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”.
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.”
“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.