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Long delayed report on the state of British Cycling finally published

Joseph Delves
14 Jun 2017

Damning language of earlier drafts removed but report still paints a bleak picture of life at the World Class Programme

The long awaited report into the culture at British Cycling’s World Class Performance Programme has been released. Having been beset by delays and allegations of a whitewash orchestrated at board level, it lays bare multiple failings at the national body and its World Class Performance Programme.

It describes a ‘culture of fear’ in which staff and riders were scared to voice their concerns to a senior management who employed a win at all costs approach.

However the worst criticisms, included in draft versions of the report leaked to journalists, have been changed or dropped.

Among them the finding that Jess Varnish’s removal from the programme had been an ‘act of retaliation’ for having spoken out about the organisation.

In the report a former WCP leadership figure described how the British Cycling Board and funding body UK Sport had taken a hands off approach as long as the programme continued delivering results.

It describes the programme as changing from being 'coach-led, athlete-centred' to one that was 'coach-led, coach centred'.

Many interviewed by the investigating panel felt the culture at the programme deteriorated around the time of the 2008 Olympic games, just as the squad was achieving its most successful ever period.

‘After those Games, mass Olympic medal-success was no longer a pleasant surprise, it was now expected,’ the report explains.

Now under immense pressure to win medals across a range of different events and working with a large number of riders, senior coaches received little oversight or training and were left largely unaccountable.

It emerges from the report that it was during this time that Shane Sutton, the coach at the centre of later allegations of sexism and bullying bought by track rider Varnish, was temporarily removed due to allegedly unacceptable behaviour.

However following poor showings at subsequent major competitions in 2009 he was invited back as Head Coach.

The result was a perception amongst riders that the senior staff were untouchable. This was also the year that the organisation’s Performance Director David Brailsford launched his Team Sky project.

At internal audit commissioned in 2012 and referenced in the current report described the senior leadership style as being seen by some as ‘autocratic’, with several referring to ‘a culture of fear, intimidation and bullying’ along with ‘frequent examples of open antagonism between senior managers and middle managers’.

Despite these opinions being fairly widespread among some WCP staff the organisation was allowed to effectively function independently, with little oversight from British Cycling or UK Sport.

In the report an unnamed former WCP leadership figure said, ‘I don’t think they were a very good Board [at BC]. It was a low-level Board’.

In practical reality control over the WCP lay in the hands of its Performance Director, not British Cycling.

With the departure of Brailsford to concentrate on Team Sky in 2014, Shane Sutton unexpectedly became defacto Performance Director. A position the report claims even his supporters thought him unqualified for.

‘Following Brailsford’s departure, there was an absence of strong peers to provide an appropriate check and balance to Sutton and to support him in his new role,’ the report states.

It was during this period that allegations of bullying, sexism and discrimination against paralympic athletes first publicly surfaced, largely as the result of complaints made by Varnish.

The report concludes that some members of the British Cycling inquiry convened to investigate arrived with the express intention of clearing Sutton of the allegations against him.

Their report reversed the finding of their own grievance officer, who had upheld the initial complains.

Athletes therefore rightly believed that vested interests both within the WCP and at BC board level were conspiring to undermine and suppress legitimate complaints against senior staff.

Several athletes reported that they were told ‘that it would not help their careers to pursue complaints,’ although the investigation did not receive any concrete evidence to support this.

However, the allegations that Varnish was removed from the WCP as a result of her criticism of the staff was not upheld by the final report.

‘The Panel did not view her removal as an act of discrimination but, in the Panel’s view at the very least it did not follow contractual due process.

'That conclusion was further strengthened by interviews with some members of staff who informed the Panel that they did not agree with Varnish’s removal from the programme.’

This is despite reports by journalists at The Daily Mail and The Telegraph that the earlier, leaked versions of the report had largely substantiated her claims.

Regardless of suspicions of an attempt to sanitise the report, it makes depressing reading.

In part the review had also been delayed by the Maxwellisation process, by which individuals mentioned are given the chance to respond before publication.

Several easily identifiable individuals have also had their names blanked out in the final report.

A separate report into the finances of the organisation found no evidence of impropriety.

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