Sunday, 1 May 2016

The Politics of Sport - When The Medals Don't Matter

By Shane Thomas

British cycling has arguably been the country's biggest sporting success story in this generation. A glut of medals, a seemingly uninterrupted conveyor belt of elite level riders, and even having a considerable influence on wider British society - in fact, one could argue that it's one of the nation's biggest success stories - sporting, or otherwise (I said as much back in 2013).

But it's telling that when one talks of British cycling success, what we mean are medals. And that's it.

While the primary objective of any athlete is to achieve superiority in their respective discipline, it's an ongoing and ruinous aspect of sport that common consensus has little interest in what takes place in the journey of any athlete - or team - as long as the destination of victory is attained.

This is especially germane where British cycling is concerned, as technical director, Shane Sutton resigned last week after a slew of allegations that he made bigoted remarks towards his own cyclists, primarily ones of a sexist and ableist nature.

An inquiry into the matter will take place - although we probably won't get the results from it until after this summer's Olympics.

Rio 2016 is an important checkpoint in this story, because a sidebar that much of the media have alighted on is with less than 100 days to go until the action in Brazil begins, this could have a wrackful effect on preparation for the Games. We are in an era where Team GB go to Olympic Games with specific targets, and the cyclists will be expected to provide a substantive amount of the medal quotient. Not only is national pride at stake, but sports are liable to lose funding if they are seen to have underperformed.

And no-one should give two shits if that ends up being the case. This is no longer a matter of whether certain athletes should have been selected for the British team, but what kind of working environment did Sutton cultivate at the velodrome.

For clarity's sake, I'll be supporting British athletes during the Olympics, and hope they are all able to produce their best. But bigoted conduct from anyone can't be vindicated by medals. It can't be vindicated by anything.

Ye I'm in the minority on this. As Matt Dickinson pointed out, this is hardly a new problem. Sutton has been in a position of power at British cycling for years, but nothing about his behaviour was said because he was shielded by the opiate of wins. Even now, some are said to be reluctant to speak out now for fear of not making the British team for Rio 2016.

What I found most striking about this whole fiasco was not only the language Sutton is alleged to have used - which former Olympic champion cyclist, Rebecca Romero remarked she could "quite well imagine those comments coming out of [his] mouth" - but that by common consensus, Sutton is a blunt, straight-talking type. Although as we've seen with Donald Trump's US presidential campaign, maybe we should stop looking at those adjectives as virtues.

Because there's a lesson that can be learned, and it goes further than Sutton. It's a lesson for the whole of sport.

There's a received wisdom that a good coach has to be, for want a better word, a complete bastard to get the best out of their charge(s). Much like a military sergeant, it's accepted that a good coach must be aggressive, pugnacious, and imposing. Only this pressure will squeeze the raw coal of the athlete into a diamond[1].

So Sutton's deportment shouldn't come as a surprise. Especially when one considers that much of codified sport came as a result of British imperialism. They thought sport would teach adolescents the right values in order to preserve the ostensible good of the empire. There's a tendril in the inimical behaviour of coaches that stretches all the way back to the tenets of muscular Christianity.

It would be reductive to paint all coaches with this brush. But sport and society has to learn not to valour the fearsome, and instead understand that a good mentor also needs to be able to nurture, to develop, and at times, to be an additional or surrogate parent. Often, there's nothing loving about tough love.

Sutton is a symptom of a wider sporting problem. These cyclists he trained were people before they became athletes. They're people as well as being athletes now. And they'll be people after they retire from sport. The quest for Olympic gold should never come at the cost of the person competing. British cycling has a huge opportunity to ensure the velodrome is a workplace people will no longer dread going to. That would be worth more than any medal.

[1] - This is meant only as a figure of speech. Diamonds don't actually come from coal.

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