Other sports have 'bullies' too, says world cycling boss

David STOUT
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Brian Cookson, head of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), seen during the fourth day of the 2017 Track Cycling World Championships, in Hong Kong

World cycling chief Brian Cookson said he didn't recognise dark accounts of a "culture of fear" in the British team but pointed out that sport is strewn with tough leaders who could be viewed as bullies.

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) president was speaking ahead of the completion of an independent review into British Cycling after former rider Jess Varnish accused coaches of sexism and bullying.

Cookson headed British Cycling for 17 years before taking charge of the world governing body in 2013, as it was grappling with the fallout of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.

A leaked draft of the review reportedly described a "culture of fear and bullying" in the British team, but Cookson said that was "not a picture that I recognise".

"But of course nobody would want to see anybody bullied or intimidated. So, let's see what the report says when it finally comes out," he told AFP.

Cookson added that elite sport was always unlikely to be a "comfortable place".

"If it's comfortable, it's probably not going to be successful," he said at the Track Cycling World Championships in Hong Kong.

"I think if you look at some of the greatest managers of sport in history you could perhaps characterise some of their behaviour as bullying, but they got the best out of their teams and fantastic results."

In just one example, Manchester United's long-time manager Alex Ferguson was famous for his "hairdryer" confrontations and he once kicked a boot at star midfielder David Beckham, leaving him with a cut above his eye.

- 'Rejection built-in' -

British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton resigned after the allegations by Varnish, who said he told her to "get on with having a baby" after she was cut from the team last year.

Varnish and her team-mate Katy Marchant had both lashed out at the British set-up after they failed to qualify for last year's Olympics.

"In any sport with developing talented athletes you might find 100, 200, 300 or however many it is at the local level," Cookson said.

"At every stage you narrow that down, it might be until you have three or four finally that make it all the way to the Olympic Games.

"In that process there's quite a lot rejection built-in."

Cookson has led a clean-up of cycling from the serial doping cases of former years, notably the shock admission of cheating by America's Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France winner.

Following the Armstrong fiasco, cycling handed its drug testing over to the independent Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation, cutting out any involvement by the UCI.

Cookson's current plans include expanding the Olympic track cycling programme to include the engrossing, endurance-cum-sprint madison event, which was contested by women for the first time at a world championships in Hong Kong.

International Olympic Committee monitors were on hand at the Hong Kong Velodrome to witness the madison, which Cookson believes would lure road-racing stars such as Britain's Mark Cavendish to compete at the Olympics.

- Medals not missiles -

"You're going to get a guy like Cavendish thinking: 'Ah, interesting'," he said.

"What governments like to see, for better or worse, is Olympic medals," Cookson added.

"It's almost kind of a proxy international competition, isn't it?... countries still want heroes and it's better than dropping bombs on people and firing missiles at them at the end of the day."

Cycling is also attempting to expand beyond its traditional heartlands with Asia, Africa and South America the prime targets. Hong Kong was only the second Asian host of the track world championships, and the first since 1990.

But Cookson said a prime concern was keeping drugs out of cycling, whose reputation has all too often been dragged through the mire.

"If we can't guarantee a family that if they bring their kid to our sport... they got to be able to compete without taking substances that might damage their health, without having to lie, without having to cheat and without having to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder," he said.

"If we can't do that as a sport then we've failed our sport."