Shane Sutton is a hard man. But, right now he needs defending.
Shane Sutton must be defended.
British Cycling, Dave Brailsford and the cyclists whom Sutton has coached need to stand by their man.
Great Britain cyclist Jess Varnish has accused Sutton of making sexist comments towards her. Apparently, after being dropped from the Rio sprint team, he suggested that she should “go and have a baby”. Without doubt, more cyclists will come forward with examples of Sutton’s crass and insulting utterances.
If the media pressure builds, even cyclists who have benefited from Sutton’s coaching will feel compelled to support “the need to change the culture of British Cycling”. So, will anyone stand by Sutton?
Shane Sutton is a hard bastard
This is not an issue about discrimination. Shane Sutton is proud of the success of women cyclists. He is rightly proud of the role he has played. But, his role is a tough one. Sutton is a hard, no nonsense coach.
Athletes adhere to coaching regimes which allow them to test their own physical and mental limits. They suffer physical and emotional pain and exhaustion to achieve speed and endurance, to win. Good coaches succeed in motivating athletes, tapping into their different emotional drives, fears and emotions. For many athletes, it is the fear of failure which drives them. A burning need to prove themselves .. to themselves as much as to others.
Sutton has brought out the best in many British cyclists. He has driven them to push themselves further than they believed possible. He is passionate. He believes in people. His life is the sport. Ask Bradley Wiggins, Laura Trott and Lizzie Armitstead if they would have won The Tour de France, Olympic gold medals and World championships without him.
Sutton is part of a team of professionals – nutritionists, technicians, number crunchers, inspirational coaches – all with different personalities and skills and all committed to building the best teams. Every good team needs a blend of skills and approaches, including Sutton. It also needs its mavericks, geniuses and obsessives.
When you lose, blame the “macho culture”
So, what when it goes wrong? When athletes don’t make the grade? When they have failed. This is a harsh reality faced by the majority of aspiring athletes.
They can either accept it or blame someone else for it. If they’re going to blame someone like Shane Sutton, they need to go for his weak spot. He’s a load-mouthed, tough-nut Aussie. So, there’s plenty to go on. You’ll you have every media pundit, the Twitter mob and the chattering class on your side. All the pressure is on Sutton to prove that he’s not sexist and he will be shamed by things that he has said.
It doesn’t matter that Sutton has done more than most to help women be the top of their sport. He will be judged on the comments he has made, not on what he has helped others achieve. Let’s remember, Shane Sutton is not being criticised for his coaching ability – if he was, that would be fair enough. Sutton is being tried by media pundits and the Twitter cry bullies. He will be convicted by panicky bosses.
Now the band-wagon is rolling, how many more cyclists will re-cast themselves as victims of a “macho culture” and come forward to undermine the recent achievements of British Cycling?
Will they distance themselves from Shane Sutton? Will they stand aside and watch him served up as a sacrifice to “culture change”.
What Sutton has said is irrelevant. Whatever was said, it will be taken out of context and turned into condemnatory headlines if the band-wagon builds momentum. The accusers will not be questioned, they will be encouraged and applauded.
Stand by your man
The real question is what the authorities do. If the leadership of British Cycling can’t stand by a tough nut like Shane Sutton, they will spend their time flinching at every accusation of bullying, sexism, prejudice, rudeness, insensitivity and, at times, total bastard behaviour.
Dave Brailsford said that Sutton is “One of the best tactical and technical coaches I have worked with. His contribution to the success of British cycling has been immense.” Immense, not quite good, not helpful. Immense.
If British Cycling cave in, the disarray will lead to defeat in Rio; the great cycling machine that Brailsford and his team built will crumble; Shane Sutton and people like him will give up and leave and a cloud will sit over the recent heroic achievements of British cycling.
Come on British Cycling grow a pair and stand by your man and re-instate Shane Sutton.
The all-too familiar 10-point “Panic Trajectory of Self-Immolation”
It seems that this saga has followed an all too familiar pattern
- Someone who for whatever reason feels let down, is disgruntled or has a genuine criticism. They make a complaint. Fair enough. Everyone should be free to speak out and demand that their complaints are addressed. This is the life-blood of a healthy organisation.
- The complaint is couched in terms of prejudice or abuse: sexism, dis-ablism, homophobia..
- The authorities panic. They are more afraid of being seen in a bad light than anything. The actual complaint is neither addressed or challenged. It is certainly not put in context.
- The authorities sack or suspend the person accused and order one or more enquiries.
- The media champion the accuser and hunt for other accusers. The complaint is neither addressed or challenged. The number of accusations is key at this stage, not their accuracy or the broader context.
- The authorities go into further panic.
- The purpose of the organisation and the achievements of the individuals within it are lost amid a whirlwind of accusations.
- The authorities institute “reform”, “culture change”, “regime change” and introduce processes and procedures to guard against a recurrence of “un-professional behaviour”.
- The accused is forced to apologise and pay the appropriate penance.
- The organisation goes through self-immolation, its purpose is lost and a new sanitised regime is installed.
© Andy Shaw 28th April 2016 – updated 2nd May 2016