USA women's team pursuit coach dismissed from program after SafeSport complaint

Sparks defends himself against allegations of bullying athletes

Andy Sparks, USA Cycling's head coach for its Olympic Games silver medalist women's team pursuit squad, has been dismissed from his role with the team by the federation after three 2016 Olympians filed a conduct complaint against him, Cyclingnews has learned.

Sparks is the second coach of a top national track team to lose his job over allegations of misconduct in the past year. British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton was suspended then resigned after being accused of sexism and discrimination in a case that sparked a wide-ranging independent investigation into the culture of the federation's high-performance programme.

None of the riders who filed the complaint against Sparks would agree to speak to Cyclingnews to elaborate on what led them to take this action. USA Cycling confirmed Sparks' dismissal in a statement that also did not expand on the accusations.

"We can confirm that Andy Sparks was accused of actions that violated USA Cycling's SafeSport and employment policies," the statement read. "USA Cycling will not accept misconduct of any kind, and as per our SafeSport policies a full independent investigation was conducted.

"Based on our learnings from the investigation and subsequent discussions with Andy Sparks, USA Cycling has determined it is no longer in the best interest of USA Cycling for him to continue in our program. Because this case encompasses employment issues, USA Cycling will adhere to its longstanding policy of not providing any additional details or otherwise commenting on this confidential matter."

Sparks was head track coach for the Beijing Olympics, and returned in 2014 to help bolster the women's team pursuit program, which had fallen from second best to Great Britain in 2012 to fifth in the World Championships in 2014, almost 10 seconds in arrears of the British team.

Cyclingnews spoke to several former riders who were interviewed as part of the independent inquiry conducted as part of USA Cycling's SafeSport programme, who preferred to remain anonymous. The riders described a toxic environment in the endurance track programme that went unchecked by USA Cycling management, which was under pressure to fulfil its objectives of winning Olympic medals.

One rider described Sparks belittling her in public calling her "pathetic," laughing at a rider who crashed and regularly reducing riders to tears.

USA Cycling's code of conduct prohibits 'emotional misconduct' such as verbally attacking athletes, or "Repeatedly and excessively yelling at participants in a manner that serves no productive training or motivational purpose," and specifies that abuses must have a sustained or repetitive component.

When asked by Cyclingnews if he felt he had bullied riders, Sparks said, "For me, it's categorically denying of that. I have high standards, high expectations, I expect riders to fulfil their potential, if I'm providing them $75,000 a year of support, that's a real job with real expectations. I take the code of conduct and athlete protection policies very seriously, but I'm also very adamant that I have not violated anything."

Sparks dismissed the current complaint as disappointment by riders who weren't allowed to race at the Olympic Games, and who were intimidated by the high standards he set in the build-up to the Games.

"Any person in charge of maintaining high standards isn't going to be a popular figure," Sparks said. "Taking over a team that was not on a trajectory for success, and fighting to keep those standards but also providing a supportive and positive environment... We're not training for a national championship. These are big goals, in an Olympic year there's going to be stress.

"Some riders complained about standards being too high and the environment being overly competitive, but when you have two years to get a four-year job done, there is no getting around the standards. Track is all about the numbers and satisfying race demand. Either we can satisfy those or we can't."

He said he regretted that the riders involved waited until months after the Olympic Games to lodge their complaint rather than speaking up and giving him a chance to change his behaviour.

"What I would ask for is feedback - the easiest thing to do is call someone a bully, but that's a polarising, binary statement. To what degree? That's not a flattering thing to be called."

Sparks said his reputation should speak for itself and is disappointed to be in this position after creating a successful program. "Obviously we had a historically good year - our first ever world title, two Olympics medals and all new PRs. That's something to be very proud of. It's something all five, and all 50 or so riders who were involved in the process should be proud of. It would have been great to get more of a 'great work' sort of thing. This is a bit of an unfortunate closure to that."

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