Pendleton’s flat at 3am – some might ask whether this was appropriate or necessary, but there it remains – and Wiggins believed that if he needed his mentor to turn up for training on Christmas morning, he would be there, and sleep on the sofa next to the tree to ensure it happened. On another occasion, a rider experiencing sudden marital problems was immediately put up in the Sutton flat with the coach’s wife, while the coach moved out for the duration. The other side of this coin was probably that he ended up feeling his immense personal commitment made him untouchable.
Since taking over from Brailsford two years ago, Sutton had rushed to rebuild the team’s staff after a period of drift as his predecessor figured out his future. The coaches Sutton appointed are in post, the training pathways to taper and peak for Rio are in place, the aerodynamic kit is in the workshop or at least on the drawing board, and the broad lines of each of the principal squads is clear. Like a chicken with its head cut off that keeps running, the squad will function in the interim and will get to the Games. But there will be issues where Sutton would have played a key decision-making role; it will be harder to tie up those loose ends, and that will have an impact across the squad.
One immediate question will be whether to rebuild bridges with the sprinter Jess Varnish by re-examining the data which backed up her dismissal at the end of March; it is unclear whether that will come under the remit of either of the reviews announced by British Cycling this week. It was her claim that Sutton had told her to “go away and have a baby” – which the technical director has denied consistently, including in his resignation statement on Wednesday afternoon – that prompted others to come forward and disclose their experiences under his regime, in turn creating the pressure which left him with no option but to resign. If Varnish were to return that might in turn create political issues with members of the squad who have backed Sutton after her departure.
Beyond the most obvious fact that Sutton was clearly the key member of the selection panel that will forward nominations to the BOA for the Olympic squad to be announced in early June, there are live selection issues that will confront Andy Harrison and the head coach Iain Dyer. Take Mark Cavendish. It was not linked to Sutton’s departure in any way, or reported outside specialist media, but the head of the Manxman’s Dimension Data squad, Brian Smith, quit on Tuesday, and with his successor yet to be named it remains unclear what the fallout will be for Cavendish’s quest for the solitary men’s omnium place.
Sutton was a major proponent of bringing Cavendish into the team, while the coach in charge of the men’s endurance squad, Heiko Salzwedel, has been more circumspect because of the demands team pursuit training would place on Cavendish’s time as he attempts to win stages at the Tour de France. Elsewhere, the men’s team sprinters remain locked in their quest to resolve the conundrum of the third man behind Philip Hindes and Jason Kenny, while there is open resentment in the BMX community over the fact that – in an Olympic year, lest we forget – only two riders have been selected to fill the five places at the upcoming world championships with the national champion Tre Whyte missing out.
The men’s road race team has to be decided and the women’s road race team to back up Lizzie Armitstead, with Trott probably the best GB hope for gold, needs a third member. Armitstead has – wisely, as it turns out – reduced her reliance on British Cycling to a minimum, so should be largely unaffected, and Emma Pooley is the candidate for one place, but the finer points of Pooley’s bid for a time trial will need ironing out. And so on.
Medals come down to fine margins and details, so the distraction and uncertainty that will follow Sutton’s departure may take a toll.
The candidates for Sutton’s succession will be polishing their CVs. There has been more than one watchful eye around the country following the ups and downs of his two years at the helm. The list of senior staff and coaches who moved through the British Cycling system under him and Brailsford – leaving on terms running the gamut of amicable, silent frustration or open antagonism – is a long one and there will be no lack of interest, although that will probably wait until after Rio.
Sutton’s quest for the top job at British Cycling lasted years and his presence in the squad has always been contentious, with Brailsford coming close to sacking him after Beijing. Those around him often felt split emotionally: admiration for his commitment, racing knowledge and his intuitive ability to cut to the chase alongside despair and frustration at behaviour that went beyond the boundaries of what is appropriate.
While much of the team’s success came down to his methods, so too did the pressures and the human fallout. The universal awareness that “Shane was Shane” means there are wider questions for the senior managers at British Cycling who put him in charge of their programme and are now left trying to figure out what to do 100 days from the Games.
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