CATH BISHOP: Greedy Britain's focus on medals creates culture of fear

We all love a winner. Arms aloft, top step of the podium, medal round the neck.

Such images plastered over newspapers, medal tables cited everywhere and open-top bus tours reaffirm our belief that winning is a universal force for good in our lives, something to which we should all aspire. What could be simpler?

Except we are starting to see that it isn’t that simple.

There are times when winning doesn’t equal success. Such as when Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles due to doping.

Or when Jonny Wilkinson’s expected joy to follow winning the World Cup never came, only more depression.

Or when I heard the story of an Olympic champion who walked into the changing rooms and threw their medal in the bin, because the experience leading to the result had been so miserable.

Cath Bishop (left) won a silver medal for Great Britain at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens

Cath Bishop (left) won a silver medal for Great Britain at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens

For some it is a dream come true, but from too many, we have heard stories of emptiness and depression, or worse, bullying and abuse as we saw last week from GB gymnastics.

I don’t consider a medal won at the cost of long-term mental health as success.

How have we got to this place? Our obsession with winning has focused on counting medals, checking our position in the medal table, and automatically expecting more in four years’ time.

We have got greedy and focused on quantity rather than quality. Cultures have developed that value only the winners, leaving many brilliant athletes feeling worthless.

Think of the images we see on the news on the day the British Olympic team flies home.

The gold medalists are flown back first class, disembarking by the front steps for a photo opp at the bottom with the awaiting press. The rest of the team travel home at the back, leave by the rear steps, unnoticed, trying to hide, often feeling embarrassed or ashamed.

(I have sat at both ends and didn’t feel comfortable in either). 

When only medals count, then the way in which medals are won becomes less important. Shortcuts in welfare and coaching approaches are encouraged so long as the results come.

Athletes and coaches (and 더나인카지노 parents) lose their voice to raise concerns as results trump everything else. Toxic environments and ‘cultures of fear’ develop when winning is the end that justifies any means.

It’s become Darwinian. The aim is to win medals, not to help any given individual make the most of themselves.

Yet ironically, it’s actually not helpful to performance either over the longer term.

Careers are shorter as some athletes are either broken or decide they do not want to stay in these environments. Some of our best coaches are put off working in elite sport, preferring to work in schools or clubs where there is a different set of values and greater focus on athletes as individuals rather than medal machines.

Parents understandably feel reluctant to encourage their children to become elite athletes.

We have come a long way since the days of Atlanta when we won only one gold medal. I don’t want to go back there. But I think there’s an alternative approach and we should play a role in defining that. 

Katherine Grainger, my Olympic crew-mate and close friend, has been clear in her position as chair of UK Sport that it’s not a choice between high performance and 우리카지노 wellbeing, you can have both.

I believe that we must have both, and wellbeing must come first as the foundation on which high performance is built.

Bishop's rowing partner, Katherine Grainger (right), is now the UK Sport Chair

Bishop’s rowing partner, Katherine Grainger (right), is now the UK Sport Chair

As I’ve said, I don’t think that needs to harm performance, quite the opposite.

Wellbeing, self-esteem and respect enable an athlete to tap into deeper sources of motivation than purely medals — yes, there are other reasons to do elite sport — and to have a longer and more fulfilling career. 

We could also attract a much more diverse pool of athletes and coaches who might be excited about being part of creating a new elite sporting culture built on values, social responsibility and wellbeing.

UK Sport has talked about ‘medals and more’, but that’s not enough — it leaves the ‘and more’ part ill-defined and secondary to medals.

I think if we start with the ambition of ‘more than medals’ and start to define what that means, rather than simply continuing to count medals, then we will actually be raising our game. This shouldn’t be a witch hunt or a blame game. We have all played a role — the media and public demanding more after Atlanta 1996 and aggressively pushing for higher medal targets.

The Government went along with that, and UK Sport has delivered.

We have all counted the medals as they came in. But now it’s time to take stock and reset our ambitions — to go back to the Olympic philosophy and values, that sport should unite and inspire, based on the values of friendship, respect and excellence — not winning at all costs.

Bishop says self-esteem and respect help an athlete to tap into deeper sources of motivation

Bishop says self-esteem and respect help an athlete to tap into deeper sources of motivation

Chris Hoy once said that high performance is about continuous learning, that everyone changes a losing formula.

It takes bravery to change a winning formula, yet that is the only way to sustain high performance. 

We have definitely reached a point where we need to change our so-called winning formula. There is a bigger game to play with more riches to be won than simply winners’ medals.

If we act now, and invest in culture, in welfare, in value-based environments, we could be world-leading in this area.

That would be a great ambition to have. The best athletes who are rounded individuals, with strong connections to grassroots, are able to advocate for the broader value of sport rather than purely show off medals.

That would be a much more powerful message to schoolchildren, businesses and audiences eager to cheer on the next generation of British Olympians.

When Cricket Australia shocked the world with its ball-tampering scandal in 2018, one staff member commented: ‘We are obsessed with being No 1 but it’s a fool’s gold.

We should be striving to be the sport that every Australian can be proud of.’ It’s time to ditch the medal table and return to developing British sport that ‘every Briton can be proud of’.


Cath Bishop’s book The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed, is published by Practical Inspiration. Released on October 13, £12.99.

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