Shane Sutton saga: Winning culture in sport is laudable – but not at any cost

Despite a spell of unprecedented success, should we compromise on no-compromise?

That question has been preoccupying those at the sharp end of the sporting system this week as the wheels threatened to come off at British Cycling with less than 100 days to go until the Rio Olympics. The man in charge of the elite track team, Shane Sutton, resigned as the dam burst on a stream of allegations of sexism, racism and disablism – claims which he denies. Meanwhile, there are wider questions about whether the thirst for precious metal has blinded under-pressure governing bodies to their responsibilities to the athletes who produce them.

British Cycling has been cheered to the rafters as the model governing body, a medal factory that has combined a production line of elite success with wider participation goals. The media and politicians alike have uncritically cheered it to the rafters. But the review will now look into whether that success was hiding some major governance flaws. Was the elite programme allowed to go rogue in the search for medals? What does it say that Sutton did not inform his employers that he was also being paid as an adviser for the parallel professional Team Sky operation? What to make of the unsubstantiated allegations of kit and bikes being flogged for profit?

That a highly pressured elite sporting environment produces tough, uncompromising coaches whose sole focus is winning is not news. Nor that it produces brutally single-minded athletes whose necessarily tunnel vision causes them to block out any impediment to their performance. Nor that athletes missing out on selection are liable to hit out at those who did not to pick them.

But it is worth at least pausing to consider whether the high-performance, marginal gains, no-compromise rhetoric of the past decade that has fuelled the flag-waving, chest-thumping charge of Team GB up the medal table at successive Olympics might have a downside.

Lubricated by Lottery millions and exchequer funding, a masterplan drawn up by the former UK Sport chair Baroness Sue Campbell and the former performance director Peter Keen rightly, and uncompromisingly, focused on medal potential as the barometer of funding. Elite sport is no place for wall flowers, but the allegations levelled at Sutton brought to mind previous controversies.

Toni Minichiello, coach of the London 2012 gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill, was not the only one to hint that senior coaches at the governing body might have an issue with the way they interacted with female athletes. Ludicrously, Ennis-Hill was apparently among those labelled fat before her 2012 triumph. Charles van Commenee, the uncompromising Dutch coach brought in to ensure UK Athletics were not embarrassed at their own Olympic party, was forced to deny he was the senior official concerned.

Bill Sweetenham, the uncompromising Australian swimming coach, was accused of bullying and humiliating British athletes but was eventually cleared of the charges following an internal inquiry in 2006.

In craving the Australian model of the hard-nosed pursuit of sporting excellence and investing millions in hired guns to deliver short-term success, perhaps the consequences have been overlooked? For every allegation that reaches the media, there are many more athletes – especially those in development programmes or hoping to clamber on to the Lottery funded scheme – who would inevitably be afraid to speak out.

In addition to the UK Sport review of British Cycling’s culture, which will be headed by the chair of British Rowing, Annamarie Phelps, and will not be delivered until after the Rio Games, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson is also conducting an independent, government-commissioned review into the duty of care governing bodies have to their athletes. In addition to the way they are treated, it will also look into medical care, how athletes transition into and out of sport and whether enough is being done to safeguard their mental health.

There seems to be an unspoken recognition that in our relentless focus on data-based coaching and science there is a danger that an entire system has become blinded to the impact on the athletes concerned. There is an acceptance that things are said in the heat of the moment, that coaches and athletes fall out, that both carrot and stick are required, but when public money is being invested in building a sporting infrastructure, surely the bar is even higher when it comes to a duty of care to athletes who often know little else and are desperate to remain within the system.

One obvious practical measure would be to improve the external options for athletes who want to blow the whistle on what they feel is unacceptable behaviour without fear of reprisals.

For Campbell, who is now head of women’s football at the FA and as much as anyone deserves the plaudits for transforming British sport over the past 15 years, the dividing line is clear. She argues, not unreasonably, that most people instinctively know it is between a refusal to compromise on excellence and tipping into abusive or bullying language or behaviour.

“One of the things we did between 2003 and 2012 was that we made winning something we were proud to do, not something we were rather nervous of achieving,” she says. “The phrase we used was ‘no compromise’. But that doesn’t mean you can be rude and cross the line of basic decency.”

Put like that, it sounds simple, but in the pressure cooker of modern Olympic sport, it perhaps acts as a reminder that winning should absolutely be the aim – but not at any cost.

Powered by article was written by Owen Gibson, for The Observer on Saturday 30th April 2016 21.59 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010