‘I hope no one else will experience what I did’

Emily Taylor has mixed emotions about British Rowing’s report into her allegations – revealed exclusively by The Mixed Zone last summer – into a bullying culture within the upper echelons of the sport. Here she tells Sarah Shepherd that she hopes her whistleblowing will have a positive impact on the way sportsmen and women are treated in future

Emily Taylor did something last summer that marks her out from the majority of elite-level athletes: the former GB rower spoke out against the system.

In June The Mixed Zone ran an exclusive interview with Taylor in which she described a “culture of fear” within the women’s rowing squad and cited the main issue as the “bullying” approach of chief coach Paul Thompson. Her revelations, coupled with those from Ric Egington, another former GB rower and boyfriend of current squad member, Vicky Thornley, prompted British Rowing to conduct an internal review into its High Performance Programme, the outcomes of which emerged this week.

Immediately after the publication of the report, Taylor again spoke exclusively to The Mixed Zone to register her reaction to British Rowing’s findings in which they recommended creating a “more inclusive environment” with “greater focus on the effects of stress on performance and well-being”. The report also stated that “the leadership must understand and define the limits on what is an acceptable sub-culture”.

Taylor said: “I’m disappointed that they haven’t released the terms of reference for the review because that would have made clear that they were only looking at the culture of British Rowing’s High Performance Programme and not investigating any allegations against individuals. I was really disappointed when I saw an article in The Times on Wednesday which said that Paul Thompson had been cleared of bullying. How can you be cleared of something you haven’t been investigated for?

“The report that’s been released is very fluffy – there was a lot more they could have shared with the media. I’ve spoken with [GB Rowing CEO] Andy Parkinson a few times and he has been a lot more honest with me, so it’s disappointing they haven’t shared more details.”

Despite this, Taylor is optimistic about Parkinson’s ability to change the culture inside British Rowing and is hopeful that if such change can be achieved it will have a knock-on effect for Thompson (who remains in situ as chief coach for Open Women and Lightweights). “What the review hopefully has done is address the cultural issues so that in the future Paul Thompson won’t be able to get away with that kind of behaviour again.

“The fact they did an internal review in the first place shows they took the allegations seriously, but I think the reason they didn’t just look at the bullying side of it was because it was a wider story. The bullying was what made headlines, but actually the fact that he was able to get away with that behaviour came down to the culture inside the squad.

“Addressing that culture was the right thing to do because there were issues in British Rowing – and still are, though they are starting to be addressed – that go beyond Paul Thompson. If it had been all about him then, yes, he might have been sacked or disciplined. But then whoever came in next could have done exactly the same thing. The culture was at the root of the issue.”

Over the last year or so we’ve seen that being a whistleblower in sport is often a thankless, lonely and on occasion even a dangerous task. For Taylor, who left GB Rowing after London 2012 (where she was a spare after being dropped from the women’s eight squad just weeks before the Olympics), stepping away from the toxic environment gave her the confidence and clarity she needed to speak out. “When you’re inside it, you question whether this is what elite sport is supposed to be like, because you see everyone else accepting it. You know that life as an athlete is supposed to be tough. Everyone speaks their minds and you know there will be brutal selection decisions.

“But once you’re removed from it you realise that actually it was more than just the brutal aspects associated with being in a high performance programme. There were things going on that were completely unacceptable. It takes a bit of distance from the programme to realise and come to terms with that.

“I wanted to speak out was because I’d seen so many other people who had been miserable or suffering in some way, even after stopping rowing. I also knew people that were still involved in the system and I could see that nothing had changed – if anything it had got worse. I felt I should speak out to help other people get closure and help instigate change for future athletes so that girls starting rowing now won’t have to go through what I and others have gone through.”

Initially, Taylor says she feared not being taken seriously – or worse, that no one would care. But she took heart from the experiences of GB track cyclist, Jess Varnish, whose own experiences were widely reported by the media and taken seriously by the relevant governing bodies. “When that happened I thought maybe people are changing their mindsets about women’s sport. I had always promised myself that if anyone asked me to tell my story then I would. So when I was prompted by Laura [Winter who broke Taylor’s story initially], I felt this was my opportunity. I felt a bit bad about it being so close to the Rio Olympics, but then again, it’s women’s rowing – no one really cares about it that much until Olympic year. In some ways it was perfect timing.”

There have been numerous times over the last seven months when Taylor has asked herself whether her efforts would make any difference? How does she feel then, now that she has seen the outcome of the review and Thompson remains in his powerful position at British Rowing?

“I’ve got mixed feelings. Paul is a fantastic technical coach, but he is just not a people-manager. As strongly as I feel about him, though, I don’t feel so bad about him still being in the system as long as he cannot behave in the way he has done before. British Rowing have kept their cards so close to their chest that I don’t know if he’s been spoken to or disciplined in any way. But I absolutely stand by what I’ve said and I’m sure there are many other athletes out there who agree with me.

“But if what I’ve done has had any kind of positive impact in making a cultural change then I can be happy with that. Now I just have to hope the review results in some change. I have to hand over the baton and hope that someone who is still in the system will make sure that if things start going wrong again they speak out, too.

“When I first met with Andy [Parkinson] I said I would never recommend to any girl I knew that they start rowing at this point in time. He said he wants to make sure that changes in the future. That’s what I hope this will achieve so that no one else will experience what I and others have been through again.”

To read Laura Winter’s original story about Emily Taylor’s allegations, CLICK HERE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Shephard is features editor at Sport magazine, where she has worked since October 2006, joining the staff initially as a writer. In December 2012 she was named Writer of the Year at the UTV Media Awards. The following year she ghosted the autobiography of British gymnast, Louis Smith. Her second book, Kicking Off: How Women in Sport are Changing the Game, is published by Bloomsbury on March 10 2016. Sarah’s latest articles

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