Does the CEO of Sport NZ share responsibility for the tragic death of Olivia Podmore?

I imagine some Swimwatch readers are saying, “Why is he writing about cycling? What does he know about the sport?”

The answer is that for 25 years I sat and watched the same centralised culture that is being imposed on cycling infect, take hold of, and almost destroy my sport, swimming. The death of Olympian, Olivia Podmore, could just as easily have happened in swimming and, I believe, for similar reasons.

I doubt that the independent inquiry into Cycling NZ (CNZ) is going to achieve much progress. My reason for saying that is contained in the inquiry’s terms of reference. Here is what they are.

  • To assess the adequacy of the implementation of the recommendations from the 2018 Heron report
  • To identify areas of further improvement that would ensure the wellbeing of athletes, coaches, support staff and others in Cycling NZ’s high performance programme are a top priority
  • To assess the support offered to athletes at critical points within Cycling NZ’s high performance programme, particularly induction, selection and exit transitions
  • To assess the impact that HPSNZ investment and engagement has on Cycling NZ’s high performance programme
  • To assess the impact of high performance programmes that keep elite athletes in one location for most of the year, particularly Cambridge
  • To understand what steps can be taken to improve practices, policies and governance of Cycling NZ’s high performance programme to ensure safety, wellbeing and empowerment of individuals.

With the exception of the first point do you notice how the other five have one feature in common? They all assume the presence of CNZ’s centralised high-performance programme.

Question two asks how could the high-performance programme be improved? Question three wants an assessment of the support offered to athletes in the high-performance programme. Question four wants the inquiry to look at the money High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) makes to the high-performance programme. Question five wants to know if Cambridge is the right place to have the high-performance programme. Question six wants to know how the administration of the high-performance programme could be improved.

It’s all about fiddling around with the high-performance programme in an effort to make it better. Swimming was for ever doing the same thing. Do we need a new coach? What about a better pool? Are our administrators good enough? Is it the swimmer’s fault?

In this case, immediately after Podmore’s death, CNZ announced it would review its mental health support. Like swimming had done many times before, CNZ was dodging responsibility by implying there was something wrong with Podmore’s mental health. I doubt that is the case.  

No one asked the most basic question of all. Is the centralised high-performance policy a problem that simply can’t be fixed? Is the policy wrong? It certainly was in swimming. Is this panel about to address the wrong questions. Is it simply putting lipstick on a pig? Change this, alter that, but at the end of the day CNZ still has a pig.

We all know that no matter how qualified the panel is, if it is looking in the wrong place, if it fails to address the right question, it is going to reach the wrong answer.

Peter Miskimmin was an empire builder when he imposed centralised high-performance training on swimming. In his mind, the failure of the policy was never the policy’s fault. Those responsible for its implementation were clearly doing it wrong. In my view the same thing is happening here. The policy is wrong. But the panel are not charged with looking at that.

My guess is the panel will come up with a whole series of changes to protect and improve the life of those involved in CNZ’s high performance programme. But it will be to no avail. In some sports like swimming and I suspect cycling, crowding a dozen or so athletes into a high-pressure environment with one or two coaches will not work. Too much pressure. A coach not everyone likes. Programmes not suited to every individual. Boarding school, no matter how good it is, does not work for everyone. Podmore could well have been one of those. And if she was, if the policy she was being shoehorned into was the problem, this panel is not going to fix it. It is looking in the wrong place, for the wrong answers.

There are some brilliant athletes who hate the centralised environment. Look at the canoeist, Aimee Fisher, who couldn’t stand the pressure of the centralised canoe high performance training and walked out. I along with most of New Zealand said she wasn’t tough enough. That was the last we’d hear of her. Well, a week ago she won the K1 500 World Championship. We were wrong. Centralised training was not for her, and she had the courage to say, “I’m out of here.” Fisher said it had been, “very liberating to have so much ownership over my sporting pursuits’’.

I understand now and I agree. Sport New Zealand’s policy is wrong. Peter Miskimmin was wrong. Raelene Castle is wrong. My guess is they were all wrong for Podmore. In swimming they were wrong for almost everybody. Swimmers, like Lauren Boyle did a Fisher and got out. Dame Valerie Adams did the same in athletics. And no one could ever accuse those two of not being tough enough. No matter what this panel decides the Sport New Zealand centralised training policy can never be repaired.      

Twenty-five years ago, I identified this problem in what Peter Miskimmin and Jan Cameron were imposing on Swimming New Zealand (SNZ). The Chairman of SNZ, Bruce Cotterill, insisted I was wrong and spent $26 million of HPSNZ’s money putting lipstick on the swimming pig. He failed, of course, and a year ago SNZ saw the light and returned responsibility for high performance swimming back to the clubs. And what an improvement that has been.

And so, my hope is that this panel expands its terms of reference to include an examination of the centralised training policy. Was Podmore trapped in a sporting prison of Raelene Castle’s making? More than that I hope the conclusion the panel is to abolish that policy altogether. Why? For the protection of huge athletic talents like Boyle, Adams, Fisher and Podmore.  

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