Culture crises in all sports are a warning siren: we can’t continue to ignore the lessons | Sport

largewaves, cultural crises roll in and out of our sporting shores. Rugby and cricket have been in the headlines recently. A number of reviews have explored Olympic and Paralympic sports such as cycling, archery, bobsleigh, freestyle swimming, judo and gymnastics. The problem with this normalization of cultural emergencies is that it quickly becomes the norm, part of what we expect in high-performance sport, rather than a warning sign that something is wrong in these environments and that the fixes to date aren’t working.

Normalizing these cultures reinforces the narrative that supports them: sports are tough and athletes should be ready to do whatever it takes, no questions asked. To continue like this would be willful blindness. Perhaps we should be asking what is wrong with high performance sport? What could we do differently to chart a better, healthier path for elite sport? And is this a peculiarly British phenomenon, or are there lessons from abroad?

In Canada, athletes are currently coming together in hockey, soccer, boxing, bobsleigh, rugby, gymnastics and rowing to denounce toxic cultures of abuse and discrimination and drive change. Pascale St-Onge, the sports minister, acknowledged there was a “safe sport crisis” in the country and pledged government action. St-Onge meets monthly with AthletesCAN, a body representing Canadian athletes, to discuss systemic change. The voice of athletes is finally being heard at the highest level.

Changes are happening on both sides of the Atlantic. More mental health support is offered, although in Canada it lasts beyond sports retirement. The Canadian government recently created the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner and UK Sport piloted an independent investigative agency, Sport Integrity. The scale of the crises has demonstrated that sports are unable to scrutinize and correct themselves, as Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson highlighted in her 2017 Duty of Care review, which called for a sports ombudsman. But questions about whether there is sufficient independence in such structures abound in both countries where confidence in the sports system is at an all-time low.

Both countries are trying to respond, but risk reacting superficially, neglecting the deeper cultural issues that lead to athlete abuse, coach burnout and damaging experiences everywhere. Creating better complaints procedures or welfare policies will not work without changing the way sport is experienced and led. For example, most wellness counselors are helpful, but alone do not address the root causes of the problem. As one mental health expert commented: “An hour with a wellness counselor almost makes it worse when you go back to the same high-stress performance environment the rest of the year.”

A change is needed in the ethos and values ​​that underpin these systems. UK Sport’s “no compromise” approach and medal funding policy have played a role in destroying cultures. Understanding and correcting this is proving difficult. Canada’s equivalent organization called Own the Podium – a name that roughly exposes the shallowness of its approach – struggles to present a credible vision of the future.

Jennifer Walinga, Canadian world rowing champion and professor of culture at Royal Roads University deplores the focus on “too much prevention, not enough positive vision. While there is a need to better respond to bad cultures and abusive behaviours, [there is a need for] something to fight for, not just fight for.”

Looking in a different direction, Australia has been dealing with a wave of high-profile cultural problems for some time now. The cricket ball-tampering scandal hit the Australian public hard, alongside public revelations of mental health struggles and depression by sports stars such as Olympic swimmers Ian Thorpe and Cate Campbell.

Kate Campbell in the pool
Kate Campbell, winner of four Olympic gold medals, has opened up about her mental health issues. Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Australia is rethinking its approach to sport in preparation for Brisbane hosting the 2032 Olympics. Last year, Olympic legend Kieren Perkins took over as CEO of the Australian Sports Commission, which will oversee both high-performance and participation sport ( remain firmly separated in the UK). Perkins expressed the biggest challenges for sport beyond winning medals, citing the “cliff of participation”, the problems of access and the experience young people have in sport that can put them off for life. “If we just want to win and we’re happy to put people through the meat grinder and see how many kids survive to get gold medals … OK, I can buy gold medals, that’s not hard,” he said. “But I think we can do better than that.”

Under a broader and imaginative approach to developing the next generation of coaches at the Australian Institute of Sport, coaches learn collaboratively across all sports, delve into what value-based environments look like and consider coaches’ broader responsibility to develop people, not only athletes. Coaching development and support will be a key area for cultural change and competitive advantage in the period ahead.

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Another area of ​​cultural innovation is being explored closer to home. A pilot project, Powered by Purpose, run by UK Sport and delivered by the True Athlete Project (disclaimer: I’m on their advisory board and supported the scheme) saw a group of Olympic and Paralympic athletes supported by a range of experts in their goals to make a difference beyond the playing field. Each wanted to find a way to use their platform and position as athletes to contribute to positive social change in a number of areas, including environmental sustainability, increased inclusion and better sporting opportunities for people with disabilities.

It should come as no surprise that the weekend after the final presentations, several athletes produced personal bests in their final races. Beyond that, each affirmed the inspiration and confidence it had given them to deepen their identity of what it means to be an athlete. It is an area that is increasingly understood as critical to positive mental health and comes from a radically different starting point – that athletes are citizens, not short-term products, and have value beyond sport.

New structures, policies and roles in any country will be worth little unless they are based on a new ethos, vision and values. Are we ambitious enough to pursue an exciting vision for high-performance sports with long-term benefits, or will we simply wait to see which sport comes along next in need of a cultural overhaul?

Cath Bishop is an Olympic rower, leadership and culture coach and author The big win.

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