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Bankier's departure a wake-up call for UK Performance Programme

NUMEROUS conspiracy theories will surround the departure of Scotland's best badminton player from the UK elite performance centre at Milton Keynes, and her impending dismissal from the UK World Class Performance Programme, yet Imogen Bankier is gracious enough to dismiss them all.

Chris Adcock and Imogen Bankier in mixed doubles action  at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Wembley Arena.  Picture: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Chris Adcock and Imogen Bankier in mixed doubles action at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Wembley Arena. Picture: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Bankier revealed, in an exclusive interview with Herald Sport yesterday, that she has resigned from the programme designed to take her to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as a a medal contender.

The decision follows more than six years of sacrifice, living hundreds of miles from her Glasgow home, and months of angst as she attempted to comply with the diktat of officialdom and an ultimatum from the sport. She acknowledges that she has burned her bridges. "This means it will be very difficult for me to play in the Olympics again," she said.

Bankier, daughter of the Celtic chairman, and her mixed doubles partner Chris Adcock, broke into the world top 10, winning world silver and European bronze as they claimed the British Olympic slot ahead of the former world champion and Olympic silver medallist, Nathan Robertson. During this streak, they counted two victories over the reigning Olympic champions.

Robertson wielded undue influence at Britain's high performance headquarters in Milton Keynes. This was a major contributory factor in Robert Blair quitting to return to Scotland. Jens Grill, the new Great Britain and England performance director, had commendably shown there would be no favourites or string-pulling on his watch, but as management style has swung from one extreme to another, it has rebounded on Bankier.

Grill wanted her to remain in Milton Keynes from Sunday through Friday, even though she would be on court with Adcock for a total of only six hours spread over three days per week. Bankier was prepared to travel south for the three days but suggested the rest of her programme could be at least as well catered for by badmintonscotland at Scotstoun where she will focus her attention on the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Grill flatly disagreed.

"There was no negotiation," said Bankier, who was quick to absolve coach Pete Jeffrey. "The EIS team did me proud and were professional and supportive," she said. "I am anxious not to let this sour what has otherwise been a great experience, and to avoid becoming bitter."

I have met my share of snotty sportsmen and women who think they are bigger than their sport. Bankier emphatically is not one of these, and I believe she is correct in asserting a belief that a performance director's duty is to understand individual athletes and tailor pathways to achieve success. Managing sometimes maverick talent is what performance directors are supposed to do, not batter it into a template.

"No attempt was made to understand me or my point of view," said Bankier, "and there was no consultation with players at all in drawing up the plan for Rio."

This despite having been a full-time athlete for seven years, and relatively experienced and successful. "I had no input at all to my training or competition programme."

The treatment which provoked her departure should perhaps prompt reassessment of how elite athletes are treated, maybe even the intervention of sportscotland, not least because they will now be expected to pick up funding because she is one of Scotland's best 2014 medal prospects.

When UK Sport assesses badminton's business plan in the coming weeks, to determine future funding, it seems inevitable that the sport itself will suffer because of the departure of half of the partnership which has achieved better recent results than any other British pairing. They will also assuredly be wondering why the sport got £8m to prepare for the Olympics with Scotland punching above its weight: half the team of four, and English badminton having far greater investment.

By failing to compromise, all of British badminton will now be worse off financially. And it will certainly be of interest to nationalist politicians who will struggle to resist the temptation to read anti-Scottish sentiment into Bankier's treatment, despite her assurances to the contrary. "I never believed or felt any anti-Scottish sentiment at Milton Keynes," she said. Yet it is a fact that she is the third Scot to leave the UK high- performance centre there and return to Glasgow. Susan Egelstaff, the Olympic singles player who retired last week, opted out of the MK set-up, qualifying for 2012 while based in Glasgow, and doubles player Blair returned to Scotland's colours at the end of 2010.

Bankier suggests the degree of centralisation was detrimental to her development as a player. "Living hundreds of miles from home with no personal support network became increasingly difficult. They just accused me of lack of commitment. I found the place neither stimulating nor motivating, and became frustrated and disheartened."

This had an impact on her ability to focus properly in training and competition. Previously, two world-class pairs, Robertson and Jenny Wallwork, and Blair and Gabby White were available for sparring. They have now gone and, with them, much of the benefit of being based there.

Swimming, following a post- Olympic inquiry, is proposing a new US-style regime which will make the martinet era of Bill Sweetenham look as benign as a pre-school creche. That may work when you have as many swimmers as the US, but the jury is out on what it can do for Britain. There has been no post-Olympic inquiry in badminton, just the tablets handed down without consultation from a new elite performance regime, which has, as yet, no outstanding coaching record.

When coaches' jobs and, indeed, continued funding by UK Sport are result-dependent, then fear (and dictatorial regimes) are sure to arise. But an athlete walking away is a wake-up call. The UK body's funding may well suffer, but Bankier's return will be Scotland's gain.

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