It's been a turbulent week at British Cycling in which a series of claims pointing to a culture of sexism have been laid against the federation, and allegations that technical director Shane Sutton, who recently resigned from his post, used discriminatory and derogatory language toward athletes. In an interview with Cyclingnews, President of British Cycling Bob Howden tried to provide a clearer picture of what is going on inside the federation and the steps involved in an independent review.
Cyclingnews: Can I get your view on what’s gone on in the last week and a half?
Howden: I have to be careful in terms of not breaching confidences at the moment. Certain elements are coming to light that we are not really fully in touch with all the information around yet so really it’s a little bit guarded obviously until matters get investigated but I’ll say what I can.
CN: What can you say at this point?
BH: We’ve got an independent review that’s looking into the original claims around sexism and perceived methods of working within the GB cycling team. So we’re working with UK Sport on that one and we’re looking to introduce a panel as soon as possible under the control of an independent Chair.
CN: Do you know who that is yet?
BH: Not yet. UK Sport will advise us of that, it’s not our pick. From British Cycling’s perspective we’ll have our representation, will be Marian Lauder, one of our non-executive independent directors. She has a background in risk evaluation and audit compliance so from our side she is the person to turn any stones.
CN: So just to clarify, BC will have someone on the independent review panel?
BH: Yes, British Cycling will have someone in there, but the review will be chaired by an independent person. So, it will be what it is. We take the view that whatever is there must come out. We’re not looking to hide anything. We’re certainly not aware of any instances at the moment that haven’t been covered but who’s to say what any inquiry will bring up.
CN: Do you expect that there will be more?
BH: I’ve learnt not to expect anything, particularly over the last week. It’s probably fair to say that it’s the most difficult week I’ve had in forty odd years of officiating in cycling.
CN: So what’s been the most disappointing angle for you?
BH: People coming out of the woodwork that didn’t come out of the woodwork at the time. I won’t go into names but it’s at a time we need to be focussing on Rio, and on that subject we’re in excellent shape. That’s where a lot of the disappointment lies, that when things are so good as they are, when we are on an upward curve in the run up to Rio, that this is something we are dealing with. But that’s not to say we should avoid it and I wouldn’t say that. If there is something there that we need to be mindful of then those stones will be turned and we will learn from it. As a body, we don’t consider ourselves so big that we can’t still learn, and we will learn from whatever lessons come out of it.
CN: In your view, at what point did Shane Sutton’s position become untenable?
BH: That’s for Shane to comment on really because from our perspective we’d have to say it was entirely Shane’s decision.
CN: So you didn’t want him to go?
BH: We were still involved in looking at the whole situation, we’d had preliminary discussions with Shane to find out and conduct a review, and Shane’s comment was ‘I need to avoid this becoming a massive distraction for the team and the only way forward for the team is for me to stand down’, so it was entirely Shane’s decision and we hadn’t even gone down any other route apart from saying that during the investigation it was appropriate for Shane to be suspended, which is normal public life protocol. The plan was to carry the suspension through so we enforced the suspension and Shane said in fairness he ‘needed to get out of this’.
CN: With the weight of the allegations made by female athletes and paralympians, do you think he should have gone on that basis?
BH: I probably wouldn’t want to share my thoughts with you on that. It’s important that I keep a proper perspective on things. Really it’s just to say that we are not looking to avoid anything and we will turn whatever stones are needed on this.
CN: Would you invite people like Vicky Pendleton and Emma Pooley, and those who have been critical so far to come forward and share more details?
BH: It’s for the independent review panel to do whatever they feel they need to do. Our representation on that panel is just for us to liaise back to them and deliver any information that we need to take back to the panel. It’s really the independence of the review that’s important and it’s right that it should be that way.
CN: Is Ian Drake’s position under scrutiny here?
BH: I’ve read various things throughout the press in the last few days but fundamentally Ian is a great servant of British Cycling. Hopefully it won’t impact on our staff but Ian would have to answer that question not me.
CN: I remember the video on BBC where Ian said Shane wasn’t paid by Team Sky and we then found out that he was. Is it fair to say that’s incompetence at best?
BH: I wouldn’t agree with that, in terms of Shane, for a while there was a joint agreement there with British Cycling and Sky and whatever arrangements Shane has outside of British Cycling subsequent to that, is a matter for Shane to answer if he was being paid by Sky. I didn’t know he was being paid by Sky. Ian didn’t know. I don’t see that as incompetence if you don’t know what an employee is doing outside of the workplace. In terms of declaration, there is no requirement within staff to declare if you’ve got other interests. The payments would go through Sky’s payroll so our own payroll department wouldn’t know about it either.
CN: Does the departure of Sutton harm Great Britain’s chances of medals at Rio?
BH: The structure that we’ve got in place is something Shane was across, but in terms of the coaching elements, discipline specific structures. We have our Programmes Director Andy Harrison who is now covering across Shane’s former role, so in terms of being fit and in shape for Rio, nothing’s changed. The athletes are still there, with their heads down and turning out the times in training so we are confident to deliver in Rio.
CN: Is there any way back for Jessica Varnish?
BH: I can’t comment on that. In terms of selection, that is something based entirely on podium potential. We deliver on lottery funding and we’re expected to deliver medals in that podium plan and the people in that podium plan have got to have a medal chance, and that’s the maxim used in terms of selection, but I’m not across the selection process. I chair the board but the Great Britain cycling team are involved with the selection.
CN: If it is proven in the investigation that there is sexism within British Cycling, would you step down?
BH: No. I am an elected board member in charge and president of the federation. If there is sexism there then I have gone on record as saying I seek equality in the sport and am encouraging this with events, with the step up of events in terms of distance and the status of women’s cycling. I consider that’s a work in progress and if there is sexism I would like to continue to eradicate that, so I don’t feel there is anything for me to reproach myself for.
CN: Varnish is on vacation, if she were to pick up the phone or you were to see her, what would you say to her?
BH: Pick up the phone.
CN: You want to talk to her?
BH: Well we said from day one that we want to sit and talk about it and the offer is there to mediate around it. I’d really not want to betray confidence but we will always talk, that’s part of the process and resolution is maybe more difficult as we get into a situation where we have found it is well out in to the public domain.