Olivia Podmore death: Damning Cycling NZ report reveals widespread dysfunction, medals prioritised over athletes

Nine months after the death of Olivia Podmore in a suspected suicide, a damning report released today has found a litany of cultural and structural deficiencies at the sporting organisation where the 24-year-old Olympian spent her entire adult life.

The long-awaited independent inquiry into Cycling NZ found its high-performance system “prioritises medals over wellbeing”, co-chair Mike Heron QC said on Monday.

The independent inquiry was commissioned by Cycling NZ on August 19, 2021, and was co-chaired by Heron and Massey Professor Sarah Leberman with other panel members including former Silver Fern Dr Lesley Nicol and Olympic rower Genevieve Macky.

The full report was released publicly at 2pm, at a press conference in Auckland fronted by the report panel, High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) chief executive Raelene Castle and Cycling NZ chairperson Phil Holden.

Most alarming among the findings in the report was athletes’ “fear of reprisals” for raising issues with coaches and management, a centralised high performance base in Cambridge that carries a “risk for athlete wellbeing” and should be entirely reconsidered, a lack of transparency with selection at Cycling NZ and a funding model at odds with wellbeing.

The inquiry also found a lack of appropriate women’s health support 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 when they arrive and leave the Cycling NZ high performance system.

“Part of our consideration was wellbeing and thinking what wellbeing means and we’ve referred to that in the report,” Heron said at the conference.

He said they found Cycling NZ was an organisation of people who were passionate about cycling and had made changes before and after the review – but added that there “was significant room for improvement”.

Leberman apologised for the trauma many people involved in the Cycling NZ system prior to 2016 still feel.

The recruitment of Cycling NZ coaches on the basis of their technical knowledge of competition and “too little emphasis on personality, EQ, soft skills and integrity” received scrutiny and censure in the report.

A “concerning” use of non-disclosure agreements to deal with athlete and staff disputes was also found by the inquiry panel as they referenced a “seemingly closed culture” within Cycling NZ and HPSNZ.

For legal reasons around the yet-to-be-released coronial inquiry into Podmore’s death, the 2021/22 Cycling NZ review is quite explicit that it was “not tasked with reporting on Olivia’s experiences of CNZ or HPSNZ”.

But despite only mentioning Podmore seven times in the lengthy document, there is no denying the inquiry came as a direct result of her death by a suspected suicide on August 9 last year.

In her final social media post Podmore alleged a “cover up” at Cycling NZ and a list of behind the scenes disputes with the sporting organisation have been reported by the Herald over the past nine months.

'We want this to be the last cycling inquiry'

As the report was about to be released today, Cycling NZ put out a statement to acknowledge they accepted the 2021/22 inquiry’s findings.

Holden for the first time offered a direct apology to the Podmore family on behalf of the organisation.

He said it was a difficult document to read.

“The most important finding is that a number of people have unresolved trauma from events that Cycling’s High-Performance Programme in 2016 and subsequently,” Holden said.

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

“To the others affected we also acknowledge and sincerely apologise for the trauma that you have suffered. We would be like to be part of a process to address the trauma, if that is possible for the people concerned.”

As the organisation looked to repair and rebuild from here, some form of process to address the trauma was needed, Holden said.

Two new coaching appointments had gone through a completely redesigned recruitment process taking an athlete-centric view. There remained serious issues that needed to be confronted, he added.

“We are starting to turn a corner…but we have a long way to go.

“We are going to review everything. It’s all on the table. We are not going to rest. We want this to be the last cycling inquiry.”

Holden said the organisation would be accountable for their actions from this point on.

More than 130 people were interviewed for the new report on an exclusively opt-in basis, 21 of which were cyclists.

The report panel was open that they could not proactively seek out individuals and ask them to be involved in the inquiry and that Cycling NZ could not recommend or pass on contact details of relevant individuals for privacy considerations. The inquiry panel acknowledged this was a limitation of their terms of reference.

Alarming was the extremely low percentage of respondents who positively rated Cycling NZ’s effort on culture, management and wellbeing.

The report has outlined 29 recommendations under six terms of reference that Cycling NZ and High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) gave the inquiry board.

It is the second independent inquiry in a matter of years after a similar 2018 report, also conducted by Heron, revealed a l​​ack of accountability and leadership throughout the Cycling NZ operation and a reluctance to raise issues, including “instances of bullying”.

That 2018 Heron review stemmed from an incident which Podmore actually first reported to Cycling NZ management during a training camp in Bordeaux in the lead up to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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

This pressure on Podmore extended up until the 2018 Heron Report which outlined its own raft of recommendations to improve the culture at Cycling NZ.

In a statement today, Castle thanked the 2021/22 panel for their work, and those who took part in the inquiry.

“I’d like to thank the panel for dealing with these challenging topics in the wake of Olivia’s passing. I believe everyone involved shares a desire to see the identified improvements made to the cycling high performance programme, to support existing and next generation athletes into the future,” Castle said.

“We also understand how hard it may have been for some to take part in the inquiry and share reflections while still dealing with deeply personal reactions to the passing of Olivia.”

Castle says HPSNZ accepts the findings of the report, adding that many of them align with work already underway in the organisation’s 2024 strategy.

“Today is about acknowledging people – what they have felt and how we can support them moving forward,” she said.

On the report’s discussion on how women are treated, Castle said a response to that was the appointment of a female doctor.

“There is no doubt that from our point of view that female health is [extremely] important,” Castle said.

Leberman said there was a lot of work that needed to be done in this space so everyone, men and women, felt they belong and had a voice in decisions that impacted them.

On bias and lack of diversity, Leberman said “it was slow change” and positive moves were being seen. Both organisations have already been taking active steps, she said.

The first term of reference given to the 2021/22 inquiry panel was how effectively Cycling NZ implemented the recommendations of the 2018 report – and it was not a complementary finding.

Adequacy of the implementation of the recommendations from the 2018 Heron Report

While the report acknowledged that Cycling NZ and HPSNZ had officially implemented most of the recommendations from the 2018 Report, the stakeholders interviewed believed there was a clear “discrepancy between what has been done on paper (create policies) and what has changed on the ground (day-to-day practice)”.

The respondents doubted whether Cycling NZ and HPSNZ understood what a wellbeing-based approach to their high performance program would actually look like, and they had an inability to turn documentation into practical measures.

When asked whether athlete wellbeing within Cycling NZ had improved since the 2018 report, 23 per cent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that it had. However, 51 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed.

“We were told by stakeholders that the 2018 Report and the implementation of its recommendations felt more like a “box-ticking” exercise than an attempt to engage with welfare issues generally,” the report states.

“There is a perception that neither HPSNZ nor CNZ attempted any transformational change, particularly in relation to culture change and the funding model. Participants generally observed slight cultural change, and no significant improvement on key issues such as athlete protection, transparency, and accountability.”

Tension between medal performance model and athlete wellbeing

When asked whether the Cycling NZ funding and investment model has sufficiently prioritised athlete welfare, 3 per cent strongly agreed, 11 per cent agreed, 15 per cent neither agreed or disagreed, 33 per cent disagreed and 26 per cent strongly disagreed.

“A specific focus on medal-winning is problematic and anathema to the wellbeing of coaches and athletes,” the report found.

“The focus on medals ties job performance measures to uncontrollable outcomes and puts immense pressure on coaches, with flow-on effects for athletes.”

Cycling NZ responded to the report panel that they believe “performance and wellbeing can go hand in hand” and that they reject that medal winning “is detrimental to wellbeing”.

The “vast majority” of people interviewed told the panel that the funding model does not give sufficient priority to athlete wellbeing.

“We noted that the HP sport system is medal-focused and attitudes, operations, and funds flow accordingly. The system is designed to deliver performances; that is the return on investment. HPSNZ’s investment into the high performance program is dictated accordingly,” the report said.

Lack of accountability and 'fear of reprisals' for athletes raising issues

The report found there is a lack of psychological safety for athletes and others within the Cycling NZ high performance model. Stakeholders reported that there is a lack of trust, bad behaviour will be tolerated, and neither HPSNZ nor CNZ always address complaints.

There was a common perception that CNZ would rather “sweep it under the rug” or “turn a blind eye” than hold people accountable in a high performance environment “where talent and skill are difficult to come by”.

Participants reported that Cycling NZ tolerated “repeated poor behaviour” from coaches and staff for extended periods. This meant the person responsible was not held to account and the behaviour continued unchecked.

“The victim was left feeling invisible and as though they were not deserving of better treatment, and. This empowered others to behave similarly, safe in the knowledge that it would be tolerated,” the report found.

“CNZ and HPSNZ have faced issues around people and culture. Participants perceive that there are or were people within each organisation, who were not hired for the right reasons or in accordance with the right process. Others have not been developed as needed, and there appears to be a lack of standards and processes for recruiting or equipping coaches with appropriate credentials and skills. We address issues of recruitment, development and coach credentials in that order below.”

The panel found a more robust approach needed to be taken to recruitment at Cycling NZ and greater emphasis on “cultural fit” and personal integrity is required, particularly when it comes to recruiting coaches”.

Cycling NZ’s methods of dealing with athlete and staff disputes with NDA’s was also scrutinised and judged by the panel as excessive.

“The seemingly closed culture and use of NDAs is concerning. Where issues arise in the workplace there may be a need for these to be carefully managed and/or dealt with confidentially (including for the benefit of victims in some cases),” the report found.

“However, it was reported that the culture at CNZ was not one of dealing with matters and addressing them, but rather of hushing them up, pretending they don’t exist, and thereby avoiding accountability.”

Cambridge high performance base is an unhealthy environment

The report asked for a reassessment of the centralised Cambridge base due to its conflict with athlete wellbeing. The panel did however acknowledge that funding to allow young athletes to continue to train regionally would be difficult to fund for Cycling NZ.

The panel recommended: “Only allowing athletes who have been invited to centralise to train as part of an elite CNZ squad, to discourage athletes from moving to Cambridge independently. Again, we agree with this approach, and have heard of problematic instances where people have moved to Cambridge of their own accord and found the environment particularly challenging.”

The report found athletes’ long-term centralisation in Cambridge “carries risks for athlete wellbeing”.

“Those risks would be mitigated or removed by a development and HP model that supports athletes to train in their home regions”.

Coaching and staff recruitment

Participants in the report perceived that there are or were people within each organisation, who were “not hired for the right reasons or in accordance with the right process”.

It was judged there appears to be a lack of standards and processes for recruiting or equipping Cycling NZ coaches with appropriate credentials and skills.

“A more robust approach needs to be taken to recruitment at CNZ and greater emphasis on “cultural fit” and personal integrity is required, particularly when it comes to recruiting coaches,” the report found.

A consequence of the staff recruitment process at Cycling NZ resulted in: “An appearance of favouritism, bias, and over-reliance on traditional male networks. This issue is not unique to cycling. We were told that certain people (athletes and other personnel) will get picked within CNZ and/or recycled through the high performance system regardless of previous poor performance and/or whether they are the best person for the job.”

​​When asked whether CNZ’s approach to the recruitment of coaches is fit for purpose, 54% of respondents strongly/disagreed; only 13 per cent strongly/agreed.

“This issue arose in relation to athlete selection and staffing generally,” the report found.

“This issue is compounded CNZ’s failure to be transparent when it makes selection decisions (for athletes) and personnel decisions (for others), and the failure to hold people accountable. CNZ disagrees that this is the case, but this issue was widely reported.”

Respondents perceived that some staff who have been known to be poor performers within CNZ and HPSNZ get “recycled”, employed again, despite poor behaviour.

SUICIDE AND DEPRESSION
Where to get help:
Lifeline: 0800
543 354 (available 24/7)
target=’_blank’>Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
(available 24/7)
Youthline:
0800 376 633 or text 234 (available 24/7)
target=’_blank’>Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942
8787 (12pm to 11pm)
Depression
helpline:
0800 111 757 or text 4202 (available 24/7)
Anxiety
helpline:
0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY) (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09)
376 4155
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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