High Performance program cut is a symptom of a bigger problem

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If there were a manual on how to become a professional cyclist, “don’t be female” would be an apt opener.

The scale of the women’s professional cycling industry means there are precious few opportunities for talented riders to progress to the top level of the sport. The Australian women’s European Development Program that had been implemented to address the problem has been closed down until further notice. The decision has been debated and viewed as anything from a sensible solution to a malicious abandonment. With women’s cycling seemingly exploding with visible signs of growth, this was a significant moment of perhaps unexpected calamity for the elite end of the sport in Australia. But what does it mean?

For Australian female cyclists, the pathways to the international level are extremely narrow compared to those available to their male counterparts. Many big international men’s teams carry their own development teams, which compete with small international teams to sign and assist the young talent. Along the ladder there are hundreds of opportunities for aspiring male riders to receive support in various combinations of salaries, equipment, travel, expertise and coverage.

The market for women is drastically smaller and the opportunities rare and fragmented. Domestic women’s teams have begun to thrive, bringing talented athletes together to hone their abilities on the increasingly significant domestic National Road Series scene. At the international level there is a growing number of resourced and professionally managed teams that race at quality professional events globally. The pathway between these two, however, is precarious. Even the best-funded UCI teams that women can hope to join often only just fund their riders. The level below is a long way off from having the ability to support them fully.

The women’s European Development Program filled exactly this niche. It identified talented Aussie women, assisted their athletic development and facilitated their exposure and progression to the international level of the sport. It was part of Cycling Australian’s revered ‘High Performance’ branch, which is in place to ensure the country’s elite win on the international stage.

The European Development Program was successful in its own stated aims, consistently progressing its alumni to higher levels of cycling. With it gone, all that remains is the Australian national team, which covers the basic logistics required for women to represent Australia at select international competitions such as the Tour of Qatar, which is currently underway. The national team facilitates racing, but doesn’t have the resources to actively cultivate riders between races nor does it provide any sort of income to riders beyond potential prize money.

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Australia’s Winning Edge

The European Development Program was axed when it became viewed as no longer viable for three reasons. High Performance is no longer allowed or afforded to occupy the development space, Cycling Australia can’t afford anything right now, and private sponsors couldn’t be successfully attracted or mobilised to cover it. These are the realities behind this particular decision.

Cycling Australia’s High Performance branch is subject to the Australia’s Winning Edge (AWE) funding model. AWE is a bureaucratic decree from the Australian Sports Commission – the same that recently bailed Cycling Australia out to the tune of $1.5 million to avoid financial calamity. AWE requires programs prove their spending will directly contribute to gold medal performances at world championships and Olympic games.

As the name suggests, the AWE’s single objective is unashamedly for Australia to win, so it concentrates the dwindling high performance resources at the medal-winning pointy ends of Australian sport. Under this funding model it is no doubt incredibly hard or impossible to make the case for funding grass roots talent identification and development programs. It appears AWE is dragging High Performance out of the women’s development space – a space it has occupied for decades.

The official reaction

The program’s chief sponsor Gerry Ryan of Jayco wasn’t happy about the cut. He expressed disappointment to Sam Lane at The Age that the program couldn’t find the money to live, but it’s hard to know if that sentiment came from the program’s major sponsor or outgoing Cycling Australia president, because Gerry Ryan is both. I’d assume both Gerry’s have a similar view.

Speaking to Lane, Ryan said: “I was very surprised, and as a major sponsor certainly I wasn’t consulted on it. […] If they cut everything across the board, that’s fine. If they just went out and cut from women, I don’t think that’s correct.”

Tour of Zhousan Island - stage 2

This sentiment from Gerry Ryan (the sponsor) is unsettling because there seems to be few projects that Gerry can’t fund when he identifies a merit. Gerry’s claim that he wanted to keep the program is no doubt genuine, but that means even the sport’s most lavish benefactor couldn’t justify this expense. The same reaction from the other side of Gerry Ryan (now former Cycling Australia official) reminds us that Cycling Australia wasn’t able to finance it despite the high value with which they regarded it.

The announcement of the cut was the public relations equivalent of officials holding out their empty pockets with a shrug and then pointing at one another when questioned. The real problem here is the financial realities’ contribution to the decision, how we’re addressing them and the significance for the future.

Gerry Ryan’s defensiveness and deflection when questioned by reporters at least gave the promising impression that he was cognisent of the ramifications of the decision. Generally though, the major stakeholders claim that they really wanted to save the program but weren’t exactly as convincing as you would expect from a basically competent PR department in damage control. There was a strong criticism around the ethical responsibility of the governing bodies and industry at large for allowing this loss.

The injustice lies deep within the system: a system that’s so unfair it sees the equivalent men’s program maintained in a space where it’s completely surplus to existing private enterprise mechanisms. This probably also happened, in part, because the men were assessed to be a statistically better chance of a gold medal at the next Olympics.

ITT World Championships (Women Juniors)

The women’s European development program was not necessarily dead weight but it was undeniably dead in the water. Everyone wanted it and no one could pay its bills and that was that. But no one seems to recognise how urgently we need to fix ‘that’.

Our industry has the resources to support various development pathways for men, and can’t afford just this one for women. That’s a failure. Addressing gender discrimination in Australian elite cycling is evidently not enough of a determining factor in governing bodies mainstream decision-making. That’s a problem.

High performance director Kevin Tabotta told Sam Lane at The Age the decision was not gender based. My guess is that’s genuine. But despite Tabotta’s clinical intentions, the decision was made in a context of widespread discrimination against women and has ramifications for women in cycling. The program was originally funded – and then suspended – on the premise it would produce medals, but beyond that, its results and effects had a much greater significance.

A cost-benefit-analysis of gold medals over dollars doesn’t actually cut it in this case. It was one of the few programs that worked to bridge a gap, not just between women’s domestic and international racing, but the gap between men and women itself. This is why it is so sorely missed.

Gender inequality

Decisions around women’s programs have an innate significance for the role and reality of gender in cycling. In any system as deeply unfair to women as elite cycling, there’s a clear ethical responsibility to integrate strategies and steps to rectify that inequality. The development of women’s cycling undeniably falls within the role of Cycling Australia. If it must run out of money it will have to get attuned to the disastrous ramifications and symbolism of a decision like this one and handle its communication better. It also needs to get clever about financially viable ways to address the deeper gender inequality at the heart of this mess.

My own view is that eventually women’s cycling won’t miss the program. In order to survive it would have had to rely upon either Cycling Australia, which looked in this case like a broke governing body that can’t afford anything useful, or Australia’s Winning Edge, which is looking like a broken high performance funding model so shortsighted it can’t fund development. Otherwise it would be forced to rely upon private sponsors who very understandably can’t be attracted to partner sufficiently with either of the aforementioned on this particular project.

This view is not as bleak as it may seem though. It would simply advocate for people to look deeper, at the foundations of this calamity. The European Development Program was originally instigated to bridge a gap, but it’s a gap that no longer needs to be there. It helped bridge the technical gap of transmitting talent from domestic to international racing. Further, it reduced the gender gap by producing more and better elite Australian women cyclists.

stage 3a of the Energiewacht Tour 2014

Ultimately the sustainable and beneficial outcome will be to grow out of the need for this anachronistic, intensive fast-track for women cyclists. A more robust system offering alternative pathways is needed: where the domestic teams grow and reach across to the international level, taking the domestic riders to a higher level of competition and where international and foreign teams grow to reach across to the domestic level identifying and enticing riders from Australia themselves.

Facilitating this kind of sport-wide growth requires good policy and governance, which ensures the conditions are in place for the women’s cycling industry to attract new players. Closing this program might mean the end of monopolistic national governing body-led development orthodoxy for women. The new project should be to ensure the women’s cycling economy is opened, free and friendly enough for new enterprises to fill the development space.

It’s no cyclist’s birthright to have their athletic and professional aspirations invested in by systems like Cycling Australia. Critics are not necessarily whining about a budget cut hitting individuals. What has upset the cycling community is the severing of a precious pathway for elite female cyclists, not as a particularly deserving cohort so much as an asset for which this sport is starving.

I don’t actually see this cut as a loss of opportunities for women. I see it as a risk of eventually losing the women themselves. My hope is that it makes the powerful stakeholders copping flack respond by seeking ways to cultivate that space for women’s cycling to grow toward becoming a strong feature of the sport’s economy. I hope this because developing women’s cycling is in the best interest of our sport and talented women cyclists are essential to that growth.

We’re learning that we cannot rely solely on Cycling Australia’s High Performance mechanisms to cover the business of developing women into elite cyclists. We are also learning that we can’t rely on Cycling Australia to view the development of the women’s professional cycling industry as its defining objective. We’re also realising we can’t always expect Gerry Ryan to pay for everything when we’re in a pinch. We learned that we have to address the fact that the elite women’s competition sector is a manifestly starved and weak component of the cycling establishment. We are yet to provide for it the conditions for system-wide growth. That’s our real problem.

The recently announced High 5 Dream Team may very well be the first sign of exactly that kind of solution we need, but that’s another story.

Stay tuned.

About the author

Tom is a former pro cyclist, now Managing Pat’s Veg Cycling, a men’s development team. He also works for Drapac Professional Cycling, a men’s pro cycling team. Tom is passionate about women’s cycling and enjoys following and writing about women in the cycling world. He says “It’s weird that people think that’s weird.” Tom is based in Canberra where he is completing a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations, Sociology, Political Science, English and Anthropology at the Australian National University.