The Price of Winning

Sometimes I wonder what the hell people really want:

A “medal at any cost” approach created a “culture of fear” at British Cycling, says former rider Wendy Houvenaghel.

The Olympic silver medallist accused the organisation of “ageism” and having “zero regard” for her welfare.

British Cycling subsequently admitted it did not pay “sufficient care and attention” to the wellbeing of staff and athletes at the expense of winning medals, an approach Houvenaghel attested to in her BBC interview.

Houvenaghel, 42, spoke to BBC Sport during its State of Sport week, which on Thursday examines the issue of athlete welfare versus a win-at-all-costs culture.

A government-commissioned review, headed by 11-time Paralympic champion Baroness Grey-Thompson, into safety and wellbeing in British sport, is due to be published imminently.

It is expected to recommend significant reforms designed to improve the way athletes are treated by governing bodies.

Okay, right. But I remember years ago Britain was spectacularly crap at sports, damned near all of them, and we reached a particularly low point at the Atlanta Olympics 1996 when we won a single, solitary gold medal. One of the reasons offered for why British teams and individuals did so poorly at sport was that we didn’t take it seriously enough, we lacked professionalism, and we did not have the ruthless, win-at-all-costs mentality that others, particularly the Australians, seemed to live by. The government decided that this was not good and Something Must Be Done.

So they hosed money at the Olympics, particularly at those sports where Britain stood a good chance of winning medals in the future, one of which was cycling. With the money came professional coaches, many of them pinched from Australia, and the adoption of highly-professional training regimes aimed solely at delivering medals and securing victories. And it worked: Britain finished 4th in the medal table in Beijing, 3rd in London, and 2nd in Rio de Janeiro. We also saw a British rider win the Tour de France in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 as Team Sky practically dominated those years. Whatever we once were, British cycling is now a serious force to be reckoned with, and similar stories can be found elsewhere, particularly in those niche sports which for which decent funding makes a big difference and which deliver easy medals at the Olympics. No longer are we a nation of bumbling amateurs who believe taking part is all that matters and winning not really all that important.

Until today, that is. Now it appears that winning medals at any cost is unacceptable, particularly if sexism is involved, and our athletes have been treated unduly harshly. So here’s my suggestion: defund all efforts to win Olympic medals immediately and let these sports go back to people doing it for fun. If we get laughed at for finishing behind Latvia in the medal table, then so what? At least we know everyone will be happy, including the taxpayer.

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12 thoughts on “The Price of Winning

  1. “sports where Britain stood a good chance of winning medals in the future,”

    Widely known as sitting-down sports. Anything that needs a seat, we’re there.

  2. One of the most disappointing aspects of stories like this is the speed with which the accused organizations obsequiously buckle under at the slightest criticism, denounce themselves, and vow to do better.

    And to think that this woman’s [very recent] ancestors defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in FOUR YEARS. The present and future is certainly another country.

  3. Isn’t this part of the current trend? “Everyone a victim”. And nothing must be difficult or challenging.

  4. Why do we spend public money on sports nobody gives a toss about?

    In fact, why do we spend public money on spectator sports at all?

  5. Let’s just hand out medals, then? Why not? Prizes for all!

    “..did not pay “sufficient care and attention” to the wellbeing of staff and athletes …”

    Just checking, but this IS adult sport, isn’t it? It’s not the children’s league?

  6. One of the most disappointing aspects of stories like this is the speed with which the accused organizations obsequiously buckle under at the slightest criticism, denounce themselves, and vow to do better.

    Indeed, which speaks volumes. It’s not as if grovelling to the perpetually offended has ever ended pleasantly for the groveller, is it?

  7. Just checking, but this IS adult sport, isn’t it?

    Well, they’re not school children whipped out of class at age 7 and forced into doing gymnastics for 14 hours per day for 8 years in preparation for the next Olympics but one. Apparently they are adult professional athletes who for some reason are unable to look after themselves.

  8. In fact, why do we spend public money on spectator sports at all?

    Oh, but the Olympics in London “brought the country together”.

    Until the Scots had a referendum on leaving, that is.

  9. safety and wellbeing in British sport

    The Russian expletive uzhas [nightmare] is appropriate here.

  10. They are professional sportsmen and women. For fucks sake, “winning at all costs” is what you are meant to do. If you want to be amateurs, refuse the money.

  11. What Rob 1240 said.

    Those whinging about safety and wellbeing usually turn out to be those who either never came first or recently stopped coming first.

    As my old (ice) hockey coach used to say, “remember, boys – second is the first of the losers.”

  12. The ‘culture of fear’ headline was disappointing. I was thinking of Olympic hopefuls given a 15 second head start before the ravenous cheetahs were loosed.

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