19 Aug 2021

Podmore tragedy: Sporting bodies can't drive change

5:42 pm on 19 August 2021

Opinion - Spare me talk of reports or commissions. Forget any kind of inquiry. We all know the right way to care for and treat people, just as we all know the wrong way.

New Zealand's Olivia Podmore walks from the track after going down in a crash during the Women's Keirin round one track cycling race in Olympic Velodrome Stadium at the 2016 Rio Olympics on Saturday the 13th of August 2016. Podmore died suddenly in NZ in August 2021

A commission looking into what lessons we can learn from Olivia Podmore's death would be a waste of time, writes Hamish Bidwell. Photo: Photosport Ltd

I cannot fathom the pain Olivia Podmore's family is enduring right now. News of her sudden death saddened all of us but, after a day or two to process the situation, people inevitably move on.

There will be those who want to know why Podmore - a decorated national cycling representative - died and if there was anyone to blame or anything that could have been done to prevent it.

Some well-intentioned folk have talked of an investigation into practices at Cycling New Zealand (CNZ) and High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) and have even promoted the formation of the independent commission to look at the culture of sport in this country.

For what? To tell us that athletes are bullied and fat-shamed? To tell us that some men prey on female athletes? That coaches push their charges past their physical and emotional breaking point? That there is a culture of win at all costs?

We know these things. And have done for a long time.

We know these things and we turn a blind eye to them. We know these things and we often think athletes who complain about them are soft. We know these things and we grudgingly accept that governing bodies will never do anything about them.

I don't want to dwell on Olivia Podmore. Her family has suffered enough.

But I do want to dwell on this idea that there needs to be some kind of investigation here.

I don't believe there does, for some of the reasons I mentioned earlier. We know or assume these things go on and we believe administrators know all about them as well.

How's your faith in gymnastics these days? How about canoeing, hockey, swimming, football or cricket? You happy with how women have been treated in those sports?

Frankly, I'm not interested in what CNZ or HPSNZ or Sport New Zealand have to say on any topic. I don't rate the people involved and don't believe they're transparent.

After all, the culture that we apparently need an independent review into has developed or continued or flourished under these governing bodies' watch.

How are we to trust any of these people to identify or act upon their own failures?

The answers, as I sought to write about last week, have to come from us.

We - whether we're fans, competitors or parents - have to drive the change. We have to demand better for ourselves and our children and call out those whose methods are causing harm.

We have to alter our expectations of what success is and the lengths that athletes of all ages are pushed to achieve it.

Reports and inquiries cost money. Money that buys time.

I have seen various governing bodies knowingly make decisions that hurt athletes. I've seen them also knowingly make decisions that further hurt people who've suffered at the hands of athletes.

And if people kick up a sufficient fuss - and the media pressure becomes intolerable - then these governing bodies find someone to rustle them up a report.

I've then been in rooms where the findings from these reports are revealed.

Seldom is anyone or anything to blame. There's just hollow talk of "learnings'' and a collective sigh of relief at having dodged the bullet again.

Yes, this is unfortunate and, yes, this is regrettable, but no evidence could be found of any fundamental systemic failures.

You can occasionally rely on a report to identify a "toxic'' culture, but rarely any individuals who were the architects of it.

We have to call out bullies where we find them. We have to weed out imposters and frauds and we have to support those who are stymied in their attempts to do so.

I heard from parents last week who've been fobbed off and ridiculed, even bullied, by governing bodies. Parents who've been distressed at the treatment of their children and been shamed into remaining silent.

People who'll only talk to you on the condition of anonymity, for fear of falling foul of sport's ruling elite.

Not only can we do better than this, we have to. But we'll have to drive it. No governing body is going to out themselves and change the way they treat our children.

As I write, it's day two of our latest lockdown. And somewhere around the country there will be an athlete - either aspiring or elite - who's purging themselves because they ate a piece of bread with lunch.

Others will be frantically training in the garage or backyard, because a coach has texted to tell them it's only the weak who take days off.

Our children deserve better than this and we all need to help them get it.