UK Sport failed to investigate detailed claims from a British Cycling whistleblower who also alleged that “Shane Sutton is corrupt”, leaked emails to the Guardian suggest.
The anonymous email, which was titled “Confidential British Cycling Whistle Blower”, also contained several other claims about Sutton’s behaviour, nepotism and misappropriation of resources.
It was sent in February 2016 when Sutton ran British Cycling’s world‑class programme. Instead of looking into the allegations, UK Sport told the whistleblower to direct them to British Cycling.
The Guardian has also seen an email from UK Sport’s legal adviser to a member of its governance team and the performance adviser responsible for British Cycling, which recommended the whistleblower be given a “standard response” back.
“Hi guys, if Shane Sutton is still employed by British Cycling can you liaise with the sport on this one,” read the email. “I’ll send the UKS standard response – ie ‘queries like this should be addressed to the sport in the first instance, UK Sport is not a regulator …’”
The revelations will raise new questions about how UK Sport deals with whistleblowers and whether its policy of relying largely on sports to investigate complaints internally is right.
UK Sport insiders have said they were surprised the email was given to the British Cycling chief executive, Ian Drake, who then gave it to Sutton, as it potentially risked identifying the whistleblower.
In October , the whistleblower email was also revealed to have been a key part of the breakdown in relations between Sutton and the former British Cycling chief doctor Richard Freeman.
Freeman told his fitness-to-practice medical tribunal: “A whistleblower had written to UK Sport describing Shane Sutton’s behaviour, mainly about misappropriation of resources. These abuses were common knowledge to the staff … but we all felt powerless to stop it. Many staff in favour would receive sponsors’ road bikes for personal use, as did relatives and business associates of Shane Sutton.
“Shane Sutton burst into my room accusing Phil Burt and myself of being the author of the email, which he summarised to us. He demanded we hand over our phones and computers. We refused. Later he said to me it was either me or I was covering for Phil Burt and I had to tell him. I refused and he said that was it, ‘you’re finished’.”
Sutton, who left British Cycling in April 2016 after telling Jess Varnish “to go and have a baby” and other cyclists alleged a culture of fear at the velodrome, has strongly denied the version of events Freeman has given in evidence to the tribunal. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in October, he accused Freeman of being a liar, adding: “He has got himself into something deep here and seen me as a way out.”
When giving evidence to the Freeman tribunal last year, Sutton also denied being a “habitual and serial liar” and “a doper with a doping history” and strenuously defended his behaviour during his time at British Cycling.
In a statement to the Guardian, UK Sport said: “On Friday 26 February 2016 we received an anonymous email which listed a number of complaints directed at the conduct of an employee at British Cycling. As the matter related to an employee of British Cycling, over whom UK Sport has no jurisdiction, and as it was received from an anonymous source, the matter was brought to the attention of British Cycling’s CEO to take appropriate action.”
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When asked whether it was an error to not investigate further, UK Sport said its powers were limited. “UK Sport takes very seriously any complaint it receives about the behaviour of staff employed within the World Class System. It is, however, important to be clear that … we do not have regulatory or investigatory powers regarding internal sporting disputes or the affairs of sports governing bodies.”
UK Sport said it now had an integrity unit that could monitor whistleblower complaints, even though they would still go to the CEO of the sport in question. However, the recent British Gymnastics abuse scandal has also suggested many athletes are still scared to speak out against their sports for fear of the consequences.
In August, a government-backed Sport Integrity Forum was launched “to mend the cracks in the system” after the gymnastics abuse scandal and other concerns around bullying, discrimination and corruption in British sport. Tanni Grey-Thompson has called for an independent sports ombudsman to hold governing bodies to account and to protect athletes.
A British Cycling spokesman acknowledged mistakes had been made in 2016 but said things were very different now. “The independent cycling review was published in June 2017 with British Cycling immediately implementing a 39-point plan to address its findings and recommendations,” he said. “As part of this process we have substantially strengthened our whistle-blowing process.”