LONDON — British cyclists operated within a corrosive culture of fear where inappropriate behavior was tolerated by a leadership focused on maintaining the country’s Olympic dominance, a panel reported Wednesday.
The investigation exposed the toll on the welfare of cyclists due to failings by a leadership which delivered 12 medals on the track at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Cycling has formed the bedrock of Britain’s emergence as an Olympic power over the last two decades, with the country surging to second in the medals standings last year.
UK Sport, the government-funded agency, has been found to have failed to act on warning signs about the behavioral issues. A previously secret British Cycling report after the 2012 London Olympics concluded there was a “culture of fear and bullying” within an “autocratic leadership.”
“The central pursuit of medals and derived National Lottery funding from UK Sport meant that the addressing of cultural and behavioral issues in the WCP (world class program) which were known since late 2012 was not prioritized,” the new review into the “climate and culture” in British Cycling states.
UK Sport chief executive Liz Nicholl said the agency would be “more inquisitive” in the future.
“Any suggestion that UK Sport is about a ‘winning at all costs’ approach is frankly disturbing and is wrong,” Nicholl said. “But we have to accept that there is now evidence of instances when the drive to be the best in the world and the drive to win medals may have contributed to some unacceptable behavior and culture in some world-class programs.”
Nicholl was speaking alongside report chairman Annamarie Phelps at the headquarters of UK Sport, which decides the level of funding for Olympic sports.
The report was prompted by claims by former rider Jess Varnish and other Olympians and Paralympians of sexism and bullying.
A “culture of fear” in the last Olympic period among staff and athletes, the report highlighted, created “an atmosphere of impunity, resulting on occasion in inappropriate behaviors that had no place in a modern workplace.”
Shane Sutton, who quit last year as technical director following allegations of discrimination, was sharply criticized.
“SS did not operate in a way which was always appropriate for a modern work-place, even if highly-pressurized and at the pinnacle of international sporting competition,” the report said. “Furthermore, those descriptions again indicate that SS should not have been placed into a leading management position within the WCP without appropriate support, guidance and training also being put in place for him.”
The panel urged British Cycling to instigate a more collaborative working environment where athletes are empowered and not treated like children.
“We accept, in full, the recommendations in the (report) and apologize for where we have failed or fallen short of the standards which we should have achieved,” said Jonathan Browning, British Cycling’s recently-appointed chairman.