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Q&A: new British Cycling performance director Stephen Park

Mark Bailey
20 Feb 2018

British Cycling’s new performance director talks gold medals, independent reviews and Wiggo’s UKAD investigation

Photography Alex Wright

Cyclist: Before joining British Cycling in 2017 you managed the world-beating GB sailing team. What new ideas will you bring to cycling? 

Stephen Park: Hopefully I can bring a different perspective. Having been involved in the Olympic environment I have a good understanding of what it takes for athletes to be successful. But every sport is different, so I don’t come to British Cycling thinking I know how to automatically deliver medals.

We have a huge number of people with a great range of skills and a bigger cohort of high-quality athletes than ever before. I hope to bring some perspective to the leadership of that team.

Cyc: Where do you look for new ideas?

SP: Once you are a learner, you become a lifelong learner. Do I listen to podcasts? Yes. Do I listen to them just in cycling? No. Do I listen to people who are a bit disruptive? Yes. Do I listen to Question Time and think about leadership styles? Yes.

Have I been to look at other high-level sports? Yes. But I’m conscious that I won’t always come back with five great things to implement. It is more about continuing to grow and add layers.

Cyc: You joined before the independent review into allegations of bullying and discrimination was published. How has it shaped your plans?

SP: No doubt it shaped the year pretty significantly. I was spending a lot of time reacting. There is a missile going off so you run over there and put your shield up. And there is another one coming in over there, so you run back there and put your shield up. So there was a little bit of time needed to stabilise things.

There is no doubt people here were – and still are – concerned about their interaction with other staff or riders. They were questioning themselves. Is this right? Is this not right? Is it really as bad as it says over here? The other side was the challenge of people feeling they were being judged unfairly.

I think most people in the programme didn’t feel that the review represented their observations of what they saw and how they operated on a day-to-day basis.

That is not to say they felt the views of some of the people being represented were incorrect, or were not accurate observations, because it is the experience they lived. A lot of people felt it didn’t necessarily represent what they saw but they could understand why other people might have felt like that.

So people were quite badly dented and I felt sorry for the sport because they’d just come back after a fantastic performance in Rio and never really got the opportunity to celebrate.

Cyc: What changes have been made to improve athlete welfare?

SP: In terms of my own role, thinking more about culture – changing some of the thinking, so it’s not just about what we do but how we do it. We want more interaction, but we also have to recognise that athletes are different to 10 years ago.

The environment is different. I don’t need to tell people how hard they need to train because they all know that if they’re going to the Olympics with a GB jersey on people expect them to come back with a medal.

Katie Archibald said recently that every day she’s training with world champions. Even though your efforts might be different to someone else’s, there is still internal competition.

Have you given 100%? Have they trained more effectively? Are you riding as well as she is? So it has been about just reflecting a little bit, remembering what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

Cyc: Is it hard to balance high performance with athlete welfare?

SP: Well, yes, arguably it is. But if you look at industry, commerce or banking, people have that challenge all the time. There will be peaks and troughs and we shouldn’t get away from the fact that cycling is a tough sport. But that doesn’t mean we can’t deal with people appropriately or that we need to have coaches at the side whipping athletes.

We know some people do need to be pushed. Others need to be supported, guided and coaxed. Some need to be left to their own devices at times. It’s about how to get the best out of people. It’s about trying to support the emotional intelligence of riders and staff so they can have a wholesome experience without diluting performance.

And that’s what the riders are here for anyway. They’re not conscripts. People come here because they want to see how good they can be and they want to be the next Victoria Pendleton or Chris Hoy or Bradley Wiggins.

And being involved in the GB cycling team is the best way to do that. People want to focus on winning, but that doesn’t mean it should be a horrible experience.

Cyc: UKAD cleared British Cycling and Bradley Wiggins over the unverifiable ‘Jiffy bag’ medication. But were there lessons to learn?

SP: For sure. With regards to UKAD, it’s quite a difficult situation. Clearly we all look at what is going on with Russia, for example, in the Winter Olympics where they received a ban. We all want to operate on a level playing field, and there needs to be policing.

However, it becomes quite damaging for people going through investigations because people put two and two together and come up with five. That makes it quite unpleasant. We’ve seen some of that with Bradley Wiggins and I really feel for him in that regard.

But British Cycling was criticised for the quality of its medical recording and nobody is disputing that. We appointed a new head of medical services in Dr Nigel Jones. We have a new medical administrator who’s responsible for ensuring all those records that weren’t in place are backed up in the right manner.

Right now we are putting together a form of medical governance committee to have oversight. It will challenge us about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. That’s the right thing. 

Cyc: What are the key areas for progress ahead of Tokyo 2020?

SP: Some of our biggest areas of opportunity are in the new BMX Freestyle Park event. With very refined events like the team pursuit, the margins become smaller. But with BMX Freestyle Park, the transitions from now to Tokyo will be huge.

After that, the big area is coaching, in terms of empowering the athletes to really own their own performances. That’s not to say I don’t think that has been happening, but I think there is still ground to cover there.

Cyc: Would you be happy to maintain British Cycling’s level of success or are you aiming for more?

SP: Emotionally, yeah, absolutely I want to do better. We want to win everything. But logically, we also know that lots of those big jumps have gone. The performances in Rio and London were outstanding, and whether they will ever be achieved again I don’t know.

But every day I think, ‘What can we do better?’ I’m never satisfied. It’s probably one of my faults.

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