Bradley Wiggins’s pain shows us that sport needs to prioritise welfare too – The Guardian

Coaches and leaders must apply equal rigour to creating safe environments as they have long done to winning
It’s hard to recall Bradley Wiggins sitting on his throne at Hampton Court, riding into Paris with the yellow jersey, or ringing the bell to start the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony without now seeing through to the secret he was carrying inside him on all those occasions. It took Wiggins nearly three decades to share his experience of grooming at the age of 13. It took Pam Shriver four decades to share her story of an emotionally abusive relationship with a coach.
What about the other stories that haven’t yet been heard? While there is shock and sympathy, we must go further to draw out what needs to change and why change still hasn’t happened.
After the revelations from Wiggins and Shriver, there has never been a more important time for any of us involved in sport, whether as athletes, coaches, parents, leaders, volunteers or journalists, to realise our responsibility to change. To challenge our assumptions about what healthy grassroots and high-performance sport looks and feels like. And to take positive action to create a different experience of sport for current and future generations.
There seem to be three key messages from the stories of the past week. First, that safe sport must be the first priority, but for many, it still isn’t; second, that certain aspects of high-performance environments that are often admired – from behaviours of obsessive dedication, placing winning above everything else and the power balance within coach-athlete relationships – contribute to a darker side of sport that brings heavy long-term costs; and third, that our focus on heroic narratives throughout sport is at best misleading and at times deeply damaging, distracting us from the real stories of the people behind the hero masks.
Last week marked five years since Tanni Grey-Thompson’s Duty of Care in Sport report with multiple recommendations still to implement. Why the delay? A new report by the athlete-led Kyniska Advocacy group, Stamping Out Sexual Violence in Sport, calls for urgent action. What excuses can there be not to protect young people in sport? Leaders across sport have failed to prioritise safe sport over medals and trophies.
Many more are complicit in this – the media hound sports only about their results; sponsors are primarily interested in funding those who are going to win in the short-term; at government level, the short-term boost to national pride from hosting sporting events or winning medals is prioritised over longer-term opportunities for human and social development through sport.
In the Olympic world, funding flows to the sports that bring home bags of medals and culture audits added in recent years quickly became tick-box exercises. In grassroots clubs, parents often brought up in a culture where having a medal brought status, recognition and opportunity, easily buy in to wanting that for their children, not realising the costs or that there is so much more to gain through sport that would outlast trophies; and coaches who know their jobs depend on short-term results are disincentivised from investing in the long-term holistic development of their athletes.
Wiggins’s story of grooming at the age of 13 paints a troubling picture of youth abuse in sport. He describes his subsequent behaviour as a “loner”, “insular”, “strange teenager” and links that directly to the ensuing “drive on the bike”. To realise his much-admired competitive drive stemmed from such an abhorrent experience challenges us to stop and think twice about the sorts of competitive behaviours that we might push youngsters to emulate.
Across the Olympic and Paralympic performance world, there is a belief that when teams are winning medals, you can’t be criticised or asked to change. Then, when issues have emerged, there has been a token response, a new policy drawn up or training course delivered – but the deep culture of behaviours and beliefs stays the same.
That British Gymnastics’ integrity unit was getting five stars for its work at the same time as stories of alleged abuse at multiple clubs tells us what the gap between superficial change and real change looks like. The stories this week follow on from Simone Biles’s shock decision to step back from competing at the Tokyo Olympics in order to prioritise her mental and physical health.
Coaches, leaders and athletes all have an opportunity to apply the rigour they have long applied to winning medals to creating a better, safer environment within which to pursue those medals. We need different goals, broader ambitions and success criteria beyond short-term, temporary, narrow outcomes. Human stories hold the answer: surely the goal has to be the story athletes tell beyond the result. The story they tell when they leave the sport, when they step off the podium or maybe don’t make the podium, and the story coaches tell of what they are valued for.
Our objective should be to create environments where athletes leave sport with a positive story regardless of the result, ready to give back as role models and perhaps as a volunteer, coach or board member. That is what inspiring the next generation surely means. The American professor and writer Prof Brené Brown said: “When we deny the story it defines us. But when we own the story we can write a brave new ending.”
At the same time as Wiggins and Shriver begin to write their brave new endings, there is a wider challenge for governing bodies and sports organisations, for coaches and athletes and all of us involved in sport to ensure that together we start developing a different, braver future for sport: creating better, safer success metrics and redefining what success in sport looks like.
Cath Bishop is an Olympic rower, former diplomat and author of The Long Win. She is an adviser to The True Athlete Project and chair of Love Rowing, GB Rowing’s charitable foundation


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