Inside British Bobsleigh: a toxic culture which left athletes afraid to speak up | Sean Ingle

It has received generous funding from UK Sport but the BBSA seems to be failing when it comes to creating a harmonious and inclusive set-up expected of a British Olympic team

It is a familiar tale. British athletes speaking out about bullying and a “toxic” culture of fear. Hard evidence of inappropriate behaviour from senior coaches and plummeting morale. UK Sport appearing to do little about it for years before belatedly acting. This is not British Cycling we are talking about, however, but British Bobsleigh.

Many British Olympic sports are rightly proud of their professionalism and successes. UK Sport, which celebrated its 21st birthday last month, also points to Britain’s giddy position in the medal table since the Atlanta Games in 1996 as a justification for its efforts and tough funding decisions. Yet increasingly the flaws in the system are beginning to show.

It cannot be right when athletes at the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association (BBSA) are warned they could lose their chance of competing at the Olympics if they dare to speak out publicly about issues such as bullying, sexism and racism, as the Guardian revealed in June.

Or that an organisation that receives £5m in taxpayers’ money suddenly announces just six months before the Olympics that it cannot fund a single women’s team at the Winter Olympics because of financial shortfalls – much to the staff’s anger – while committing to funding three men’s sledges. The decision was quickly reversed after Mica McNeill started a successful crowdfunding campaign, but for many the bitter taste still lingers.

Meanwhile the Guardian’s latest revelations about the racist remarks by the British Bobsleigh head coach, Lee Johnston, and the poor financial decisions made by BBSA also highlight a worrying lack of curiosity and transparency on the part of UK Sport, whose job it is not only to fund elite sports but to hold them accountable.

The Guardian has seen a letter that shows that UK Sport’s performance manager, Helen Nicholls, who also worked closely with British Cycling, was made aware that Johnston was accused of telling one member of the squad, Toby Olubi, “I knew you would be late because you are black” and, later in the same training session on 4 July 2013: “Black drivers do not make good bobsleigh drivers.”

Yet UK Sport seems to have taken a surprisingly hands-off approach. It told the Guardian: “UK Sport was aware of this allegation at the time and sought assurances that it was being dealt with appropriately by the BBSA as the employer.” It also had no comment on whether Johnston being formally disciplined and warned to his future conduct was an appropriate sanction.

Insiders say that more than £500,000 was wasted on building a state-of-the-art sled – with the help of McLaren – that was not considered good enough to be used for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. Eleven months earlier it had sounded like such a good idea to take the bobsleigh Britain had used to win bronze in the 1998 Olympics out of storage, strip it down to the frame, rebuild it with super expensive materials and put it through comprehensive testing, including pressure mapping and wind resistance. Reality proved rather different.

As one squad member told the Guardian, when it was given back to the team by McLaren in October 2013, it had to be re-engineered because it was found to be too small to fit in all four men. Even when it was used in competition the sled performed well below expectations and it was shelved after a crash a month before Sochi. The widespread feeling in the camp was that it was “rubbish” and “substandard”.

As one insider put it: “We didn’t use the sled because it wasn’t performing well. The drivers found it quite unresponsive, as it didn’t meld to the track, and they didn’t get a good feel.”

What makes the story more remarkable is that the McLaren-built bobsleigh stopped being used in January 2014 following a crash – yet a month later during the Sochi Olympics there were several breathless reports talking about how F1 technology was powering the team’s medal attempts in Sochi.

As the British Bobsleigh performance director Gary Anderson told the BBC in February 2014: “Secret squirrels are elements of the project that we’ve been keeping under wraps. They are like buried nuts which we’re now starting to uncover – ready to unleash at the Olympics and the signs so far are very positive.”

That BBC report also mentioned that “a large portion of the £3,304,250 award they received has been invested in innovative cutting-edge technology and hiring experts from McLaren and BAE Systems.”

Yet the reality – as the team already knew – was somewhat different. The project had not gone as well as hoped and British Bobsleigh confirmed to the Guardian that it had stopped working with McLaren after the Sochi Winter Olympics. When asked to give an accurate assessment of the financial cost and their reaction to this apparent waste of public money, UK Sport told the Guardian: “This is not a project that UK Sport or the English Institute of Sport has been directly involved in running but we understand that the equipment development programme run by the BBSA is still ongoing and sleds produced and developed by the programme will be in use this winter.”

UK Sport should also have been more aware of the poor culture inside BBSA, and particularly the apparent discontent with the former performance director Anderson and head coach Dominick Scherrer.

Part of the problem, according to some inside it, is that the organisation remains overly hierarchical when it comes to the relationship between coaches and athletes – the legacy of British bobsleigh’s historic links with the military. Many of the squad are still in the army but take what is called paid training to compete in bobsleigh. Yet whether they were from the army or not, senior coaches often gave the impression that independent thought was not welcome.

As one athlete put it: “We had a closed‑door policy for a time last year, say what you want. So question number one: you are always complaining about money, [so] why do we always go to Switzerland to train? That is where Scherrer comes from and they just went off on one. And Gary [Anderson] was backing him up. And they absolutely ripped him a new one. And so people stopped asking questions.”

This year Ben McCullough Young described the experience of being part of the bobsleigh squad in 2015-16 as “amazingly unpleasant” and “toxic”. As he told the BBC: “I don’t have a history of mental health problems, but it got to the point for me where I was experiencing what I could only describe as bouts of anxiety and depressive episodes every single day.”

It was not hard for UK Sport to be aware of at least some of these issues. Years ago its own Insights Survey picked up that only half of the bobsleigh athletes agreed that the sport was well led, and less than half of athletes believe that the culture of the organisation had contributed positively to their performance. UK Sport operates a traffic light system, where each sport is benchmarked against its agreed aspirations, with green being best. With these numbers bobsleigh should have been flashing red.

The Guardian understands that UK Sport was finally prompted into action this year – helped by reports of the problems inside BBSA by the Guardian and the BBC – and that UK Sport’s new head of sports integrity, John Donnelly, has been working behind the scenes to resolve the BBSA’s cultural problems.

The loss of a half a dozen staff, including Anderson and Scherrer, has apparently made a big difference to morale. With just five months to Pyeongchang staff appear optimistic that with a new performance director, Chris Price, at the helm they can push on and challenge at the Games.

The fear they have, however, is that the changes have taken too long to implement and left them playing catch up. And in a sport often decided by thin margins, that can make all the difference between medals and future funding, between glory and oblivion.


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
British Bobsleigh’s head coach said ‘black drivers do not make good bobsleigh drivers’
The new head coach of British Bobsleigh, Lee Johnston, was formally disciplined and warned as to his future conduct after making derogatory remarks about black drivers in 2013

Exclusive by Sean Ingle

09, Oct, 2017 @7:54 PM

Article image
Greg Rutherford’s Olympic bobsleigh dream: ‘I intend to make history’
Former long jumper is secretly training with GB squad, aiming to be the first Briton to win summer and winter Olympic medals

Exclusive by Sean Ingle

23, Apr, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
Greg Rutherford makes GB bobsleigh squad to keep his Olympic dream alive
Greg Rutherford’s dream of becoming the first British athlete to win a medal at a summer and winter Olympics has moved a significant step closer

Exclusive by Sean Ingle

28, Sep, 2021 @2:26 PM

Article image
Rutherford’s Winter Olympic dream over after bobsleigh squad misses out
Greg Rutherford’s dream of becoming the first British athlete to win a medal at a summer and winter Olympics has ended after he missed out on selection for GB’s bobsleigh squad for the Winter Olympics

Sean Ingle

20, Jan, 2022 @10:23 AM

Article image
British bobsleigh driver attacks decision to cut funding for women’s team
Mica McNeill has said the decision to cut funding for the British women’s team while keeping financial support for three men’s teams is ‘confusing’

Martha Kelner

25, Sep, 2017 @8:45 PM

Article image
Winter Olympics funding will not just be guided by medals, says UK sport chair
Katherine Grainger has said grassroots participation will help to determine future funding for Winter Olympic sports as well as medal potential

Tumaini Carayol

21, Feb, 2022 @4:50 PM

Article image
UK Sport investigates British Bobsleigh over fresh racism and bullying claims
UK Sport has launched an independent investigation into British Bobsleigh after the only black member of its board reported suffering discrimination, harassment and bullying

Sean Ingle

30, Sep, 2020 @1:15 PM

Article image
UK Sport: Only British Bobsleigh can discipline coach for alleged racist remarks
UK Sport says it is powerless to decide the future of the accused British Bobsleigh coach Lee Johnston and cannot cut off the sport’s subsistence four months from Winter Games

Martha Kelner

10, Oct, 2017 @9:00 PM

Article image
Team GB pitch for more funding to join elite of Winter Olympics
Great Britain’s Olympic chiefs called for more funding in order to join the elite of winter sport after arriving back at Heathrow airport following a record-breaking Games

Martha Kelner

26, Feb, 2018 @7:53 PM

Article image
How much will Team GB's 'medal moments' in Pyeongchang really matter? | Sean Ingle
With UK Sport’s funding set to fall, we need an honest debate about which sports to fully support – and whether medals benefit the nation

Sean Ingle

05, Feb, 2018 @9:42 AM