Will the last Olympic sport in Britain free from bullying, sexism or racism allegations – or, indeed, disgruntled athletes – please turn out the lights? The question is especially pertinent given British Gymnastics has now joined the lengthy roll call of sporting bodies accused of allowing “a culture of fear”, with athletes and coaches afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.
How many times must we hear that F-word before we accept that it is not just the odd snowflake who cannot handle the rough and tumble of elite sport? And, then, will we actually pledge to do something about it? With each fresh revelation we see two things with greater clarity: that the system for representing and protecting athletes is not fit for purpose; and, now more than ever, a powerful and independent union for Olympic athletes is urgently needed.
As the Guardian reports, the country’s top gymnasts, including the double Olympic champion Max Whitlock, have been warned they could lose their lottery funding if they do not sign their Athlete Performance Awards – essentially a grant from UK Sport – because of what they see as an exploitative contract. Imagine if there was an independent union fighting their corner. At a stroke it would rebalance the power dynamic between those with the money and those who win medals.
A union could also address the little stuff too, including all the minor injustices many athletes face that do not make back-page news, and the startling lack of transparency in the system.
I heard a story this weekend, for instance, of someone who was promised more funding if he reached a certain target – only for the offer to vanish when he did. Dumbstruck, he asked his performance director whether he should appeal. The answer was blunt: “No, you will lose your money.” How could the director be so sure? Because he would be the judge of the case.
Another athlete told how he lost his funding two months after he was seriously injured while training. The loss of cash was painful enough without his rehab bills no longer being paid. A third felt others in his sport were treated better because they had coaches funded by the system. He could not be sure because of the lack of transparency over funding decisions.
One might think these were the grumblings of people who found the going too tough. But one of the athletes is an Olympic medallist. Another made the podium at a world championship. The third reached an Olympic final. They appreciate the benefits of the system that helped get them there but they are not blind to its flaws. As one put it: “I am not an idiot. I know elite sport is cut-throat by its very nature. But there are better ways to do things.”
No one denies that the elite funding has been a huge success, which dragged British sport out of the mid-1990s doldrums. Or that those involved, from UK Sport downwards, have much to be proud of. But the lack of acknowledgment from senior figures about the extent of the current problems in the system is puzzling. Clearly the British Athletes Commission, the body largely responsible for helping athletes, is not doing enough, otherwise it would be unearthing these scandals.
If it was, brave whistleblowers would not keep going to journalists.
Another interesting facet to this is the debate – fuelled by the case of the cyclist Jess Varnish, who is suing UK Sport and British Cycling for gender discrimination, detriment for whistleblowing, victimisation and unfair dismissal – over whether athletes should be considered “employees” or remain as “members of staff”, which allows UK Sport to avoid paying pension and national insurance contributions on their grants.
Those inside the system insist that, if athletes are seen as employees, then UK Sport would not be able to fund as many future stars, and the country might lose medals as a result. That may be true but a more pressing issue is how to empower athletes so they feel valued, have more say in their sport and a better life when they are done, because losing lottery funding is often brutal. As one person put it to me: “I was cut with two weeks’ notice and suddenly I had to adjust to normal life, with no education and £20,000 in credit card debts.”
A union could at least soften the landing, perhaps by arranging for a month’s extra funding for every year an athlete had competed in a GB vest or been on funding. The help might be smaller than that. Even some medical support or access to facilities might help young athletes taken off funding find their mojo again. Making part-time work or study a condition of funding would be no bad thing either, given it could be scribbled on to the CV, post-retirement.
None of these suggestions is outlandish. Indeed, only last month German athletes confirmed they were on the verge of setting up a new and independent organisation that would be entirely separate from the German Olympic Sports Confederation.
As Max Hartung, a fencer and current chair of the athletes’ committee of the DOSB, explained: “We want to have our say on equal terms. Up to now that has not been the case.”
How long before British athletes decide the time has come to follow suit?