After a heated discussion at a Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearing into doping in sport, Conservative MP Julian Knight claimed that the elite sports organisation, UK Sport, had “allowed the pursuit of medals to take priority over the mental health of athletes”.
She said that the organisation was unaware of current issues, such as the bullying claims made by athletes within the world-class programmes of British Cycling and British Canoeing. These allegations raised questions about the constant pressures and bullying situations athletes are in, especially now with the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games.
According to an independent review, the British Cycling’s world-class performance programme showed that there is a “culture of fear” at the governing body and the pursuit of medals, and the derived National Lottery funding from UK Sport has had “a blinding effect, causing clear behavioral and cultural issues to be ignored”. Liz Nicholl, chief executive of UK Sport, believes that the organisation hasn’t failed the athletes, and that the situation for the athletes is quite different.
Senior Lecturer at the Carnegie School of Sport at Leeds Beckett University, Dr Francesco Addesa believes that “the relationship between professionalism at a competitional level and pressure, is of course tight. Because recently we had also some cases of suicides in professional sports. So of course, the higher the level the higher the pressure you have, the better you need to be to handle the pressure”.
She stated: “I think that they [the government and the organisations] are responsible if they don’t vigilate on what is happening. Of course, the attitude of single athletes or single coaches depends on the individual but it’s also a responsibility of the sports organisation to ensure that their employees, and in this case, the athletes and the coaches behave properly. So, it’s also the responsibility of the sports organisation to build a culture within the organisation that doesn’t allow these kinds of behaviours.”
“As for the bullying, it is a matter of a single sport, some sports that are basically made by people that are less educated, they have a more military approach and for this reason, they used to bully their mates, especially the young mates. It depends on the sport, this attitude towards young athletes and mates, in general”.
So, what’s the future like for British Cycling and the athletes involved? A 39-point ‘action plan’ of reforms overhauling governance and welfare policies has now been introduced by UK Sports, after the accusations of bullying. It warned British Cycling that the £26m it is due to receive for elite performance leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Games, is now in jeopardy, although it has previously held the organisation up as a flagship for other sports.
Dr Addesa seems optimistic about the future of the sport. “Of course, this scandal has negatively affected the reputation of some of the coaches involved in the sport,” she added. “But if they stick with the rules and with the policies they will still receive funding. The reputation is negatively affected but I think that they can replace the athletes or the coaches involved in the scandal and in this way they clean up the reputation and they still go on.”
PHOTO: Stella Taxidi