Cycling boss decries ‘philosophical cancer’ at heart of sport system

He leaves AusCycling after completing a sports governance reform of mind-boggling complexity: the amalgamation of track, road, BMX and mountain biking, the dismantling of a century-old federated model and establishment of a single public company limited by guarantee and owned by 550 -odd member clubs.

It means that Australia’s disparate cycling disciplines, instead of being governed by 18 boards and run by 18 management teams across state-based organizations, are overseen by a single board and managed by the same group of executives who all answer to chief executive Marne Fechner.

John Wylie, the former Sport Australia chairman who encouraged Murray to take over a sport that, in its previous form, was ungovernable, unmanageable and, according to Murray, unsponsorable, describes the reform as an epic achievement.

“What Duncan pulled off was the sports administration equivalent of a reverse 4½ somersault dive in the pike position,” he says. “It’s a case where a board chair has demonstrably left the sport in a better long-term position than how he found it.”

The challenge for the next chair of AusCyling, a position still being recruited, and chief executive Fechner is to realize the potential benefits of these reforms. One of these is the harnessing of cycling’s influence as a mass pastime, public health enabler and popular mode of transport alongside its involvement in competitive sport. Where 55,000 people race bikes, 4.6 million regularly ride them.

Alex Porter fell heavily during the men’s team pursuit in Tokyo after the handlebars snapped off his bike.Credit:Getty Images

The organization has two reviews under way. The first is a discreet inquiry into why Alex Porter’s bike handlebars snapped during the men’s team pursuit event at the Tokyo Olympics, costing the team any chance of riding off for a gold medal. The second is a broader examination of the sport’s high-performance structure and culture. This is being done against the backdrop of a 20-year decline in Olympic results.

“It feels like there are some systematic issues here,” Fechner says. “If we really want to address performance, which has been in decline for four Olympic cycles, we have actually got to look deeper than just the Tokyo campaign.”

Murray’s criticisms of Australia’s approach to high-performance sport, aside from the lip service paid to athlete wellbeing, are the “binary relationship” between Olympic medals and government funding and the failure of high-performance programs to identify and develop talent.

“Most high-performance programs are harvesters rather than farmers,” he says. “There isn’t a successful farmer in the world who just rocks up once a year and cuts the wheat.”

Duncan Murray has stepped down as AusCycling chair after overseeing a governance reform of astonishing complexity.

Duncan Murray has stepped down as AusCycling chair after overseeing a governance reform of astonishing complexity.Credit:Joe Armao

Murray argues cycling needs to intervene earlier and more materially in athlete wellbeing by requiring all AIS scholarship holders to finish their schooling and, once they are beyond school age, undertake additional study or training to prepare for a post-cycling career. He believes athletes should have access to independent psychological support and the professional assistance they need to develop a genuine post-cycling career plan.

His inspiration for this is the approach pioneered by Michael Drapac, a Melbourne-based global property investor and founder of the Drapac professional cycling team. Drapac made it mandatory for his cyclists to have a personal mentor and to be in full-time work, meaningful part-time work or studying while they were racing. His organization established short and longer-term benchmarks to measure the success of athletes transitioning into post-cycling life.

Drapac says athlete wellbeing needs to be a focus at the start of a career, not the end, and any serious discussion must extend beyond elite athletes to those who dedicate years of their lives to training without making an Olympic or professional team. Like Murray, he sees the Australian government funding model, which still rewards and encourages a narrow focus with performance, as the root of the problem.

“Winning medals is no longer enough,” he says. “We are in the 21st century, for god’s sake. The culture of sport needs to change; what is our purpose, what is the full cost, what are the metrics of success?

Michael Drapac (right) with one of his professional team riders, Rigoberto Uran.

Michael Drapac (right) with one of his professional team riders, Rigoberto Uran.

“It’s fine saying we’ve got all these medals in swimming. What is the cost to those girls? What is the cost to all those kids that didn’t quite get there? Who is responsible for that? ⁣

The AIS under director Peter Conde broadened its high-performance objectives to consider how athletes and sports engage with the community as well as competition results. Murray says there are outstanding people in Australian sport working to improve the wellbeing of athletes and nominates Matti Clements, a senior AIS executive responsible for athlete wellbeing, as someone who has made a difference within the confines of a flawed system.

He says the pursuit of excellence in sport is a “fabulous thing” and it is inspirational to work with people who are born with rare talents, whether in business, sports or the arts. The great weakness of sport is its failure to measure its success beyond what happens at an Olympic Games or major championship.

“The core, philosophical cancer in high-performance sport at the moment is that a myopic focus rather than balance is the key to success,” he says.

“Other high-performance systems, like business, worked out what a fallacy that is decades ago.”

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