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Mental health support could become requirement for Olympic and Paralympic funding

Callum Skinner agrees with Jess Varnish that athletes should be treated as employees

UK Sport could introduce a requirement for sports bodies to offer mental health support as a requirement for Olympic and Paralympic funding, according to the director of athlete health at the English Institute for Sport.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Craig Ranson describes a “step change” in attitudes to athlete welfare following a UK Sport culture survey two years ago which revealed that almost a quarter of athletes were unhappy with the mental health support on offer.

In 2018, UK Sport put together an expert panel of psychiatrists and psychologists to offer advice and then followed that up with a new mental health education programme across all elite Olympic and Paralympic sports last year. The new programme comprises screening processes, performance lifestyle advisors and guidance on good practice and how to seek help.

“Uptake is good and there is no resistance,” said Ranson. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a part of the funding agreement in future cycles – the next one or into the future – around developing the athlete as a person alongside their sporting career, in terms of education, finance, wellbeing and managing transitions. I think that will become more and more the norm.

“People are more willing to break down the stigma of mental health and talk about it. People want help in how to manage it – the demand is there and there has been good initial success in trying to meet it.”

Olympic champion Callum Skinner said that his retirement from track cycling at the age of 26 was due to the lack of support he felt he received from British Cycling when he raised mental health issues with team management. Skinner has since launched Global Athlete, a campaign group that seeks to improve athlete welfare.

“I fear that many athletes are, by societal standards, suffering mental health issues,” he said. “Elite sport is a different world, toxic masculinity, fierce competition and extreme pressure in some cases can excuse symptoms and compound the problem. If medals are your sole priority, there is not much motivation for anything substantive to change.

“Athletes are seen as a commodity by UK Sport and some governing bodies. No employment protections, legal protections or job security. Any talk of ‘welfare reform’ and ‘culture surveys’ are meaningless until the athlete contracts change. Those above the coaches need to examine their motives.”

Referencing Jess Varnish’s employment tribunal against British Cycling, he said. “If UK Sport afforded its athletes the same conditions as their staff, we'd be in a far better place.

“In my experience, the fault does not lie with the coaches and support staff; they see you every day and build a personal relationship. Those above the coaches need to examine their motives. Are they doing the best by the athletes, the sustainability of British Olympic sport or are they advancing their self-interests?”

The four-year Olympic cycle brings specific mental health challenges, according to Ranson.

“Whether you win or lose, do well or not, after working towards something for four years, there can be this post games blues. Having things planned for that time is something we are encouraging sports to factor in so it doesn't feel like such a cliff edge when you get to the Olympics.”

He said that although there had been significant Olympic successes in recent years, there was now a recognition that there could be “a more consensual way” of working with athletes while “understanding that there are certain non-negotiables if you are going to be successful”.

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