Death Olympian exposes sports failures

Olympic cyclist Olivia Podmore’s suspected suicide at age 24 devastated the community. Now a report on the sport has revealed some murky issues.

Nine months after the tragic suspected suicide of New Zealand cycling talent Olivia Podmore, a damning report has revealed a series of problems with the sports organization where the 24-year-old Olympian has spent her entire adult life.

The much-anticipated independent inquiry into Cycling NZ (CNZ) found that the high-performance system “puts medals more than well-being,” said study co-chair Mike Heron QC on Monday.

Heron said the report found that CNZ was an organization of people who were passionate about cycling and had made changes before and after the assessment, but that there was “significant room for improvement”. according to the New Zealand Herald.

The independent study was commissioned by CNZ on 19 August 2021 and was co-chaired by Mr Heron and Massey University Professor Sarah Leberman with other panellists including former Silver Fern Dr Lesley Nicol and Olympic rower Genevieve Macky.

The full report was released at a press conference in Auckland chaired by the report panel, High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) chief executive Raelene Castle and CNZ chairman Phil Holden.

One of the report’s most alarming findings was athletes’ “fear of reprisal” for raising issues with coaches and management, a centralized high-performance base in Cambridge that poses a “risk to athletes’ well-being”. a lack of transparency in selection at CNS, and a financing model that is at odds with well-being.

The study also found a lack of appropriate health support for women and a reliance on traditional male networks – particularly within the coaching environment where there is a lack of women and diversity – and a lack of support for athletes entering the CNS high-performance system and leave.

The recruitment of CNZ coaches based on their technical knowledge of competition and “too little emphasis on personality, EQ, soft skills and integrity” was criticized and criticized in the report.

It also found a “concerning” use of nondisclosure agreements to handle disputes with athletes and staff, in an “seemingly closed culture” within CNZ and HPSNZ.

With the publication of the report, CNZ released a statement confirming that they accepted the findings of the investigation and for the first time, Chairman, Mr Holden, offered a direct apology to the Podmore family on behalf of the organisation.

“The key finding is that a number of people have unresolved trauma from events done through the Cycling High-Performance Program in 2016 and beyond,” he said.

“Olivia Podmore was clearly part of that group. We apologize to the Podmore family for their loss and the pain and grief they continue to experience.”

Mr Holden also apologized to others in the 2016 program for the “trauma” it caused, saying the organization should be part of “a process to address the trauma,” if the athletes allow it.

“We’re starting to turn a corner… but we’ve got a long way to go,” he said.

“We’re going to look at everything. It’s all on the table. We’re not going to rest. We want this to be the last cycling survey.”

It is the second investigation after a similar investigation in 2018, also conducted by Mr Heron, that revealed a lack of accountability and leadership in CNS and a reluctance to raise issues including “bullying”.

That 2018 assessment stemmed from an incident Podmore first reported to Cycling NZ management during a training camp in Bordeaux ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

After an intimate relationship between then-coach Anthony Peden and a Bordeaux athlete came to light, Cycling NZ management pressured Podmore to lie about it. Podmore was not the athlete in the relationship.

This pressure on Podmore lasted until the 2018 Heron report, which outlined his own set of recommendations for improving the culture at Cycling NZ.

Despite mentioning Podmore seven times, the report explicitly distanced itself from reporting her experiences with CNZ or HPSNZ – due to the ongoing investigation into her death.

Eric Murray on research results: ‘Sh** as it must change’

Olympic rower Eric Murray said it was important that the report was not a “witch hunt” on the suspected suicide of his friend Podmore.

“I don’t think much of this situation caused Olivia’s death. There is never just one thing [with suicide]† A lot happened in her life and this was a big part of it because cycling was a big part of her life,” said Murray.

“But it wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. There were a lot of straws.”

Murray endorsed the ongoing work and proposals around having a body to represent athletes, which the report said should be independent in funding and organization from the sports organizations.

“When I was a young athlete, you didn’t want to rock the boat. You didn’t want to be seen as the troublemaker, even though you’re not the troublemaker.”

He said athletes were concerned about bringing up issues because of concerns it would “go against your name or affect your career”.

“Sh** like that has to change. That is not acceptable at this time.”

Murray said not a single headline issue emerged from the report, but “so many different bits and pieces” pointing to a “huge disconnect” between those running the organizations and the athletes.

“It just points to the chief executive and High Performance (Sport NZ) having a major disconnect.”

He said it was a “very complex organization” aimed at “winning medals”.

– Additional reporting by Georgina Noack

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