Cycling has for some time stood atop the British sporting podium. The exploits of Messrs Wiggins and Froome in Le Tour, coupled with that Herculean Olympic effort on home soil four years ago, built upon an already impressive pedigree to catapult cycling to the forefront of the nation’s sporting consciousness. No longer was it seen merely as a fashionable way to get around Cambridge; cycling became something that happened in a velodrome. It was pure, undiluted drama, it was the Knight and Dame-making showpiece of the Olympics, and it was undeniably ours to dominate.
However, as the road to Rio enters its final straight, British cycling has hit something of a bump. The revelations of the past week have dirtied a previously unblemished reputation, and the sport finds itself with an unenviable image crisis.
Firstly, world-record holding sprinter Jess Varnish was dropped from the British team. As unceremonious as her removal was, there was nothing untoward in it per se, as her form had nose-dived. What emerged in her wake, however, was the toxic culture of bullying, fear, and systematic discrimination that has engulfed British cycling for a number of years, led by Performance Director, Shane Sutton. Upon her dismissal, Varnish was told to ‘go and have a baby’; a statement that belongs more to a 1970s working men’s club than it does to a globally-respected flagship of 21st century British sport. As the story unfolded, the allegations grew. Sutton, who has since resigned amidst the controversy, is accused of referring to world-leading female cyclists as ‘sheilas’, the eminently successful disabled riders of the Paralympic team as ‘gimps’, and one non-white member of the team as a ‘dirty terrorist’. As Sutton had masterminded the British effort for 14 years, these revelations unavoidably flavour recent successes with a strong hint of distastefulness.
However, add this to the failed drugs test of rising star Simon Yates, and the allegations that official kit was sold on for profit by British Cycling, and the real issue at stake is not the way in which former glories are perceived, but where the sport can go from here. With only 96 days to go until the opening ceremony in Brazil, British Cycling has lost its undeniably influential decision-maker, its sense of stability, and most importantly, the confidence of the country. It was this that got it over the line in London on so many occasions.