The authors of a much-delayed report into the culture of British Cycling insisted it was not a “whitewash” despite the findings being heavily diluted from a leaked draft copy.
The independent review, ordered following claims of discrimination and bullying made by the sprint cyclist Jess Varnish, remains grim reading for the governing body despite the watering down. Finally released after 14 months of interviews with more than 100 respondents and subsequent legal wrangling, it noted claims there was a “culture of fear” at British Cycling.
Good governance was found to be lacking at board level and a “power pocket” was allowed to develop around the former technical director Shane Sutton. UK Sport, the funding agency for Olympic sports, also accepted blame for missing opportunities to stop the rot years earlier.
But the most damning judgment has been removed, possibly as a result of legal challenges and a process of Maxwellisation whereby those criticised in the draft report were given a chance to preview the findings and respond.
Annamarie Phelps, the chair of the five‑member independent review panel, said: “I don’t believe there has been a whitewash. I believe there has been strong criticism and clear recommendations and I don’t believe there has been a shift in tone. It is just semantics; in some places the wording has been changed. I accept some of the emotive language was removed, but that was due to the Maxwellisation process and trying to write a report that was going to be for the general public.”
The original report determined that the Commonwealth and world medallist Varnish had been dropped from the Olympic squad months before the Rio Games as an “act of retribution” after she spoke out about what she perceived as coaching and team selection failings.
It also criticised the “inept” handling of an internal investigation into Varnish’s claims that Sutton had told her to “get on with having a baby” and that her bottom was too big to ride certain roles on the team. The draft report accused the British Cycling board, including the newly appointed chairman, Jonathan Browning, of a cover-up. It said the internal investigation, completed by the independent board member Alex Russell, had been sanitised and that her findings had been “reversed.”
Varnish claimed she was dismissed after publicly speaking out against coaching decisions. But the new report stops short of this conclusion. “The panel did not view her removal as an act of discrimination,” it reads, “but in the Panel’s view at the very least it did not follow contractual due process.”
Sutton, who resigned from his role last April following Varnish’s allegations, was deemed by most people interviewed by the panel to have been unsuitable for a senior management role, especially as he was given little or no training. But his coaching abilities were roundly praised.
The panel was informed by a number of interviewees that para-athletes were referred to occasionally as “wobblies” or “gimps”. But it also noted that the athletes reportedly referred to themselves by such terms, even setting up a WhatsApp messaging group labelled “Wobblies&Gimps”. However, when Sutton used those terms it was generally in a derogatory context, including adding the word “fucking” before them.
Liz Nicholls, the UK Sport chief executive, denied the organisation was in the midst of a duty of care crisis despite more than a third of the governing bodies it funds being dragged into the athlete welfare scandal.
It is also likely to face criticism for their decision to continue supporting Brian Cookson’s campaign for re-election as president of the International Cycling Union, the sport’s world governing body. Cookson led British Cycling for 17 years until 2013, overseeing a period where much of the bad practice at British Cycling was alleged to have set in. He was also in charge when a report was produced by Peter King into the culture of British Cycling, where many red flags were raised but not acted upon. The King report was not delivered in full to UK Sport, which claims it received only a sanitised version. Nevertheless it will again support Cookson with expertise, if not with public money.
“We are supporting his standing again at the UCI,” Nicholls said. “We are doing that in the context of Brian has done an excellent job at the UCI, an opinion supported by other nations.”