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Olympic silver medallist who was 37 at London 2012 says she missed out on team pursuit place due to her age

 

Olympic silver medallist Wendy Houvenaghel has said she suffered “bullying” and “harassment” while riding for the Great Britain Cycling Team, and has also accused British Cycling of “ageism.”

The 42-year-old from Northern Ireland was speaking to BBC Sport ahead of the forthcoming publication of the report from the independent review into British Cycling, details of which were leaked earlier this month, and which Houvehagel said “vindicated” her.

She won Olympic silver in the individual pursuit in Beijing in 2008, losing in the final to fellow Team GB rider Rebecca Romero.

That event was dropped for London 2012, which featured a women’s team pursuit for the first time.

But despite riding for the squad in the run-up to the Olympics and being named in the Team GB squad, she did not ride in any of the rounds, meaning she missed out on a gold medal.

Speaking to BBC Sport about that experience five years ago, she said: “It was definitely not about performance. I don't think the fastest team on the day were permitted to race.

"There are certain chosen riders on the team who will not have experienced the culture of fear and will not have been on the receiving end of that – the bullying, the harassment, being frozen out of opportunities.

"It was horrid - it was not the training environment I expected. There was no choice. If you rocked the boat, you were out. There was no alternative.

"Medals at any cost, that's how it was whenever I was there, certainly in 2012," added Houvenaghel, a former RAF dentist who is now in private practice in Cornwall.

Laura Kenny, Joanna Rowsell-Shand and Dani King rode in all three rounds at London 2012 and clinched gold for Team GB. Their average age was 21, and Houvenhagel, aged 37 at the time, believes that she was discriminated against because of that.

She said: "I can certainly relate to the bullying. For me personally, I felt it was more ageism - being a little bit older than my team-mates, it didn't seem to be something that the staff necessarily wanted for our team in 2012.

"They didn't care about what happened to me afterwards. I never heard another thing from them.

"After six years of constantly medalling at World Cups, World Championships, nationals, both on the track and on the road, they discarded me in a very undignified way from the team, which I don't feel was right."

Following her disappointment at missing the chance of a gold medal at London 2012 – Team GB stuck with the trio of Laura Kenny, Joanna Rowsell-Shand and Dani King throughout the three rounds, with only riders who raced earning a medal – Houvenaghel said she had been treated “shabbily” by British Cycling management.

> Wendy Houvenaghel says decision to leave her out of team pursuit squad was 'vindictive'

She claimed that she had not been given the chance to ride the team pursuit despite Rowsell-Shand being ill.

She said: I feel particularly aggrieved that the head coach made the decision to put in a rider who wasn’t 100 per cent well on the start line twice. Thankfully, the girls did go on to win their race but perhaps, had I been allowed to do my job, that world record could have been faster.

“I do feel I have been deliberately omitted from an opportunity that was mine and the opportunity to bring home a gold medal to Northern Ireland.”

“I’ve been treated really shabbily by an organisation which I have been dedicated to for six years, have won many medals for and have been a key member of the team pursuit team.

“To not allow me to ride in a three-minute race, which I can do with my eyes closed, practically, and let me pick up my Olympic gold medal was just vindictive and something which is going to take a lot of getting over,” she added.

The independent review of British Cycling was ordered by UK Sport last year after allegations of discrimination and bullying were levelled at figures including former Great Britain Cycling Team technical director Shane Sutton by riders such as track sprinter Jess Varnish and multiple Paralympic champion Darren Kenny.

Details of the report, which is highly critical of British Cycling’s past and present management, were leaked earlier this month.

> "Fit to govern" ... ? British Cycling's leadership condemned by independent review

A week earlier British Cycling, which had been given a draft copy of the report in December, had revealed details of an action plan agreed with UK Sport to address the issues raised by the independent review.

> British Cycling responds to independent review

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.

20 comments

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atlaz [255 posts] 8 months ago
5 likes

Obviously I can't speak with any authority about why she didn't ride but that the women's team got a world record in the finals, you'd have to ask whether she's right that Team GB didn't put up their fastest team.

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Colin Peyresourde [1820 posts] 8 months ago
3 likes

But while she was being picked to ride and winning medals she didn't feel like putting in a complaint....

Sports organisations are always going to have to balance form, ability, skill and temperament. No easy task. But the problem with these complaints is that there is an element of sour grapes.

It is a self-fulfilling argument; successful riders are happy and have no reason to affect the status quo, unhappy riders are going to feel marginalised and dissatisfied. I think more weight might be due if they can prove that their numbers were better, they're performances worthy of more. However, British Cycling receive their funding by winning medals, and they would be idiots if they were jeopardising that by putting in riders that weren't capable.

Competitive environments don't tend to be entirely fun places to be especially if you are not top dog.

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TheLonelyOne [357 posts] 8 months ago
3 likes
atlaz wrote:

Obviously I can't speak with any authority about why she didn't ride but that the women's team got a world record in the finals, you'd have to ask whether she's right that Team GB didn't put up their fastest team.

This Guardian article from 6th August 2012 explains a bit more.

https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2012/aug/06/london-2012-olympics-wendy...

The suggestion is that Joanna Rowsell had been very ill and thus might not have been at top form, meaning the fastest team would have included Wendy instead of Joanna.

 

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Must be Mad [625 posts] 8 months ago
2 likes

Sorry to be flippint, but.... I wasn't picked for the womens team persuit either - clearly another case of sexisum and ageisum.

Get is getting a little silly now. It would be fantastic if everyone could have a go, but is not how the rules work, and that is not BC's fault.

There were only 3 spots possible - and the format of the event means you need to post a quick time in each round. Given the three chosen riders set a new WR in every round and took the gold medal, then complaining about selection is rather difficult.

 

And for the record - I do believe that Varnish was treated badly, but I also believe that BC entered the two best riders at the Olympics. 

I think more weight might be due if they can prove that their numbers were better, they're performances worthy of more.

Yes - and more than that - more weight would also be due if the team had returned empty handed (or clearly underperformed) . However the team smashed it. Could you point to any of the selected riders and say they were unworthy of being there?

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Yorkshire wallet [1511 posts] 8 months ago
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Ageism?!? It's sport!!!! In what world is a 37 year old that relies purely on their legs at any sort of peak?

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kitsunegari [312 posts] 8 months ago
1 like
atlaz wrote:

Obviously I can't speak with any authority about why she didn't ride but that the women's team got a world record in the finals, you'd have to ask whether she's right that Team GB didn't put up their fastest team.

Not a world record; six. They set a new world record on every ride they did together in the pre-olympics and then olympics. Saying that the fastest team was not picked would seem to be sour grapes at best.

I too would be upset at having had competed at that level for that length of time and then missed out on my opportunity at a Gold. That, however, is professional sport, for better or for worse.

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davel [1877 posts] 8 months ago
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There's one thing that's missing from these arguments - the relevant times of the participants.

I think this is a glaring omission on both sides: Houvenaghel and Varnish will have been acutely aware of the times they were riding at the time, so if Houvenaghel says 'over 4k I was 2 secs faster than Rowsell' - argument won, really. If she was 0.2 secs slower and Rowsell was suffering from flu, again, argument probably won. If it was purely on power output over n seconds, again, the riders and coaches will know exactly where they were. It's their job, for god's sake.

BC should have the numbers to easily refute this if there's nothing in it.

I don't understand the secrecy or difficulty: as a teenager I was a half-decent (athletics) sprinter, and I knew exactly where I stood against the rest of my training group as far as 100m, 200m and 400m times went. We knew each others' PBs and training times intimately. If I didn't make the inidividual events, I knew why. If someone didn't make the relay, they knew why. The coach would point to race times or training times and that was that -  he was maintaining lists and spreadsheets on Windows 3, and, knowing him, if I queried an exclusion now, he'd still have the relevant records, migrated 12 times into the latest version of Excel. From my experience of other training groups, he wasn't a one-off.

All that was in an athletics club competing at regional and national level, 20 years ago. I was at school and a part-time amateur, and the coaches were volunteers with proper jobs. Where the fuck is the relevant data from the world's best cycling squad over the last few years? Why is such a black-and-white issue as selection based on time being turned so grey?

This isn't just a dig at BC - numbers aren't forthcoming in the complaints of Varnish and Houvenaghel either. They will have known if they were up on their national rivals, and it would add credibility to their complaints to be quoting some numbers. But BC is the organisation, they should be able to kill these complaints dead, and not being able to do so makes them look amateur or unnecessarily secretive - or both.

tl;dr: enough of this shit, BC.

 

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dottigirl [808 posts] 8 months ago
2 likes

100% agree with davel - was just about to say similar.

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Jimmy Ray Will [793 posts] 8 months ago
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There is no doubt that Wendy was a world class athelte, and to be frank, age should bare no relevance when it comes to winning Olympic medals.

However, from my own recollection, wendy did seem to have a habit of 'choking' on the really big occasions. 

Actually that is overstretching it a bit, but on more than one occasions she failed to produce the performance she was capable of, when she really needed to do it.

I can fully understand that BC may have looked to keep her on the side lines if there was the threat she could drop the ball...

How would you record that consideration and relay now? 

 

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davel [1877 posts] 8 months ago
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Jimmy Ray Will wrote:

How would you record that consideration and relay now? 

Well, it's a fairly big decision made a few years ago. Even if their 'proof' isn't in a spreadsheet, it should be pretty well 'recorded' in the brains of those who made the decision, and it should be quite simple to download that via their gob to the relevant BC manager (they have 3 top brass posts, you know), who should be able to get their expensive PR wonks to put something a little more diplomatic than 'she was a choker and we can prove it' out.

These are not difficult arguments to win, assuming, of course, they can be won. How many BC CEOs, Chairs, Presidents and PR bods can it take to refute an inaccurate complaint by a single rider with a grudge and a baseless complaint?

 

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Jackson [375 posts] 8 months ago
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British Cycling should have a trials meet or something like how swimmers and marathon runners get selected. Everyone show up and put your best time down, and actually write the times down somewhere (not on Dr Freeman's laptop). Then for Tokyo 2020 they can base the selections on something concrete rather than people getting cut for parking in Shane Sutton's carpark or taking the last of the inhalers or whatever. 

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robthehungrymonkey [173 posts] 8 months ago
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It's a bit different not getting selected for an individual event (like the sprint), but maybe she wasn't the best "team" member, even if she was in theory faster. Not saying she was or wasn't but a team event isn't necessarily made up of the best individuals. 

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Merchant of Cool [13 posts] 8 months ago
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My understanding of the selection is that it was between Wendy Houvenaghel and Dani King......

The decision came down to the bounce from the tapering of the training prior to the event. DK was more of a fast twitch athlete compared to DH's slower twitch endurance physiology. Fast twitch athletes will always have a bigger bounce from a taper.....therefore it was thought that DK would be the better rider on the day. Had they had a ride off 2 weeks before the event WH may well have won......1 week before.....possibly the same result.....but on the Day it would have been DK.

DK was chosen on that basis.

You cannot quibble with the performances that the girls did....you couldn't ask for any more.

Interestingly reading the guardian article she is more upset at not having a ride, even in an earlier round as this would have meant she would have been eligible for any medal won later in the competition.

You could say that Cav has the same issue, didn't get a ride in the Rio 4k pursuit, he was the fifth rider, but he got a Silver medal in his individual event the Ominium.....Haven't heard him beef about not getting a Gold in the TP.

  https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2012/aug/06/london-2012-olympics-wendy...

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fenix [802 posts] 8 months ago
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It'd be in the best interests of BC to put in their best team. Medals mean better funding for the next cycle.

I can't see BC screwing themselves over just because someone is 37.

They have chosen the best team and it's highly likely that those not chosen would disagree.

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Kadinkski [733 posts] 8 months ago
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Agree with all the comments - this is exactly why women have no place in professional sport.

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Milkfloat [53 posts] 8 months ago
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She states that BC had a win at all costs attitude and then says that they did not pick her because of her age.  She cannot have it both ways.

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Kadinkski [733 posts] 8 months ago
2 likes
Milkfloat wrote:

She states that BC had a win at all costs attitude and then says that they did not pick her because of her age.  She cannot have it both ways.

That doesn't make any sense. How is that 'having it both ways'?

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shay cycles [401 posts] 8 months ago
1 like

Interesting comments but what if she is right?

In over 40 years cycling, competing, organising and watching I've never yet seen a time when BC (previously BCF) seemed able to follow simple performance based and unbiased selection processes. Some people have always been given chances well beyond what would seem reasonable whilst others have not. It seems that fitting in, having the right attitude to fit in, has often been more important than simply talent and ability. There has also never been a time when women were treated as anything other than an afterthought or supplementary to the men.

Somehow I doubt that BC has changed all that much so it really is likely that both Houvenhagel and Varnish are right.

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philtregear [124 posts] 8 months ago
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i dont follow this stuff to well. but it appears to me that BC put the  good, but not brilliant, achievemenst of mens cycling  well ahead of the acheivments of their women and disabled teams ( apologies for nay non pc language there. this, in my opinion, is down to there commercial aims. as such it is discriminatory. i think the women and disbles cyclists did even bettr than tyhe able bodies men over the past 20 years. that is the untold story of british cycling. and that is  disgrace for a society that purports to be inclusive. shane on BC.

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fenix [802 posts] 8 months ago
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Ya think?
Medal targets are medal targets. There was no distinction between male or female medals.
Paralympic medal targets were seperate from the Olympics.