THE past few months have been very revealing when it comes to elite sport. When cyclist Jess Varnish spoke out last year about her maltreatment at the hands of the British Cycling coaching staff, her case seemed exceptional.

Initially, the general consensus seemed to be that Varnish’s case was a one-off and while it should be dismissed, it was not emblematic of a wider issue.

However, Varnish speaking out appears to have burst the dam and in the aftermath of her treatment being exposed publicly, there has been a flood of related allegations of bullying, sexual abuse and unacceptable treatment of elite athletes by coaching and support staff.

Loading article content

This has prompted countless conversations as to what can be done to protect athletes, with the suggestion of an athletes’ union being formed. Currently, elite athletes have little protection. Earlier this week, the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, Damian Collins MP, warned that elite athletes in this country currently “have fewer rights than an Uber driver” and he urged for an independent watchdog to be created to help protect them. To hope that change will happen organically is unrealistic, he said.

During my time as an elite athlete, the need for an independent body to protect my rights and those of my teammates never crossed my mind. This is more to do with the fact that it seemed an utterly unrealistic prospect than because it was not needed.

I had the sense when I was an athlete, and I’m sure many others do, that we were in a tough, cut-throat business and so the consequences of that were that we had to have thick skin and be unfailingly resilient. Things happen in an elite sport environment that would seem utterly alien to any other workplace. Selections can be made with little or no explanation, criticism can be so harsh that it brings individuals to tears and funding decisions can be made with little justifications being given – all with no repercussions.

However, despite this, I, perhaps strangely, never felt like there was anything wrong. I always had the sense, and I think this feeling is encouraged, that we should feel lucky to be getting paid to play sport for a living and so therefore, we should take whatever is thrown at us.

To some extent, this is true. Being a full-time athlete is a privilege that many would give anything to have and with few fields quite as ruthless as elite sport, it’s not exactly the environment for snowflakes. Every athlete knows this and is more than accepting to the fact that it’s a tough world and if you don’t like it, you can always leave.

However, it has become evident in recent months that the line is being crossed too often; there’s constructive criticism aimed to improve performance and then there’s blatant bullying. There’s ‘banter’, whatever that is, and then there’s sexism and racism. And there’s ruthless decisions and then there’s unfairness.

How many times do athletes need to be sworn at, be on the receiving end of discriminatory comments or decisions or bullied before something is done? Yet the problem at the moment is that those behaving badly are often the people who the athletes would be expected to complain to.

If there was an independent body, which was respected by both athletes and governing bodies, it would give individuals somewhere to go where they felt their concerns would be listened to and not held against them, as is most certainly not the case currently.

At the moment, many athletes are far too scared to speak out as the repercussions could, potentially, be career-ending. The formation of a union would not result in outlandish requests from athletes. Nor would it change things drastically day to day – elite sport would remain ruthless and cut-throat and every athlete accepts there can be no other way.

But a union could also be helpful in providing athletes with a modicum of security, which is almost entirely absent at the moment.

In recent weeks, German athletes revealed that they are on the verge of setting up an independent organisation that will be separate from the German Olympic Sports Confederation and so would allow the athletes to have “their say on equal terms”. It is an entirely reasonable move, and one that British athletes should replicate sooner rather than later.