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Team GB's climate of fear


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Amongst the celebrity deaths and surprise election results, Team GB’s impressive medal haul at the 2016 Rio Olympics seemed like one of the rare moments of joy and positivity in a turbulent 12 months.

And yet the British team's incredible power to unite the UK public through victory is slowly being revealed to be built on a foundation of bullying, elitism and corruption.

Across both the Olympics and Paralympics the UK received a total of 214 medals, the highest total in their history. They became the first nation since the modern Olympic era began in 1896, to increase its medal tally at the summer Games immediately following one it hosted.

Patriotism and enticement towards British sport increased rapidly in the following months. 150,000 attended the victory parade in Manchester and athletes and coaches dominated the BBC Sports Personality awards later that year. But now the horrific climate of fear imposed on athletes is finally being exposed. 

First, it was cycling, the golden child of UK sport. Already in the midst of a TUI scandal, claims of bullying and misogyny came as early as August 2016. But all accusations were efficiently countered by the sports impressive PR machine.

Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins said at the time,‘“This whole sexism thing, I'd never ever seen any sign of that, really. If I'm completely honest I think there's a lot of bitter people that didn't make the grade".

Nevertheless, an inquiry into bullying within British cycling was commissioned by the UK government. The report was leaked in March this year heavily criticizing the culture of fear within the sport but shockingly the official document released in June was heavily amended, seven pages shorter and omitted the word ”bullying.”

In the same month, a senior coach working with Great Britain's Winter Olympic bobsleigh squad was accused of racism responsible for creating an environment of harassment and bullying.

Just weeks later British Canoeing also came under fire with an inquiry instigated after further allegations of abuse.

Most recently the British Equestrian Federation has launched an independent investigation into allegations of bullying, elitism and corruption in the sport. It has become increasingly clear that, in the quest for medals, coaches and directors across UK sport have crossed the line and their “tough love” “win at all costs” approach has, in many cases, gone too far and become a mask for harassment and intimidation.

Currently the spotlight has fallen upon Paralympic swimming. The sport made back page headlines when Para-swimmers became the most successful British team at last year's Rio Paralympics, winning 47 medals - including 16 golds - and setting eight world records. Now the sport is prominent across the front pages

One athlete said she saw individuals "screamed at" and "verbally abused and bullied" witnessing "swimmers broken-hearted, crying their eyes out, and completely destroyed as a result of what had been said to them".

"These members of staff would talk down to the swimmers, make us feel pathetic and useless. We were traumatised and belittled. It began a year before Rio and carried on constantly," she added.

BBC Sport alleged last week that the situation was deemed so serious, athletes were offered free therapy at the request of the British Athletes' Commission, to help them deal with the strain of the bullying culture.

These horror stories only highlight the unhealthy desire from Sports to overperform and exceed expectations at the games. A lot of people have reasoned the bullying claims to government funding. When there is no guarantee towards the renewal of subsidies for Sports coaches will assume their success is measured in medals. Essentially the higher the medal count the greater the funding.

So is it the fault of the UK government? Have they inadvertently spawned an atmosphere of anxiety and subjugation? Team GB’s desire to win is categorically different to Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal, but both share the same “win at all costs” reasoning, and both stem from a poisonous obsession with medal hauls. An obsession that has been but before the wellbeing of individuals. 

Although we celebrate Olympic success many supporters (particularly from older generations) subconsciously question the results after years of doping and drug-related scandals. Those scandals have unfortunately become a recurrent theme in athletics and it is now possible that bullying will be the next theme tainting perceptions of these sports. It's one that could be just as hard to fix. 

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