Cycling: Spoke in British Cycling's wheels

By David Leggat

Shane Sutton Technical Director during the Great Britain Cycling Team. Photo / Getty Images
Shane Sutton Technical Director during the Great Britain Cycling Team. Photo / Getty Images

It's been a grim week for British Cycling.

There are lessons for all sport in what has erupted in an organisation noted in recent years for producing excellence on two wheels: a whopping 16 gold medals over the past two Olympic Games, five golds amid a table-topping nine medals at this year's world championships in London and expected to again be a force in Rio in August.

To say their programme has fallen apart would be a stretch, but it's certainly nestling squarely in the frying pan amid undermining allegations of bullying and discrimination.

Australian coach Shane Sutton, formerly a notable road rider, is in the crosshairs. He has resigned, or been suspended - depending on who you read - as technical director, having been regarded as a significant figure in that Olympic success.

Problem is, Sutton is also facing charges of what could be termed a serious lack of inter-personal skills with, and appreciation of, women riders and holding unflattering opinions on para athletes and Asians.

Track cyclist Jess Varnish, who failed to qualify for Rio, has alleged she was told by Sutton she had a "fat arse" and best she "move on and have a baby". Para-cyclist Darren Kenny said Sutton had referred to members of the disabled athletic group as "gimps" and "wobblies", while Malaysian cyclist Josiah Ng claimed Sutton called him "Boatie", although adding it was "never in a negative context, but I don't know if he was aware it was derogatory". Ng added that Sutton is "old school that way".

And maybe with that he got to the nub of Sutton. Old school, and all the connotations that can bring. In this case women in the kitchen and changing nappies. That's the story. Leave the real business of sport to the blokes.

Sutton has denied all claims.

British Cycling has also discovered it only takes a couple of heads to pop up above the parapet for more, feeling emboldened and hitching a ride on the backs of others leads, to follow.

There is talk of a "culture of fear" within British Cycling in recent years, says Ian Braid, chief executive of the British Athletes Commission, which backs the interests of British Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

Olympic champions Nicole Cooke and Victoria Pendleton have supported Varnish and attacked a culture of discrimination against women riders.

One source within British Cycling has said Sutton regularly used the terms "sheilas" and "bitches".

"You have to wonder why there isn't a single woman in a position of leadership in the organisation," Pendleton said. "If there's a 50-50 split in terms of athletes, why isn't there in terms of staff? That's something that needs to be addressed in sport as a whole."

There are concerns now that the number of aggrieved cyclists may be far larger than initially thought.

British Cycling has set up a review into discrimination and sexism in its organisation.

There's a bottom line here: the organisation has a fine record of medal success. That brings hefty financial support. But you might wonder whether the degree of support is now at risk on the alleged words and attitudes of the men who run it.

- NZ Herald

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