New Zealand’s high performance sports system needs a complete rethink to address the “chilling” power imbalance between athletes and sports organisations, an inquiry has found.
The findings of an independent inquiry into Cycling NZ and High Performance Sport NZ, launched in wake of the suspected suicide of top sprint cyclist Olivia Podmore in August last year, were delivered to the public on Monday.
The 104-page report provided a “forthright look” at how Cycling NZ has managed its high performance programme, detailing a culture of “medals before process”, a lack of transparency and accountability around selection and recruitment, and an environment where gender biases are prevalent.
The review panel, led by Mike Heron QC and senior academic Sarah Leberman, also raised several operational concerns including Cycling NZ’s use of non-disclosure agreements and the lack of consideration around women’s health.
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The findings could have wide-ranging ramifications for how elite sport is run in this country.
At a press conference in Auckland, Cycling New Zealand chairperson Phil Holden and High Performance Sport NZ chief executive Raelene Castle both apologised for “unresolved trauma” experienced by top cyclists including Podmore.
Deputy Prime Minister and Sports Minister Grant Robertson said in Wellington he reiterated his heartfelt apologies and condolences to the Podmore family, and vowed the report would spark action.
“The report’s findings lay bare the need for meaningful change, and I am determined that we will see that. In particular, the need to ensure that sports administrators and HPSNZ are putting the mental health and wellbeing of athletes at the centre of their approach,” Robertson said.
Deputy Prime Minister and Sports Minister Grant Robertson comments on the release of the review into the culture of high-performance cycling in New Zealand.
Robertson said the system must achieve both wellbeing and high performance. “There is no tradeoff. There must be both.”
He continued: “It is an issue that we need to take seriously, that most of the inquiries that we’ve had in recent times – here in New Zealand and issues raised globally – have involved female athletes…
“When you look around the world at the likes of Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, we’re constantly seeing women in high performance sport placed under extreme pressure. We need to ensure that the support systems are there at every level.”
While the findings and recommendations are limited to cycling’s high performance environment, the panel “strongly urged” High Performance Sport NZ to consider how some issues identified in the inquiry are present in other sports.
Cycling NZ inquiry still leaves questions.
“We received a significant number of comments to the effect that the recent tragedy within [Cycling NZ] could have happened within other NSOs,” the report read.
The panel called on sports leaders to re-evaluate some core foundations of the system, describing the current funding, centralisation, and athlete contracting models as “directly diminishing” athlete welfare.
In the period in which the inquiry has been ongoing, High Performance Sport NZ introduced a new system strategy in December 2021, which included a range of new athlete welfare measures, including for the first time adding athlete wellbeing provisions to its funding criteria.
However, the inquiry panel made clear they do not believe the changes go far enough.
“While we acknowledge that recent changes to the funding model have attempted to spotlight wellbeing, those changes do not appear to be sufficient.”
But before sports bosses contemplate a future rebuild, the panel called on Cycling NZ and High Performance Sport NZ to take shared responsibility for the trauma athletes and other stakeholders still suffer as a result of issues that came to light in a 2018.
Among the key issues the inquiry panel was tasked with investigating was whether recommendations from Heron’s 2018 report were effectively implemented.
Central to the 2018 investigation was the treatment of Podmore, who Heron found was pressured to “give a false account” to protect a coach and another athlete who were allegedly involved in an intimate relationship. Heron described it as a “distressing and sinister” example of bullying, and found Cycling NZ bosses failed to recognise and protect athletes and support staff from the ongoing risk of bullying stemming from an incident at a Bordeaux training camp in 2016.
“The most important finding is that a number of people have unresolved trauma from events in cycling’s High-Performance Programme in 2016, and subsequently,” Holden said in a statement.
“Olivia Podmore was clearly part of that group. We apologise to the Podmore family for their loss and the hurt and grief they continue to experience.
“To the others affected we also acknowledge and sincerely apologise for the trauma that you have suffered.”
The panel found all recommendations from the 2018 review had been enacted, but there remained significant misalignment between policy and practice.
“Ultimately what is required is culture change that prioritises living the values and policies of an organisation,” the report reads.
A lack of transparency and accountability was a “consistent and dominant theme” of the inquiry. The panel found “key decisions, including around selection, recruitment, carding, and competitions, are not transparent to those impacted”.
The panel also took aim at New Zealand sport’s “over-reliance on traditional male networks” and insular culture, which reinforces a lack of accountability.
“Aotearoa NZ’s small sporting community tends to recruit or ‘recycle’ personnel from within ‘the system’. This was referred to as ‘shoulder tapping’, the ‘old boys’ club’, and ‘jobs for mates’. We perceive an over-reliance on bringing in recruits that people already know (even, in some cases, where past performance has been sub-optimal). This curtails attempts to ensure diversity, introduce new ideas, and in some instances maintains and rewards poor behaviour,” it wrote.
According to the inquiry panel, this culture only serves to enhance the clear power imbalance endemic in the system.
The panel raised concerns about the fairness of Cycling NZ’s athlete contracts, which impose “far more obligations on the athlete than on CNZ” and “directly diminish wellbeing”.
It recommended an overhaul of Cycling NZ’s athlete contracts, including considering a move to making athletes employees rather than contractors.
“An employment model is not impossible.
“HPSNZ and CNZ each employ a significant number of people. Athletes are their raison d’être or reason for being, without them the [high performance programme] would not exist – they deserve the same protection.”
Holden said the Cycling NZ board is committed to “urgent change” and being accountable for results.
As reported by Stuff on Sunday, veteran sports administrator and former NZ Olympic Committee boss Kereyn Smith has been co-opted to lead the change, taking up a newly established position as transformation director.
“Her role will be to work across the whole organisation – with the board, staff, contractors and athletes – to collectively drive the transformation and support implementation of the recommendations in the report,” Holden said.
As part of the “transformational culture change” needed in elite sport, the inquiry found elite athletes needed truly independent representation to ensure their voice was heard.
The panel acknowledged work was already underway at the government agency to develop better athlete representation but advised “any athlete body that eventuates from HPSNZ’s ongoing work should have organisational and financial independence from Sport NZ, HPSNZ, and CNZ”.
Castle said her organisation accepts the findings, and is committed to working together with high performance partners to build onthe wellbeing support already in place for individuals and the environments within the high performance system.
“We will understand exactly what this report means from an HPSNZ perspective and how it can further focus our strategy and direction. Once actions are agreed with the HPSNZ board, we will outline next steps along with details on how we intend to progress them.”