The result of the Jess Varnish employment tribunal appeal prompted me to reflect on an interview I had with British Cycling more than 10 years ago. It was for Program Manager for the 2012 Olympics. I did not get the job and although I was disappointed at the time, it now feels like I may have dodged a high performance bullet.
One memorable question I was asked was ‘what do you think business can bring to sport?’ Coming from a project management type background my answer consisted in part with the standard ‘on budget, on time, to quality’ mantra along with some with process improvement, Six Sigma lean process stuff. I probably even meant it at the time. Asked the same question now I would answer it differently.
Over the last 20 years or so, the application of business ethos to sport has seen it devalued to a numbers game without bringing anything that could be seen as ethical best practice and accountability. Seemingly passionless, much elite sport performance looks like a rather dry box ticking exercise characterised by ‘delivering the plan’. The injection of huge sums of money by either commercial sponsors or lottery funding has not led to sport learning anything from business, it has just become a business. And, if you judge it by results alone, a successful one at that. More medals, more champions, more success, more world records. For National Governing Bodies, your elite runners, players or riders must win at the Olympics or World Championships or funding is withdrawn and the senior management team lose their lucrative salaries. Ostensibly the sport in question will lose its funding too but as little makes its way to the grass roots, how much that matters is questionable.
The fall out in terms of collateral damage to those without a key to the executive bathroom – the administrators, coaches, athletes and even volunteers is significant. Unfortunately, some international and national governing bodies, or more accurately some of the people who occupy positions of influence in them, seem largely unburdened by rules of ethics, professional standards or law that governs behaviour in business. Put large sums of money in to an organisation without adequate accountability but with a clear goal to win - or else - and it is a short step to win at any cost and all that entails.
It’s not just the questionable stuff that organisers of sport at national or international level are involved in – the bungs, ‘gifts’, accusations of abuse, bullying and dubious substances – it’s what is considered to be above board that indicates how dysfunctional these organisation are and raises serious questions about how suitable some people are for the influential roles they hold. For example, in what world is it acceptable to fly members of staff overseas to pick up performance enhancing drugs for a doctor (yes a doctor, a qualified medic employed by the governing body) to inject a runner in a hotel room a day before the London Marathon? If this is considered unremarkable, keeping a few testosterone patches in a cupboard is not much of a stretch.
Other than the embarrassing enrichment of an elite cadre of plausible sounding chancers, the more sinister impact of this ‘businessification’ of sport is the creation a legacy of mentally and physically damaged participants. Sold a dream of a career in sport they become nothing more than a unit of resource that complies with program requirements and hits the KPIs or gets unceremoniously dumped. Or prematurely injured. Or offered inhalers when they do not have asthma. Or burned out in their 20s. Or bullied and abused to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. You can see this unravelling in the media now with gymnastics. It is beginning to look like elite sporting performance can only be delivered with a level of inhumane coercion and control. Surely, this cannot be what sport, at any level, is about?
Fundamentally, sport is an escape from the humdrum of process, interminable meetings and eating the corporate sandwich. it should be fun, exciting, unpredictable and contain moments of joyous surprise. It is a lot more than just another day at the office.
Asked the same question again, I would say sport at an organisation level needs to adopt the accountability, transparency and ethical codes the best businesses aspire to because it must not be allowed to facilitate a structure that licences abuse of any kind. If that comes at the sacrifice of success judged by medals, so be it.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...