Telling hard truths about British sport in the post London 2012 era, during which British Cycling was feted as a model organisation and athletes hailed as superheroes, became “a very dangerous thing to do”, according to David Pond, the highly regarded chief executive of GB Wheelchair Rugby.
Pond, an influential voice who has been at the helm of GBWR since 2009, told the Guardian that anyone raising concerns about the way things were done risked marginalisation – and that unpicking UK Sport’s “blunt and aggressive ‘no compromise’ approach was seen as a betrayal of Team GB” by those inside the system.
Pond said he clearly remembered how lonely he felt when criticising the UK Sport funding model in a Westminster conference in 2017 attended by the then UK Sport CEO Liz Nicholl and leaders from all the top sports, in the wake of bullying allegations in British Cycling and other sports.
“I followed the CEO of British Cycling at the time, who started her presentation with the words: ‘The story of the GB cycling team over the past decade is one of unparalleled success on the sporting stage,’ whereas in my presentation I questioned the ‘stained brand’ of British Cycling and the wider cost to the individuals themselves,” he said.
“When I completed my presentation the respected former GB high jumper Geoffrey Parsons, who won a silver medal at the 1986 Commonwealth Games, stood up and said: ‘I like you, David, because you tell the truth. You’ve probably already established that it’s a very dangerous thing to do in British sport. I wish you good luck in your future career.’ I thought at the time this was very telling about what I already felt was the closed culture of elite sport.”
Since then British Cycling’s reputation has become further tarnished with its former chief doctor Richard Freeman struck off after being found guilty of buying testosterone knowing it would be used for a rider, along with allegations of misappropriation of resources.
However, Pond pointed out that it was not obvious that British Cycling had received any sanction as a result and it was still one of the largest recipients of UK Sport and Lottery monies.
In a striking intervention from someone inside the UK Sport tent, Pond also warned that too many people had become “intoxicated” by the successes at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics – and there had often been too little questioning, openness or humility inside British sport as a result.
“We were quick to make superheroes of those who medalled and to dish out knighthoods and honours for sporting achievements over and above those whose lifetimes had been about public service,” he said. “Meanwhile to question UK Sport’s ‘no compromise’ medal mantra was to risk being marginalised and considered not ‘one of the team’. Even more dangerous if you were not part of a ‘blue riband’ sport.
“It is true that UK Sport encouraged sports to share performance experiences and examples of ‘marginal gains’. But to risk unpicking the blunt and aggressive ‘no compromise’ approach was seen as a betrayal of Team GB.
Pond, whose organisation is receiving £2.6m from UK Sport to help its athletes prepare for the Paris 2024 Paralympics, said there had been a significant improvement at UK Sport since Sally Munday and Katherine Grainger had arrived as chief executive and chair, and praised them for their inclusiveness, openness, and focus on improving athlete welfare.
However he added that the ongoing investigations in GB Gymnastics, Judo and Bobsleigh suggested that an independent watchdog to scrutinise British sport – a proposal made by Tanni Grey Thompson in her Duty of Care in Sport report in 2017 – was long overdue, along with an injection of new people with fresh ideas.
“There’s a lot of moving around the deckchairs inside the system, with people moving from one role to another,” he added. “As a result it’s difficult for others to break in and bring in new ideas and a new type of thinking around culture, leadership and other issues.”