It should be – but it won’t.
This story first appeared on The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.
The independent inquiry into cycling wasn’t really a report on cycling at all.
It was instead a referendum into the funding and culture of high-performance Olympic sport in New Zealand and the verdict is in: It’s screwed.
It was also, curiously, a survey on Cambridge, the one-time farming and bloodstock service centre that has reinvented itself as an Olympic medal hothouse for sports like rowing, triathlon and cycling.
The independent panel of Mike Heron QC, Dr Sarah Leberman, Genevieve Macky and Dr Lesley Nichol was commissioned in the wake of the sudden death of cyclist Olivia Podmore and has tabled a 104-page report that criticises myriad aspects of the high-performance system.
They highlight a culture that is obsessed with winning medals at the cost of wellbeing, that muzzles athletes, that treats women particularly poorly, and which essentially forces its young into a centralised system that does more harm than good while paying them poorly for the pleasure.
While the focus was cycling, the broad picture painted by the report was similar to others of its ilk and could be applied across a range of sports that rely on government funding to run high-performance programmes.
It also includes this paragraph, which on merit deserves to be higher than its page 53 placement.
“Aotearoa NZ’s small sporting community tends to recruit or ‘recycle’ personnel from within ‘the system’. This was referred to as ‘shoulder tapping’, the ‘old boys’ club’, and ‘jobs for mates’. We perceive an over-reliance on bringing in recruits that people already know (even, in some cases, where past performance has been suboptimal). This curtails attempts to ensure diversity, introduce new ideas, and in some instances maintains and rewards poor behaviour.”
This is New Zealand sports administration summed up in a paragraph; there is no employment sector in New Zealand where you can fail so spectacularly upwards.
(A handful of sources in high-profile positions within high-performance sport have approached me in the past 12 months aghast at some of the appointments made at Sport New Zealand and its wholly owned subsidiary High Performance Sport New Zealand [HPSNZ] but none will go on the record, fearful of what happens when you rock the boat at an organisation you rely on for your existence.)
The sorts of things that provoke reports into the culture at sports including cycling (x2), hockey, football, triathlon and rowing happen when your very worth as an organisation is calculated at a jamboree once every four years.
These reports will continue to include cut-and-paste lines like this: “The vast majority of people we interviewed (and the survey results) told us that the [high-performance programme] funding model … prioritises medals over wellbeing, and that has had consequences that undermined athlete and staff wellbeing.”
This inquiry was prompted by the death of Podmore, 24, but it has its roots in a previous report into Cycling New Zealand, also authored by Heron in 2018. That report listed a number of recommendations after it found a dysfunctional organisation that lacked transparency, tried to cover up inappropriate relationships and had a disregard for athlete welfare.
The changes required have not been introduced as efficiently and effectively as necessary, and there remains unresolved and “ongoing trauma” from the incidents at a training camp in Bordeaux in 2016 that prompted the original report.
Raelene Castle, chief executive of Sport New Zealand and HPSNZ said: “I would like to personally acknowledge that some of the people who have contributed to this process continue to be impacted by the events during, and subsequent to, the Bordeaux Camp. It is clear that for them, the issues remain unresolved.
“I am sorry that they continue to suffer this trauma and we would like to engage with them if they think there are any additional steps that would help them with their healing.”
Cycling NZ, too, acknowledged the issues covered in the report.
Chairman Phil Holden said: The report is a forthright look at Cycling New Zealand and how it has been running its high-performance programme. There are many issues that must be addressed, such as favouritism, non-disclosure agreements and the welfare and wellbeing of athletes, especially women.
“The next step is to discuss the recommendations with the people directly affected by them – the athletes, our staff, our member organisations, sponsors, and the wider cycling community,” he said.
Yet it is clear CNZ pushed back on elements of the report.
One amusingly succinct footnote to the assertion that “a specific focus on medal-winning is problematic and anathema to the wellbeing of coaches and athletes”, simply noted: “CNZ disagrees.”
It is also clear that massive trust issues still exist between athletes and administrators. The report noted the difficulties getting cyclists to speak and one source told The Spinoff that only four current high-performance athletes engaged in interviews.
While this number couldn’t be verified, the report noted: “Some CNZ athletes reported that they were afraid to speak up about personal grievances, physical or mental health concerns, or complain about staff or processes that negatively impact them out of fear that they will be seen as incapable and will not be selected. This sense of mistrust has impacted this Inquiry, too. Several people (particularly athletes) raised concerns about whether they could trust that this process would be confidential and anonymous. Others were concerned it was a box-ticking exercise that would not produce meaningful change. The fact that some stakeholders did not feel that they could safely participate in this process is concerning and may speak to the culture people are experiencing.”
Those concerns come under the umbrella of “transparency” and here the practice of getting athletes to sign non-disclosure agreements was assailed.
“A theme of what we heard is that certain key decisions, including selection, recruitment, carding, and competitions, are reported as not transparent. Reasons are not given and requests for data are ignored, denied, or fulfilled at the last minute. The practices outlined above fail to meet that standard and in any event are not acceptable. They directly diminish wellbeing,” the report noted.
“The seemingly closed culture and use of NDAs is concerning… CNZ considers that its approach to NDAs and confidentiality is orthodox and consistent with commercial practice. The difference we see is that CNZ is not like most commercial entities: in high performance, it is a publicly funded monopoly. In our view, it has an obligation to be more transparent and to thereby provide public accountability.”
Perhaps the most far-reaching conclusion in high-performance sport didn’t concern athlete welfare and transparency, which sadly have become almost boilerplate issues, but the push for a more decentralised programme.
Some of the concerns revolved around Cambridge itself: the pressurised, almost claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town with a high cost of living that, paradoxically, is a place where everybody knows what everyone else is up to yet it can be lonely as many athletes moves there away from family and support systems before they are mature enough to cope.
The report notes that more consideration needs to be given to those who are suited to living in a hot-bed, adding that many who aren’t even involved in the high-performance programme move there because they feel it is the only place their talent will get noticed.
Bluntly, it states that centralisation is not healthy and that the regional pathways need to be strengthened, yet recently CNZ closed down its four regional hubs due to resourcing considerations.
“Long-term centralisation carries risks for athlete wellbeing,” the report says. “Those risks would be mitigated or removed by a development and HP model that supports athletes to train in their home regions. When regional options are lacking, or under-resourced athletes move to Cambridge for want of support and opportunities that may or may not be provided.”
The report goes into detail to how the Targeted Athlete Pathway Support (TAPS) that have replaced previous grants are not responsive to need and are “generally low compared to living costs” in Cambridge, where rents are high.
“While it is inevitable that some athletes will come from wealthier backgrounds than others, a system that relies on athletes having alternative sources of funding (particularly when athletes have limited capacity to earn extra income) entrenches the assumption that high-performance sport and cycling in particular are the exclusive preserve of the middle to upper classes (alongside the prevalence of pākehā). It makes sport exclusive. That is inequitable and HPSNZ, as a Crown agent, ought to work towards greater equity of opportunities.”
In totality, the report is the latest in a long line of pleas to put the athlete, not the system, in the centre of the room. To give them support and agency over decisions concerning them in a sector that devours its young. It posits that consideration must be given to making the athletes employees, not contractors, to protect some of the rights most of us take for granted in our “work”.
More than once it says the athletes need an organisation that works in their interests that is independent and not tied financially to CNZ or HPSNZ, which sounds a lot like a union to me.
While it is speaking directly to cyclists and CNZ, the following truth is universal across most if not all Olympic sports:
“A fundamental power imbalance between the athlete and other stakeholders arises because the athlete is the only person who can deliver performances/medals, but has the least control over organisational structures and systems that directly affect them.”
Until next time, and there will be a next time, over to you Sport NZ.