Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Editorial: Break this cycle of bad behaviour

Few incidents in this country’s sporting history can have been handled so ineptly as that involving drunken cyclists at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. The initial attempt to cover up what CyclingNZ now describes as a "dirty, grubby" episode was foolish in itself. As was the ongoing determination to prevent the details becoming public. But all that has been trumped by the decision not to punish Marc Ryan and Tim Gudsell, the two cyclists found guilty of breaching disciplinary policy. It is little wonder that the mother of Liz Williams, the female cyclist involved in the incident, has lashed out at the failure of the sport’s administrators to eradicate a "destructive, unsafe" culture of drinking and abuse of women.

Cycling will invite such criticism until that environment is tackled. The treatment of Ryan and Gudsell suggests that time has yet to come. The pair can hardly have been chastened when told to seek counselling and a session with a sports psychologist. Such token punishment will not be the catalyst for a dramatic improvement in their behaviour, or that of others of similar ilk in the national squad. Likewise, CyclingNZ’s statement that it did not want to harm the cyclists’ careers sends precisely the wrong message. It suggests their future wellbeing outranks their participation in a particularly tawdry episode.

We still do not know, of course, exactly what happened in Melbourne. But an Australian newspaper reported at the time that two New Zealand cyclists had tried to strip a teammate and urinate on her during post-competition celebrations at the athletes’ village. The report has never been denied, even though, in perhaps the most shabby response, Liz Williams was prevailed upon to describe the episode as a "non-event". Her real reaction, and the nature of the incident, can be gauged by her disinclination yesterday to say she remained friends with Ryan and Gudsell.

CyclingNZ’s president, Wayne Hudson, says he has dealt with 15 complaints about drunken behaviour during the past three years. Despite that, he had yet to conclude that cycling was different from any other sport. Most others, however, reached that verdict some time ago, based on cycling’s long history of behavioural problems. They also deduced that that history was the product of a tolerance that extends now to what even Mr Hudson acknowledges could be interpreted as a limp response to serious allegations.

Cycling should not have to resort to independent managers to oversee its squad, or appoint chaperones to safeguard female riders. The answer lies in the effective punishment of those who breach its disciplinary policy. It does not have to look far for guidance. Consider, for example, the way that Australian rugby player Matt Henjak was sent home for drunken conduct in South Africa last year. Or how Wendell Sailor was suspended, and then sent home from the republic for a repeat offence this season.

But perhaps the closest parallel lies with cricket’s treatment of Stephen Fleming, Dion Nash and Matthew Hart after they smoked cannabis on the 1994 tour of South Africa. They were suspended for three matches when the incident became public on the team’s return to New Zealand. In the case of Fleming, in particular, careers could not be said to have been damaged.

Ryan and Gudsell’s unsavoury antics, perpetrated in a public place, were hugely embarrassing for both cycling and this country. They should have resulted in suspension from the national team and a loss of funding. Their non-punishment can only mean the bad habits in cycling are set to continue.

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