The human cost of gold medals
Earlier this week we published a piece written by Scott McGrory in which he reflected on his time under Australian Insitute of Sport (AIS) track coach Charlie Walsh. It was only fair that we reached out to Mr. Walsh to get his reply to Scott’s piece, but we also wanted to hear his perspectives on modern sports science and coaching, and what he might have done differently in hindsight.
We commissioned Jono Lovelock to write that piece but when he contacted Charlie Walsh for an interview Walsh was happy to talk but refused to go on the record with any of his comments. In the past couple days many former athletes of Walsh’s have come forward with shocking stories and allegations.
What Jono ended up writing was much different than the reply from Charlie that we originally set out to publish. This is a story about the human cost of pushing riders to (and sometimes beyond) their limits.
Telling it like it is
Aside from the odd snippet of dissent from riders such as Robbie McEwen (in his autobiography) and Scott McGrory (in his piece earlier this week), the aura around the Walsh era remains overtly positive with Brett Aitken, Shane Kelly and Stuart O’Grady the best-known exports from that time.
In 1993 a relatively unknown Billy-Joe Shearsby rode to a team pursuit world title (see video below) alongside Aitken and O’Grady as well as Tim O’Shannessy, but there was no pot of gold waiting at the end of his rainbow jersey.
Shearsby was ‘just a kid’ when he transferred from the comfortable realms of Dave Sanders’ Victorian Institute of Sport program to the AIS system of Charlie Walsh. He was instantly cut down by the realisation that he was just a “number on a page” to Walsh.
“I took three years to get in to Charlie’s system. I had to win medals against his riders at three national titles in a row first,” he told CyclingTips. “Finally he gave me a look in and did some physiological testing on me, but straight away he said to me ‘You don’t have what it takes. You’re never going to make it, but we’ll take you along to Mexico to help the other guys train.’
“I struggled in the first week but by the third and fourth week I was riding everyone off my wheel. I was out-climbing O’Grady, Aitken, all of them,” he added. “I was leaving them half an hour behind on every long ride.
“Walsh still said ‘You’re still not going to make it. You’re still not good enough, but you can ride the nationals and then we’ll take you to Italy just to ride the road tours for experience.’”
Shearsby was subsequently the only Australian who finished all the tours in Europe that year.
“I finished second in the time trial at the Tour of Holland after the rest of the team had been eliminated and sent home. Then when I got back to Germany, Walsh said to O’Grady ‘See, if you stayed in the race, you would have won that time trial.’ He never said a thing to me.”
Shearsby then won a road race in Germany only to get told off for ‘wearing the wrong helmet’ and was continually told his chances of a ride at the 1993 worlds were non-existent.
“When we started track training I set the fastest time for the individual pursuit almost every time we did trials and then finally right before worlds he said ‘Oh, you’re in.’ There was never any indication that he was going to put me in until he had no choice — everyone else was injured.”
But Shearsby could never understand what happened next.
“The second we got back after worlds he was telling all the media that I was the weak link and that I was holding the team back, if I wasn’t there they would have gone under four minutes. So Tim O’Shannessy and I sat down with the stop watch and checked our split times, I was second fastest behind him. We were faster than Aitken and O’Grady.
“But it was a four-man event; it doesn’t matter who was strongest. The four of us never lost a race together. Then the second Walsh could, he put [a new rider] in over the top of me and they never went that quick again.”
Looking back, did Shearsby think that Walsh held some athletes on the outer in order to motivate his ‘angels’ — riders who were on the inner?
“I don’t think it’s like that — he wasn’t like that with Brett and Stuart. He literally would treat them like they were his children. When we got back from Worlds our appearance money at the Superdrome in Adelaide, Brett and Stuart would get $350-500 a night and Tim and I would get $120-150. They would even promote the pursuit team and say ‘Come see the World Champions Stuart O’Grady and Brett Aikten.’ Our names never appeared on the posters.”
“He literally just treated us like he hated us”
“The second we got back to Adelaide he moved me and Tim into a tiny room in the AIS; we could literally touch each other from our single beds. And Rod McGee turned up that same week and he got put into a room with two double beds and an ensuite bathroom. It’s like, what the f***!? It was like we had done something wrong.
“Our treatment went from being bad as it had been in 1993 to being worse. I was like ‘didn’t we just win a world title for this f***ing guy?’”
But Shearsby does not hold the treatment he received against those who got it better. He is simply baffled and still wonders why it all happened.
“It just really messed with our heads. I can see the point that OK, maybe he’s just trying to toughen us up, but at a certain point you’ve got to say ‘Well done guys, this is why I treat you this way, and it’s going to continue because it works, but here’s the thinking behind it,’ but there was never anything like that. He literally just treated us like he hated us.”
And did the ‘angels’ not speak up because they were simply grateful that they weren’t being picked on?
“I think so, I mean Stuart in particular never stood up for us,” explained Shearsby. “When they saw us getting shafted on the appearance money they never said anything. Brett occasionally said to us that it was obviously shitty what was going on. But they never went as far as making a stand for us.
“Mike Turtur said he would manage us and within two months, Brett and Stuart both had contracts from car companies and we had nothing. I got a pair of sunglasses from Bolle, and I think I got a 1000-dollar cheque from the Australian Sports Commission. That was it.”
“I was just like a shell of a person”
Aside from what went on during his AIS years, Shearsby shows a stronger sense of regret for what his life turned into after his cycling career.
“I came out of cycling at 22 with absolutely no life skills and a decent problem with substance abuse,” he said. “When I quit the AIS in ‘95 I lived in Adelaide instead of going to Melbourne where my family was. I was so broken that I didn’t want to be around people that loved me because I didn’t know how I was going to react.
“I lived like a homeless person in an apartment with no furniture in it, and this wasn’t because I had no access to means — I was just like a shell of a person. I honestly didn’t know how to act in the real world. I was crushed by the whole experience.”
But these experiences were not just limited to the lesser lights of Australian cycling with Baden Cooke confirming Shearsby’s observations on Walsh’s coaching techniques.
“The basic reason I was booted out of the team was for having my own ideas,” Cooke told CyclingTips.
Having had many disputes over what gearing the team should ride in a team pursuit, Cooke believes that Michael Rogers and himself were outed for wanting to ride the bigger gears that their road physiologies preferred. Regardless of the dispute, it was the common thread of a heavy-handed removal that incensed Cooke.
“He tried to crush me as a person. I was lucky I was one of the guys who came out pretty strong after it,” added Cooke. “The other guys; he just destroyed them.”
Sydney Olympic bronze medallist in the sprint, Darren Hill, is another rider happy to affirm the traits outlined by Cooke, McEwen, McGrory and Shearsby.
“People on the outside don’t really understand what went on. You couldn’t say anything against him,” Hill told CyclingTips. “Any of the guys that said anything back to Charlie would get kicked out of the team.”
And like Shearsby, Hill is constantly fighting the mental battles from adolescent years spent at the AIS.
“I was a 16-year-old kid when I went to Adelaide. I had no carer, we just did what we did,” he added. “I’m paying now for all of the shit that we went through … it’s taken me a long time to get over it.”
The human cost of gold medals
Most riders from those times will acknowledge some positive benefits from surviving the Walsh era. It is also remiss to believe that the many cyclists cast aside were the sole responsibility of Walsh. But that in itself poses a number of questions.
Who within the Australian Cycling Federation and the Australian Sports Commission oversaw the employment of Walsh? And were they aware of these goings on? If not, why not?
When the reintegration of athletes into society is an afterthought, cases such as Gary Neiwand’s various run-ins with the judicial system and the travails already highlighted become all too common.
In the later part of McGrory’s piece the national team results under the guise of Walsh were outlined, and they can be seen in two different ways depending on who you ask. Either the results are tremendous for a drug-free nation facing their less salubrious competitors. Or, they simply do not stack up compared to the results achieved soon after by Ian McKenzie and Tim Decker.
But both debates overlook the human cost.
“We were given questionnaires to fill in, sort of psychological profiles asking ‘Are you feeling this? Are you feeling that? And so on,” explained Shearsby. “We would fill them in honestly, me and a couple of guys I was close with… We would say ‘Look we’re depressed, we’re lonely, we’re exhausted and we’re feeling hopeless.’ I remember watching one rider write that he felt suicidal.
“But there was never a response. We handed those in twice a week but no-one ever came up and asked us about those.”
Shearsby also makes it clear that he was no angel in any sense, but where was the duty of care from those supervising a group of young adults?
“I had a lot of very rebellious traits in me. I discovered drugs and alcohol in the AIS and took to those like a fish to water as some people know,” he added. “I’ve had my share of problems with those things over the years, and still battle them to this day really.
“But that’s the kind of thing that should be identified and rather than reprimanded … well Charlie did identify it, but there was never any effort to try and help me with it. Never once was I sent to see anybody, or even given a proper talking to. Charlie said ‘You’re going to throw your life away with booze.’ That was the beginning and the end of that discussion.”
Having been through such tough times, do any of the riders reminisce on the subject?
“I’m still really close friends with Tim O’Shannessy so we catch up from time to time, I’m still very friendly with Brett as well. Stuart [O’Grady] is basically estranged from us; he doesn’t talk to us at all. He really gave Tim a lot of shit when Tim went through his positive drug test, and now I think, knowing that he now has to sit through his own bullshit, well he’s gone to ground. We don’t hear from him at all.”
Speaking of drugs, it’s often touted that Charlie Walsh had less success because Australian teams were racing against ‘enhanced’ competitors. We asked Shearsby whether that was his recollection.
“As far as I’m aware, we were clean. I know that we were given supplements here and there but nothing that ever struck my mind as being illegal. We never took needles and the supplements were in sealed bottles so we knew what we were taking.
“Obviously I can’t speak 100% for every other rider but my conscience is clear in that sense at least. I do think Charlie’s clean athlete policy was legitimate, but I also think that if you’re going to train athletes that are clean, you have to treat them like human beings and not the robots you can be when you are doping.”
Watch from 2:50 to see Charlie’s insights on cycling.
The snowball effect
Without social media, athletes from the ‘80s and ‘90s struggled to find a common voice. Following the release of Scott McGrory’s original article on Sunday evening, however, there has been a steady flow of riders using Facebook to share their thoughts. Here are just a few of those stories which we’ve been given permission to republish here.
– Brett Lancaster, Olympic and Commonwealth gold medallist on the track, and current Orica-GreenEDGE rider:
“I’ve always told people this pro road cycling is child’s play compared to my days with Charlie.”
– Karen Barrow, multiple-time track world championship medalist:
“It was interesting to re-live the moments through someone else’s eyes and find… the same view. It brought back a lot of memories – none of them good. It’s only taken me 13 years to look at a bike again.”
– Michael Aisbitt, former AIS track scholarship holder and 1987 world championship team member:
“Too few, or no, checks and balances then. It still happens today as some of the legacy is still around.”
– Dean Ryan-Jones, former AIS scholarship holder:
“Bravo! An insight to the mishandling of a lost generation! The general public questions the behaviour of athletes who have come out of this institutionalised regime and had problems adjusting to and fitting into society, where binge drinking was a type of self-medication to numb from the trauma of this abuse, and a sense of self entitlement (“toughen up princess”) was lauded as a rite of passage for the survivors.
“It’s no wonder the doping and anti-social behaviour festered! It shows the true test of character for the ones able to keep their honourable heads on their shoulders through and after this time!”
– Kathy Watt: Olympic and Commonwealth Games gold medalist:
“So many talented riders were lost to cycling because of this regime, or couldn’t survive this system that promoted blind allegiance with no questions asked. I saw what you guys went through & experienced it myself.”
– Stephen McGlede, bronze and silver medalist in the team’s pursuit at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics respectively:
“What a little sneak peek into a secret world that is still hard to believe existed. Kathy Watt and I have shared some unbelievable stories just recently on the same subject.”
In commenting on McGrory’s original article, Mark Kingsland — a world championship and Commonwealth Games medalist — gave a very frank and fair recollection that confirms the stories of others. At the same time he provided justification for what went on under Walsh’s watch.
“What Scott has described has brought back some memories,” said Kingsland. “I was with ‘Charlie’s Angels’ from ‘87 to ‘92. Charlie was a hard man during the time I spent with him, however I had complete faith in him. I guess in some ways we were all completely under Charlie’s control — ask anyone who didn’t comply how far they got with team selection.
“There are decisions that were made, and comments made, that to this day I cringe about. Riding team pursuits for qualifying and being left out for a medal to ‘share it around’ and the team losing gold has taking some time to get over.
“There are several riders I can think of whose lives have been irreversibly damaged, whether it was from the program itself, or whether they were not able to make the transition from athlete to everyday person. Back then there wasn’t millions of dollars’ worth of earnings to fall back on.
“Once you were out of the program, you were on your own with nothing. It took me years to be ‘de-programmed’ from Charlie’s regime. It has only been in the last few years I have been able to get on a bike and enjoy riding it.
“It was my choice to ride a bike, and my choice to commit to Charlie, right or wrong. We had some good times, good results, and some bad times and bad results, but ultimately Charlie was committed to his athletes.
“I have no regrets about being involved in Charlie’s program, for me, my disappointment is the lack of assistance after the ‘used by’ date. It takes a strong minded athlete to succeed in sport, but an even stronger minded person to succeed after sport.”
When good men do nothing
Although the behaviour outlined by his detractors is deplorable, it’s not clear that Charlie Walsh’s management was any different to the autocratic approaches employed in other sporting teams at the time. And more so, did his approach simply reflect the internal workings of large corporate organisations and political institutions of the period?
Walsh is a reflection of a past society rather than an indictment of it. Where the indicting lies, is at the feet of those who allowed it to go on, unchecked. Athletes are constantly the targets of performance review, but where was that for the staff?
Again, it’s worth spelling out that we contacted Charlie Walsh to give him his right of reply. He refused to comment on the record, but said he sticks by the comments he made for this 2012 article about the system he imposed and the changes he made to Australian cycling.
During his chat with CyclingTips Billy-Joe Shearsby openly pondered: “How much good am I really doing now to weigh in on [this] topic, and ruin an old man’s life?”
But it’s the lives of future athletes that are to be enriched by identifying, and learning from, the mistakes of the past.
Desmond Tutu stated that “If you are neutral to situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” but balanced this with “without forgiveness, there’s no future.”
No person or program is perfect, and the modernised and ‘compassionately ruthless’ AIS has evolved greatly over the last three decades. But the dark secrets of past years can never be forgiven until they are aired and acknowledged. And above all they must never, ever, be forgotten.
About the author
Jonathan ‘Jono’ Lovelock has raced with a variety of Australian national teams, various continental teams and travelled the world a few times over, and is still just 24 years of age.
While trying to find constructive ways of procrastinating during his commerce degree Jono discovered the art of blogging and the rest is history. When not busy riding he was writing and what started as nothing more than a fleeting foray has snowballed into regular features with RIDE Cycling Review and full-time employment with Cyclingnews.com.
Jono recently retired from cycling due to a persistent knee injury and will now focus full-time on journalistic endeavours.