By Will Moulton
Given the multitude of medals and trophies our athletes have collected in recent years, many of you may be scratching your heads wondering ‘What on earth is he on about?’
And such a retort would be completely justified as, looking at the bare facts, Great Britain has arguably never been so successful across such a vast array of sports than at the present moment.
There was, of course, those record-breaking Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio last summer, coming off the back of an extraordinary event in London four years previously.
We seem to have World and European champions oozing out of every orifice, from mainstream sports such as Formula 1 and cricket to more niche examples including shooting, equestrian and mountain biking.
Women’s sport has never looked stronger either. Participation levels are on the rise and attitudes towards their events are finally changing for the better courtesy of some heroic performances – Anya Shrubsole’s recent Cricket World Cup exploits providing a perfect example.
In just five overs the diminutive but deadly seamer transformed the historically placid, dignified Lord’s into a colosseum back in July, producing one of the greatest spells of all time to secure her side’s first world title win since 2009.
With the game seemingly lost Shrubsole released the lioness within her, tearing in, ripping up and spitting out a defenceless Indian batting line-up in front of an almost riotous full house baying for blood. No doubt Maddie ‘Mad Dog’ Hinch will be taking inspiration from such a feat when the Women’s Hockey World Cup visits Stratford next year.
But look beneath this and the signs are worrying. Athletes are being arrested, national governing bodies (NGBs) investigated for all sorts of misdemeanours, managers and coaches sacked and funding being cut more frequently than the British public is asked to take part in a major vote.
The plight of the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Associations (BBSA) perfectly sums up such chaos. Earlier this year it was announced that the BBSA was the subject of an independent review after being accused of racism, bullying and harassment.Embed from Getty Images
Shortly after, both the performance director and head coach stepped down before the heavily publicised decision to cease funding their female athletes led to further claims of sexism. As if they didn’t have enough problems, their chief executive was then asked to leave following that decision. You could not make it up.
They are not alone though. The NGBs for cycling, swimming, rowing and canoeing have all been investigated after claims of mistreatment from within their respective camps.
The line between managing athletes as people and ensuring they are best prepared to win is often a hard one to define. But unfortunately it seems as though the bodies have been prioritising meeting targets and winning trophies above treating those they rely on to achieve that as the humans they are. Now, the pawns in their game are standing up for themselves – and rightly so.
Cricket and rugby have had the opposite problem however in that they have seemingly been too lenient on some of their players. It is now just as common to see Manu Tuilagi hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons as he is for the right ones, while Ben Stokes just wants to hit literally everything, whether that be a cricket ball, changing room locker or fellow human being.
Football is another case entirely. Both the senior men’s and women’s managers have been relieved of their duties in the past year for very different, but both very humiliating, scandals.
The case of Mark Sampson was particularly damning. Not only were the inquests into accusations of racism embarrassingly flawed, how they thought anyone could believe that a single senior figure hadn’t seen the 2015 report – suggesting inappropriate relations with a player while he was at Bristol – is beyond me.
But what can be done to make this right? Well, as is always the case, it is not down to just one factor but a number. There is no specific formula needed to run an NGB successfully as no two sports are the same, but there are some things that can and should be applied across the board.
First and foremost, those in charge need have a deep understanding of the sport. In too many instances the individuals with the real power do not really know how to use it. Being a fan of a sport is one thing, being an expert is running it is another entirely. If these organisations are going to be run properly they need people leading it who have worked their way up through the ranks and knows what makes their people tick.
Secondly, there needs to be much more transparent and open communication paths – both internally and externally. The current level of secrecy needs to end so their fans can trust them and their critics can be silenced.
Furthermore, the athletes need to know they have someone to talk to if problems arise. It should not come to the likes of Jess Varnish publicly declaring she was being bullied. There needs to be better channels open for the stars to relate any problems so they can be dealt with properly, away from the public eye.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, NGBs need to remember who their most important assets are: the athletes. It is all well and good striving to meet targets but the only way they can do that is by ensuring their protégés are in the best possible shape.
Without them, they are nothing. It sounds obvious but, from what we have seen above, this is something clearly regularly forgotten.
So is British sport really is disarray? I certainly believe it is heading that way. Cracks are appearing everywhere, threatening to detract from the continuously superb performances our athletes are putting in when it really matters. It certainly can be halted and rectified though, but only if action is taken now.