Cycling New Zealand report is a critical moment for elite sport

ANALYSIS: Olivia Podmore’s family know they may never get all the answers they need.

They accept it’s unlikely they will ever truly come to understand the complex set of circumstances that led to the elite cyclist’s suspected suicide in August last year – a tragedy her mother Nienke Podmore says she never saw coming.

The ‘whys?’ will likely forever linger.

Elite cyclist Olivia Podmore, who died of a suspected suicide in August 2021.

Supplied

Elite cyclist Olivia Podmore, who died of a suspected suicide in August 2021.

But soon, they hope, they will at least get some answers to the searching questions the tragic event has posed of the country’s high performance system.

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* Mike Heron to head fresh inquiry into Cycling NZ following the death of Olivia Podmore

Nine months on from the Rio Olympian’s death, which followed a concerning social media post in which she accused Cycling NZ and High Performance Sport NZ bosses of a “cover up”, the findings of an independent inquiry into the two organizations is set to be released .

On Friday, Sport NZ boss Raelene Castle, Cycling NZ chairman Phil Holden, along with two members of the inquiry panel – Mike Heron QC and Sarah Leberman, will meet with Podmore’s family in Christchurch to outline the findings of the review.

At the same time, current Cycling NZ athletes will be briefed by the organization’s interim chief executive, Monica Robbers, at a meeting in Cambridge. It is expected the findings will be released to the public on Monday.

Sport NZ chief executive Raelene Castle will meet with Olivia Podmore's family in Christchurch on Friday to share the findings of the inquiry.

Phil Walter / Getty Images

Sport NZ chief executive Raelene Castle will meet with Olivia Podmore’s family in Christchurch on Friday to share the findings of the inquiry.

While Podmore’s death was the catalyst for the inquiry, given a coronial investigation is also underway the review findings are not expected to rake over the details of the young athlete’s time in the Cycling NZ program.

Instead, it will focus on the broader athlete welfare issues to emerge in the shocking testimony from athletes, parents and coaches that flowed in the days following Podmore’s death.

Many of the claims that surfaced – a lack of accountability and effective leadership in the program, opaque selection methods and a fear of reprisal for speaking up – were traversed in Heron’s 2018 investigation into Cycling NZ following allegations of bullying, intimidation and a toxic culture.

Olivia Podmore and Natasha Hansen celebrate after winning gold in the women's team sprint final at the UCI World Cup in Cambridge in December 2019.

Alex Whitehead / Photosport

Olivia Podmore and Natasha Hansen celebrate after winning gold in the women’s team sprint final at the UCI World Cup in Cambridge in December 2019.

Central to that investigation was the treatment of Podmore, who Heron found was pressured to “give a false account” to protect a coach and another athlete who were allegedly involved in an intimate relationship. In his 2018 review findings, Heron described the incident as a “distressing and sinister example of bullying.”

That we are back here again four years on with another major inquiry into the sport has forced a wider examination of the system and High Performance Sport NZ’s engagement with sporting bodies.

However, the conduct and decision-making of individuals within the Cycling NZ program is still expected to come under the spotlight. Stuff understands four people have come under heavy criticism in the review. It is believed all four no longer work at the organization.

As the inquiry has been playing out behind the scenes, Cycling NZ has undergone major upheaval, with a steady stream of departures. Chief executive Jacques Landry announced his resignation in November, subsequently going on to take up a position with the world governing body, UCI.

Former Cycling NZ sprint coach Rene Wolff left the organization in December.

Christel Yardley / Stuff

Former Cycling NZ sprint coach Rene Wolff left the organization in December.

Days after Landry announced his resignation, the organization faced a fresh scandal when high performance director Martin Barras was forced to step down following an investigation into an “integrity breach” at the Tokyo Olympic Games. In early December sprint coach Rene Wolff also resigned after an apparent stand-off with the Cycling NZ board.

Other support staff departed more quietly. While it is not unusual for Olympic sports to experience a high volume of turnover after a Games, in Cycling NZ’s case it has been extreme. Stuff understands just two high performance staff remain in place from the Tokyo Olympics.

Sponsors have also abandoned the organization, with key partner Vantage ending its six-year relationship with the sport in December.

The loss of its main sponsor forced the closure of four regional performance hubs – a breeding ground for junior world champions, world champions and Olympians.

It is hoped the release of the inquiry findings will be the first step on a long road back.

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