Bradley Wiggins backs NSPCC child abuse plan as he reveals impact of own experience

Five-time Olympic gold medallist and Tour de France winner says he swept alleged sexual abuse by coach ‘under the carpet’

Sir Bradley Wiggins has backed a plan to teach a million people to spot the signs of child abuse as he revealed he stayed quiet about suffering sexual abuse because he feared competitors would consider him weak.

The five-time Olympic gold medallist and 2012 Tour de France champion said he was abused by a cycling coach between the ages of 13 and 16 but “this was something I was never going to talk about during my career” and instead he “swept it under the carpet”.

The 42-year-old spoke at the launch of UK-wide National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) campaign urging people to learn the signs of child abuse and to blow the whistle when they see it. Over the last year, the charity has recorded a 14% increase in reports to its helpline of in-person sexual abuse concerns, with over 8,000 adults calling in. More than 27,000 other calls were taken about neglect and physical and emotional abuse of children

“A lot of the time abuse becomes very normalised by the perpetrators and [you are] very, very unaware that is happening,” Wiggins said. “And it’s not until later in life and particularly when I had my own children … [that] I suddenly realised what I’d been subjected to as a child … This campaign is so important. I think we all have a responsibility as adults, parents, onlookers, coaches, teachers to recognise the signs.”

He warned that children can fear violence if they speak out and described how his need to escape his childhood problems drove him to train harder and “contributed to why I was so great at cycling”.

Bradley Wiggins in Paris during the final stage of the 2012 Tour de France.
Bradley Wiggins in Paris during the final stage of the 2012 Tour de France. Photograph: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Previously, the NSPCC has estimated that for every one child known to the system, another eight are experiencing maltreatment of some sort.

“We know that there’s a huge discrepancy between the number of actions that are being taken and the number of children who are experiencing abuse and neglect,” said Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive.

The Listen up, Speak up campaign will give adults guidance on spotting the signs of abuse and how to respond. Wiggins said it wasn’t about creating vigilantes, rather asking people to overcome hesitancy to get involved and feel “it’s OK to approach victims of abuse and speak to them”.

He said he only started to confront what had happened to him after his career ended in late 2016. Wiggins first revealed the allegation he had been sexually abused in an interview last April with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications and mental health campaigner. He alleged he had been “groomed” by a coach, who he has not named publicly.

Wiggins said he has since learned that several other people had suspicions about the coach, including Sean Bannister, a cycling coach, who has told the Daily Mail that Wiggins had “misgivings”.

“I became aware that onlookers at the time, other coaches had recognised the signs and heard the rumours but did nothing about it,” Wiggins said. He heard that an older cyclist at his club had been indecently propositioned by the same coach before a race. Wiggins called on people to use “common sense” to spot abuse.

“Rather than worrying [if] you’re intruding or intervening or the consequences of that … if you’re right wouldn’t you rather just go in and take that risk?” he said.

Asked whether it would have made a difference to him if the alleged abuse had been stopped earlier, Wiggins replied: “I kind of think it contributed to why I was so great at cycling. It’s a real contradiction in that the adversity is what gave me the drive to run away.”

Bradley Wiggins with his gold medal from the 2016 Olympics.
Bradley Wiggins with his gold medal from the 2016 Olympics. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

“I think there’s a difference between being good and great at something and my greatest ability was riding on my own,” he said. “The drive that came within, particularly with cycling, it was a means to facilitate escaping from where I grew up. So I’d ride for hours away from Kilburn … the bike became a vehicle to run away from my childhood problems. The longer I could spend on my own time-trialling for an hour record or an Olympic time trial, in my own head was an escapism from the person I was.”

“When I stopped cycling, I didn’t have that and I had to accept who I was,” he said. “I think lots of people that are great at something have a drive that kind of stems from adversity … What we can do is change and accept it, learn to stop running away from it and help others.”

  • The NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331.

• This article was amended on 13 January 2023 to remove a personal detail.


Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Small Talk: Bradley Wiggins on being a BMX bandit, why blogging is something people do in between masturbating and why he prefers guitars to bikes

The Olympic gold medallist on being a BMX bandit, why blogging is something people do in between masturbating, and why he prefers guitars to bikes

Mikey Stafford

09, Jan, 2009 @12:01 AM

My obsessions: Bradley Wiggins

I seem to spend a lot of money in Paul Smith at the moment says Bradley Wiggins

Tim Lewis

25, Oct, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Sir Bradley Wiggins backs suspended coach Shane Sutton
Sir Bradley Wiggins denied any knowledge of a culture of discrimination in British Cycling and thinks Shane Sutton will be cleared of allegations of sexism and bullying

Barry Glendenning in Rio de Janeiro

14, Aug, 2016 @9:30 PM

Article image
Cases of UK child sexual abuse up 31%, says NSPCC
Charity made more than 4,600 referrals to police and social services in 2016-17, a ‘deeply worrying’ rise on the previous year

Matthew Weaver

18, Dec, 2017 @8:38 AM

Tour de France: Bradley Wiggins

Bradley Wiggins absorbs the history of Le Tour and the pain of the Pyrenees.

Bradley Wiggins

15, Jul, 2006 @11:10 PM

Article image
Boris biking, the Bradley Wiggins way
No jumping lights, whacking cars or effing and jeffing: the Olympic champion tackles the issues of everyday cycling

Peter Walker

10, Mar, 2016 @6:40 PM

Interview with Bradley Wiggins

After weeks of soul-searching about whether to quit cycling, Bradley Wiggins tells William Fotheringham he is raring to get on the road in search of glory in the big tours.

William Fotheringham

16, Jan, 2005 @12:36 AM

Article image
Bradley Wiggins - live web chat

Britain's multiple cycling gold medallist was online to tackle your questions. Read his answers below

Bradley Wiggins

24, Nov, 2010 @3:49 PM

Article image
Bradley Wiggins crash: witnesses describe shock of collision

Witnesses have described the scene after the Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins was hit by a van while out training

Guardian staff and agencies

08, Nov, 2012 @11:56 AM

Article image
Bradley Wiggins: the undisputed king of the road | Observer profile

Profile: The cycling hero, dubbed Le Gentleman by the French press, is set to become the first British winner of the Tour de France today, making him one of this country's greatest ever sportsmen

Tim Lewis

21, Jul, 2012 @11:04 PM