Do you do the right thing and be a hero or take an unpopular gamble and potentially become the villain? This is the dilemma Cycling Australia is currently faced with.
After the underwhelming performance by track cyclists at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the pressure began to mount on the governing body after what was hyped up to be a dominant assault by the Australian contingent. Arguably, the primed form of longstanding rivals Great Britain was always going to be at the peak of competition come August, yet after a successful World Championships it was expected the medal haul was to be higher than it eventually amounted to. Now retired track veteran Anna Meares (bronze) and the Mens Team Pursuit team (silver) pulled the only two medals on the track, and Australian cycling overall, after a predicted track medal haul of three gold, one silver and two bronze.
Thus the restructuring process inevitable after an overall disappointing games. High Performance Director Kevin Tabotta stepped down from his role after more than 20 years at the helm, Anna Meares retired and Melissa Hoskins hinted that the end of her career was nearing. Yet, it is the resignation of Tabotta and the void left that has many questioning what comes next for a nation that, statistically, performs well on the world stage of track cycling yet faltered under the pressure four years after a similar result in London- but in 2012, the medals were more, one even a gold. This week, Cycling Australia began interviewing seven short-listed candidates for Tabotta’s job with the ideal starting date set at March 2017.
Shane Sutton is a polarising figure. If you have read any biography written by a GB cyclist, coach or team member, he is described synonymously with ‘tough love’ ‘straight talking’ or ‘black and white’ with an attitude perceived by the cycling world as firm but, ultimately, worth it. In an era where British Cycling has become the powerhouse of the track and dominated the Tour de France over the past four years, Sutton has been at the helm alongside the likes of Dave Brailsford and Rod Ellingworth. As the technical director, the success he endured include moments like the Team GB male and female Team Pursuits winning Gold at a home Olympic Games, Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins becoming household names across Britain and, in his role at Sky, saw a British professional road team becoming the largest in the peloton. The list goes on and on.
Underneath the accolades, rainbow stripes and gold medals, there’s the accusations and investigations that plagued Sutton to the point of resignation from British Cycling and resulted in backlash from figures across the board. An internal investigation conducted found Sutton guilty of inappropriate and discriminatory language towards Jess Varnish, 2011 Team Sprint world champion. Alleged to have told Varnish to ‘go and have a baby’, Sutton denied the allegations and said he would appeal the findings against him.
One only needs to read the comments of any article in relation to the Cycling Australia or Sutton himself to see the polarising opinion the public and cycling fans have towards his association with the national body. Many wonder if Cycling Australia are ‘selling their soul’ for medals. But, sport is a business and the medals are the commission. If there are no medals, the funding drops off in a sport that still remains hardly recognised in a nation bathed in cricket and AFL. There can be no doubt that Sutton as a director, coach and experienced member of professional cycling has the capacity to take on the role yet guaranteed backlash and calls for a ‘please explain’ from Cycling Australia.
Of course, there is no certainty that Sutton will become Tabotta’s successor but with the results and experience he has amassed, there are little who could adequately match Sutton for the role. The additional lure of coming home to coach for is obvious. His brother, Gary, works in the system as an endurance coach primarily with the women’s team pursuit and his nephew, Chris, was a road professional with Team Sky. It’s not a hard choice and, if taken by Cycling Australia, could be a bold move in reshaping a unit appearing lost and headed for a lull in success after prominent retirements. Yet, with the controversy surrounding Sutton and the mount of baggage he holds with him, just where does the price of performance sit? 2017 will tell.
Image C/O Australian Sports Commission