Mike Rowbottom

It has been a bad week for British Olympic sport. Further statements from female gymnasts detailing abusive and coercive behaviour within the British Gymnastics system have been compounded by yesterday's report in the Mail on Sunday of dubious and potentially harmful conduct by UK Sport regarding its athletes in the run-up to the London 2012 Games.

In response to the Netflix documentary Athlete A, which revealed the abuse suffered by US gymnasts under the watch of now-jailed doctor Larry Nassar, numerous British gymnasts – mostly female – have raised allegations of their own mistreatment.

Following accounts from athletes including 2014 European junior floor exercise champion Catherine Lyons and Olympians Ellie and Beckie Downie, the latest to provide testimony is Rio 2016 Olympian and 2014 Commonwealth Games team gold medallist Ruby Harrold.

Now 24, she told the Daily Mail that she had experienced "a culture of fear, a culture of manipulation" at British Gymnastics, detailing how she was humiliated and made to feel guilty if her weight crept over its set target.

British Gymnastics has launched an independent investigation into the issue.

Harrold added: "When you are hurting or tired, they say you are weak. If you are crying, you are weak. You are made to understand this is the technique that is going to get you to the Olympics, going to get you medals."

The drive for Olympic medals is particularly marked for any host nation, and the levels of expectation in Britain as the 2012 Games approached were both huge and realistic.

The realism was based on the rising levels of performance that had followed the introduction of National Lottery funding, which remains the mainstay of British Olympic support.

That funding kicked in after the Atlanta 1996 Games, at which Britain earned just one gold medal, courtesy of Messrs Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent in the men's rowing pair. Four years later in Sydney, the Games was a different experience entirely for the British team – and indeed the British media following them.

I will never forget being at the Dunc Gray Velodrome as Jason Queally equalled Britain's 1996 gold medal tally all by himself in the kilo time trial on day one of the Games. 

By the time those Sydney Olympics were over, Britain had 11 golds, 10 silvers and seven bronzes. Not going to lie – it felt good to be around.

Britain's sportsmen and women were patently benefiting from the £58.9 million ($74.2 million/€65.5 million) of lottery funding that had come their way since 1997. And as the years have gone on, Britain's Olympic medal tally, and gold medal tally, has become increasingly impressive.

The 2012 Games saw the hosts earn 29 golds, 17 silvers and 19 bronzes. Extraordinarily, at the Rio 2016 Games, Britain did even better in terms of medals, earning 67 in total – 27 golds, 23 silver and 17 bronzes.

But in recent months the apparent "medals at all costs" attitude of UK Sport has come under increasing scrutiny and faced widening criticism, as more reports have emerged of, if not actual cheating, then sailing close to the wind, both pharmacologically and emotionally. 

The accounts are mounting up to a sporting version of Fifty Shades of Grey.

The Mail on Sunday report offers, at the very least, a clear picture of the direction of travel as far as UK Sport was concerned in the lead-up to the London 2012 Games.

UK Sport obliged 91 athletes to sign waivers after offering them an unproven supplement in the run-up to the London 2012 Games ©Getty Images
UK Sport obliged 91 athletes to sign waivers after offering them an unproven supplement in the run-up to the London 2012 Games ©Getty Images

Documents obtained show that 91 elite level athletes across eight Olympic sports were given DeltaG, an energy boosting drink, despite doubts about whether it was within anti-doping rules and what side effects it might have.

The drink included a synthetic version of a naturally occurring body acid called ketones.

This was not a case of doping – the substance was not on the list of substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. And ketone ester became commercially available in 2018.

But UK Sport obliged those using it to sign a waiver making themselves individually responsible if they failed a doping test after taking the substance.

Documents obtained as part of the newspaper investigation showed that more than 40 per cent of athletes ended up with side-effects after taking DeltaG, including vomiting and gastrointestinal upsets, with 28 individuals stopping taking the substance for this reason.

A further 24 later withdrew from the scheme because they believed they were not getting any benefit from taking the substance.

Is this "pushing the envelope?" Or does it represent a step into immoral behaviour?

The common denominator in all this – winning.

Let's just recall the words of the man credited with the creation of the Modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

"The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

"To spread these principles is to build-up a strong and more valiant and, above all, more scrupulous and more generous humanity."

Cath Bishop, pictured left after winning rowing silver in the women's pair with Katherine Grainger at the 2004 Athens Olympics, has developed a broader and wiser approach to the sporting business of what winning is about ©Getty Images
Cath Bishop, pictured left after winning rowing silver in the women's pair with Katherine Grainger at the 2004 Athens Olympics, has developed a broader and wiser approach to the sporting business of what winning is about ©Getty Images

In recent weeks this wider, broader vision has been articulated with clarity by retired British Olympic rower and former international diplomat Cath Bishop. Now a business consultant, Bishop has written persuasively about the corrosive practices that have become associated with "winning" – whether it be in sport, business or politics – in her book The Long Win, published last October.

She knows what it is like to be at the top of the tree. With Katherine Grainger in the women's pair she won the world title in 2003 and took Olympic silver in Athens the following year.

But she also knows the misery and doubt of failing to live up to expectations, justified or not.

Finishing seventh as part of the women's eight in her first Olympics in 1996 represented a satisfactory debut, but when she placed ninth in the women's pair at the Sydney 2000 Games she felt crushed by a sense of failure.

Appearing on the BBC Sounds podcast Don't Tell Me The Score recently, Bishop explained that what felt worst about the Sydney result was that it came after four years of training that was "all hardcore, how much can you do, do you want to win, get out there do more, more, more…and that isn't enough to perform at the highest level. And I found it quite a brutal period…"

She added: "I thought the world had ended because I came ninth, to come away with a result that was actually worse than four years ago, I felt absolutely devastated by it. 

"I felt 'Okay, I must be worthless now. I sit at the back of the plane. None of the managers and coaches want to talk to me now because I've performed badly. I must be a failure now.'"

She added that she felt "destroyed" for 12 to 18 months before finding her way back to rowing – and a different, wider approach to sport.

A languages graduate with a PhD in German literature, Bishop pointed out that the word "winning" has been distorted over time.

"If we trace the word right back to its roots in medieval times, it was about effort, it was about labour, it was about gaining things," she said. "But it wasn't about beating an opponent. That was completely absent from the original meaning of the word.

British medal success has come coupled with criticism of a
British medal success has come coupled with criticism of a "win at all costs" mentality ©Getty Images

"And that is something that has come in where winning is a relative thing, where I only win if somebody else does badly. And that pervades a lot of society."

She also said that, originally, to "compete" meant "striving together", adding: "not against somebody else".

And she referenced the "fighting, battle language that is so often used in sport, but also used in business, also used in politics, also used in fighting pandemics…that immediately gets us into an oppositional world where we are somehow - we have got to do better than somebody else.

"And actually that often will hold us back from exploring wider possibilities, collaborating with our opponents if you like, because together we probably bring something really different."

It appears ever more obvious that the UK Sport position will have to change. 

But if anyone is capable of re-setting the guidelines and moral markers, it is surely the current chair of the organisation – Bishop's former crew-mate Grainger.