In scathing written evidence and subsequent testimony delivered to British Parliament Tuesday, Olympic and world champion Nicole Cooke accused British Cycling leaders of systemic sexism, conflicts of interest, a lack of accountability, misuse of public funds, ignoring evidence of doping, and extensive misgovernance.
The testimony, delivered as part of an inquiry by parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee that has also seen depositions from Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford and others, describes a British cycling system “run by men, for men,” and an anti-doping system within which “the wrong people [are] fighting the wrong war, in the wrong way, with the wrong tools.”
The period described by Cooke was one in which the current president of the UCI, Brian Cookson, was president of British Cycling, and Cooke questioned whether UK Sport should back Cookson financially, as it did when he last ran for the UCI presidency. Cookson was not immediately available to comment on the accusations leveled at the governing body he was formerly in charge of.
British Cycling released a statement hours after Cooke’s written evidence was released but did not reference Cooke specifically. “While there is still a way to go, British Cycling is absolutely committed to resolving the historic gender imbalance in our sport,” the statement said.
Cooke’s accusations stem from her career as a professional cyclist, 2002-2012, during which she won the women’s Tour de France twice, the Giro d’Italia once, was Olympic road race champion, world road race champion, and two-time winner of the Women’s Road World Cup, among myriad other victories.
Cooke’s three primary accusations are:
British Cycling failed to provide equal support for its men’s and women’s teams.
“Very little was ever done to support female road riders during my career,” Cooke said.
Cooke’s evidence spans her career. It includes a lack of support as a junior rider, when she won her first elite national title, and a story from the Beijing Olympics, where British Cycling failed to provide her with a skinsuit and Emma Pooely had to sew a Sky logo onto an old one. Cooke also cites a failure to provide a women’s team support in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympics, a time in which extensive resources were applied to the men’s program.
“Whilst this deluxe program ran out for the men’s London 2012 bid, Emma Pooley and myself self-funded our flights to and accommodation in Australia,” Cooke said.
Cooke also pointed to the lack of a Team Sky women’s program, noting the close, often intertwined relationship between the Sky and British cycling.
“Dave Brailsford managed the project with BC CEO Ian Drake and President Brian Cookson on the Board of Tour Racing Limited the holding company set up to ‘own’ it. Once again the designed in ‘oversight’ were the people who approved the initial decision to progress the project as male only. No successful appeal that it should be a male and female team was possible. This was run exclusively by men, exclusively for men,” she said.
British Cycling operates with extensive public funding but without meaningful oversight, which has allowed the aforementioned inequality to continue.
“The management at [British Cycling] are able to show discrimination and favouritism for projects and individuals without check or balance; they are answerable only to themselves,” Cooke said in a written statement.
British Cycling is largely funded by lottery profits, making it the richest national cycling federation in the world by a large margin. Those funds are handed out by UK Sport, the body that oversees national federations for all Olympic sports.
Cooke contends that UK Sport provided no oversight into how the funds it directed to British Cycling were spent, leaving the leadership at British Cycling without accountability for the ways in which they directed the funds. This led to British Cycling failing to adequately fund women’s cycling even as it spent massive sums on the men’s program, specifically the World Class Performance Program.
Cooke filed a complaint to this effect with UK Sport, but was told that the body could not get involved in a dispute between a national federation and one of its athletes. Cooke eventually contacted her local Member of Parliament (MP), who brought the issue to the Minister of Sport, Richard Caborn.
“I was able to eventually get UK Sport to accept ultimate responsibility for the disbursement of funds and services procured with public funds, UK Sport do not offer effective oversight and do not hold [British Cycling] to account, in fact the reverse is true with the model mainly being that BC and affiliated projects spend and distribute as they and they alone see fit, and also spend over budget with little fear of censure,” Cooke said.
Cooke ties the issues of accountability and inequality to the ongoing Wiggins “jiffy bag” scandal. As the facts stand today, it is believed that Simon Cope, then the head of the women’s program, was sent to France to deliver a bag containing Fluimucil, a decongestant. Cooke questioned why the head of the women’s program was used a courier for a men’s professional team. She also used the incident to illustrate how public funds were used to aid an ostensibly private professional program, Team Sky.
“I believe both of these problems have a direct bearing on why an employee, whose salary is paid out of the public purse, is directed by his managers, also paid out of the public purse, to spend several days driving from the south of England to Manchester and back and then catch a plane to fly to France and back, all to urgently deliver a package, the contents of which he claims he is ignorant of,” she said.
“And throughout, the management can direct him to do this with no thought for the responsibilities of his post, as British Women’s Road Team Coach or the work he is paid to do, and all to the benefit of a private organisation, because there is no body to which effective appeal can be made, by those disadvantaged by such actions. The Director of the BC cycling performance program, Sir Dave Brailsford, and the National Coach, Shane Sutton, are both working for Team Sky in management roles as well as their public roles and can misdirect because they know that they have the approval to do so from the two cycling representatives on the Board of the Team Sky holding company, Tour Racing Limited, Ian Drake and Brian Cookson who were respectively CEO of and President of the Executive Board British Cycling throughout this period.”
National federations are not sufficiently removed from anti-doping procedures
“I have no faith in the actions in support of investigations conducted by UKAD (U.K. Anti-Doping) or the testing they conduct, both completed at significant expense to the public purse,” Cooke said.
Cooke claims to have twice brought evidence of doping to UK anti-doping authorities. Both times, Cooke claims, the body stated it would do nothing with the evidence.
“Internationally, the conflicts of interest of so many of those charged with defending clean riders are such that they cannot be trusted to carry out their responsibilities effectively. National and International Federations can not be allowed to have any part in anti-doping activity. They are compromised at so many levels,” Cooke said.
Cooke’s written evidence adds context to a number of issues already on the table, including Wiggin’s jiffy bag delivery and the close relationship between publicly funded British Cycling and private Team Sky. However, it is important to remember that the investigation by parliament’s Culture, Media, and Sport committee is ongoing.
Nonetheless, Cooke’s descriptions of the lack of accountability within British cycling, the potential misuse of public funds, and the unwillingness of U.K. Anti-Doping to pursue doping further unravel the trust a paying public has placed in those organizations.
Further, the testimony does not bode well for Cookson as he warms up for a second run at the UCI presidency, further calling into question his real enthusiasm for the improvements to women’s cycling he laid out in his original manifesto, most of which have failed to materialize.
Listen to our conversation about British Cycling’s ongoing scandal on the VeloNews podcast: