Liz Nicholl: Firm action will help us drive a more sustainable winning culture across the high performance system

Published 17 June 2017

Cycling Independent Review 2017 Getty Images

On Wednesday, the long awaited Independent Review into the Climate and Culture of the World Class Programme in British Cycling was published. It was a significant moment for British Cycling and for the UK high performance system more broadly.

Those who have been following the story will know UK Sport and British Cycling jointly commissioned the review because an athlete with a grievance about unethical behaviour spoke out publically, exposing a lack of confidence that the sport would deal with  issues and concerns appropriately and effectively.

It also raised questions over and above the specific allegation. Was there anything deeper rooted in the climate and culture of the World Class programme that needed to be addressed? Were there any lessons for UK Sport and the broader system?

Commissioning the review was a new challenge but an experienced independent panel, chaired by Annamarie Phelps, did an exceptional job. At the outset the commitment was to publish the key findings and recommendations. A draft copy of the near final report was provided to UK Sport and British Cycling. When the UK Sport Board reviewed it, members agreed that having more detail to support the key findings and recommendations was helpful. Ideally the whole report should be finalised by the Panel in a way that enabled the whole document to be published and that would require the detail to be refined by the Panel following a Maxwellisation process to give those criticised by the panel the right of response. The Panel would then need to reflect on the responses when finalising their report.

So the talk in the media of a ‘whitewash’ is unfortunate and very unfair on all concerned and especially the Panel members who deserve thanks and not criticism. This talk has only come about because the initial draft, which should never have found its way into the public domain, was obtained by some journalists when it was still work in progress. Yes, the description of some of the context has been changed by the independent Panel through due process but key findings and recommendations remain unchanged. They are very hard hitting and critical of British Cycling and their new leadership team has publically committed to driving all the necessary changes.

There are also lessons for UK Sport and the wider system. It is these that we are now focusing on.  

We, at UK Sport, have made it clear that we accept all the findings and recommendations levelled at us. We are an active investor, providing not only funding to surround athletes with world class support but we also provide performance focused advice and guidance where needed either directly or by drawing on the experience of experts in the wider system. If we had been more alert to early warning signs, there may have been opportunities for us to help British Cycling address their emerging challenges at an early stage. So we accept there must have been opportunities missed while also reinforcing our message to sports that we can only help if you are open with us about the challenges you are facing.  

We also accept there is now evidence of some instances where the drive to be the best in the world and to win medals may have contributed to some unacceptable behaviour and this has to be addressed. It also has to be a priority to ensure that all athletes can in future have confidence that any grievances are dealt with fairly, effectively and appropriately.

The lessons we are learning from this review will be of great benefit right across the system. High performing athletes will often say that the most valuable insights come from a review of failure and the same principle applies here.

Despite what has been suggested in the media, this is not a system in crisis. It would be a crisis if no corrective and preventative action is taken. I can assure you we are working with sports to address the issues and when we look back at this moment, I hope everyone will see this review as a catalyst for positive change. Taking positive action now, in this first year of the Tokyo 2020 cycle, will help us sustain success across the system in a way that continues to inspire the nation.

UK Sport has committed to six key areas following the Review:

  1. Dealing with issues - We have appointed a new Head of Sports Integrity at UK Sport. The role will advise UK Sport and sports and partners in the high performance system on policies and procedures (including whistle blowing) for handling and reviewing cultural or behavioural issues as they arise and to provide us with assurance on timeliness and appropriateness of actions taken.
  2. Our Funding Agreements - A detailed Funding Agreement has been agreed with every sport funded for Tokyo 2020 and this clearly sets out roles and responsibilities, for avoidance of any doubt, including the fact that the CEO is the accountable officer for WCP investment not the Performance Director. The new Funding Agreement also includes a requirement that any reviews commissioned by a sport in relation to any aspect of the World Class Programme MUST be shared with UK Sport.
  3. Plans to conduct more Culture reviews – We have an independent expert panel in the process of developing a Culture Health Check; a root and branch review of how the culture across the high performance system needs to evolve to fully embrace the needs and duty of care of athletes, whilst maintaining the pursuit of excellence and the drive for continuous improvement. We will also be establishing a clear set of values, standards and behaviours developed by the system for the system.
  4. Improved case management - We are strengthening our case management across the system. Over recent years our Performance Advisers have had their portfolios of sports reduced giving them more time with each sport. We will also develop clear guidance to ensure staff within UK Sport are equipped in their daily dealings with athletes, athlete support personal and NGB staff to recognise and report early warning signs of issues emerging. 
  5. Increased athlete support - Through our Funding Agreements we will be ensuring every funded sport establishes appropriate channels for the voice of the athlete to be heard, establishes effective induction, feedback and exit processes and embraces an annual Athlete and Athlete Support Staff Insights survey. We are working in partnership with the Chair of the British Athletes Commission to provide a more effective, independent and respected organisation to support athletes. We will continue supporting athletes in other areas of their lives, including preparing for life after elite sport, through the work of the EIS Performance Lifestyle Team.
  6. Better leadership and governance - Through the new Code for Governance, we are ensuring that funded sports meet the highest standards of sport’s leadership and governance to protect the future integrity of the sporting system. The new Code has the potential to have a transformational impact.

I must reiterate that any suggestion UK Sport is about winning at all costs is disturbing and wrong. UK Sport never has been and never will be about winning at all costs.

While the issues that have been exposed in some sports over recent months are very concerning, they are being addressed. We must not forget that there are over a thousand athletes in our system being supported by over a thousand leaders, coaches and technical staff and a huge percentage of those are operating with unquestionable integrity and working above and beyond what would be expected in other work places to help athletes deliver success to make themselves, their families and the nation proud.

I am confident that the actions we are committing to will drive the necessary changes and will create a more positive environment, more widely, to enable athletes and staff to perform at their very best.

One of the most powerful messages from this review is that development of a positive culture will improve medal success – not jeopardise it. A culture of fear will never lead to sustainable success but a positive culture will. We need an environment where staff, athletes and coaches at all levels work closely to support each other.

UK Sport’s vision is to inspire the nation through Olympic and Paralympic success. What we saw and felt in London 2012, Sochi 2014 and most recently at Rio 2016 is a clear indication of what those medal moments mean to the British public. Every member of the UK Sport team knows that we are privileged to be working in this industry and with that comes a responsibility to ensure that we, and those we work with, conduct ourselves in a manner that is inspirational. If we all do this, we will be even more successful, and we will ensure athletes, coaches, practitioners and leaders in our system experience personal and professional growth and development, as well as challenge and support in equal measure, to help them achieve their goals.

Liz Nicholl is CEO at UK Sport

Funding Partners
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