Who is Stephen Park, British Cycling’s new performance director?
Former Olympic sailor arrives at cycling's national federation in time to steady the ship
Stephen Park has hardly leapt from a metaphorical frying pan in leaving the Royal Yachting Association after a hugely successful 15-year tenure as Olympic Team Manager.
But in joining British Cycling as performance director, an appointment confirmed shortly before the close of 2016, and which he will occupy from Spring 2017, he might be said to jumping into the fire.
Nevertheless, with cycling’s national governing body shrouded by recent controversies, the appointment of ‘Sparky’, a former Olympic sailor, could be the perfect tonic.
Cycling’s national federation has known happier times. Sir Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s last permanent performance director, and Shane Sutton, his right-hand man and de facto successor, albeit beneath the title of Technical Director, both appeared in front of the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport shortly before Christmas. [Programmes Director Andy Harrison temporarily replaced Sutton when the latter stepped down last April to fight allegations of sexism, and was later cleared by UK Sport of eight of nine charges against him].
Their handling of an ongoing UKAD investigation into “allegations of wrongdoing within cycling”, and especially of MPs’ questions concerning the contents of the so-called mystery medical package delivered by Simon Cope to the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné and administered to Bradley Wiggins by Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman, has been woeful.
The performance before the same committee of Park’s new boss, Bob Howden, the president and chairman of British Cycling, was scarcely better. Much of the luster has been lost from the so-called medal factory in Manchester, and Team Sky’s vaunted ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ now seems little more than a strapline.
In this regard, Park’s appointment, when he takes over as performance chief, might be fortuitous. British Cycling will be keen to present a fresh face.
HSBC’s replacement of Sky as principle sponsor from January 1, 2017, has also come not a moment too soon.
One imagines that the federation is now keen to place as much clear blue water between itself and Brailsford’s WorldTour team as possible (though it was advised to do so as long ago as 2011, in a report it commissioned from Deloitte). Park may be well-placed to help them do just that.
With more than a little focus on success, the Glasgow-born Park has left the RYA with an impressive legacy. Having represented Great Britain at two Olympic Games, and in two separate sailing classes, he will bring to British Cycling a keen understanding of the athlete’s perspective. He will know from personal experience the demands made by elite sport and the sacrifices required.
His greater experience, however, comes as a coach, and here too his experience is likely to prove valuable. He worked in a full-time capacity on the RYA’s Olympic Programme since 1997, a period in which British sailors won more medals than any other nation at every Games from 2000 to 2012. Most recently, at Rio 2016, Great Britain again topped the medal table.
Even so, the cycling job will bring greater expectation. Great Britain’s sailors topped the table in Rio with a haul of three medals from 10 events (two golds and one silver). The cycling team, however, came home with 12 medals from 18 events – half of them gold.
Cycling’s profile is higher, too. How will Park cope with the increased scrutiny? No sooner does one generation of household names retire (Wiggins’ timely departure after a fifth gold in Rio and last hurrah at the Ghent Six the most recent; Hoy and Pendleton after London 2012), than another emerges, with the ‘golden couple’ status and CBEs conferred upon Jason and Laura Kenny one of the few good news stories for the beleaguered cycling federation in recent months. Sir Ben Ainslie is the only sailor of comparable public profile.
Then there is the strategic importance of a performance director to consider. Since the Beijing Games of 2008, elite performance has been the engine room that has driven British Cycling’s success, with medals attracting Lottery funding and commercial sponsorship.
But with Brailsford and Sutton, the architects of this recent success, damaged in the public mind, will the federation seek to focus its activities and persona on advocacy for the everyday cyclist, where the debate on safe cycling, steered with characteristic aplomb by Chris Boardman, is now at tipping point?
Should the focus in Manchester remain on winning medals, Park will need to prove himself quickly, though he won Boardman’s backing at the interview stage.
A lifelong sailor with a passion for motorcars, he will need to show that he understands the art and science of elite cycling, where the physiological component is by far the most significant.
A Formula One fan, Park will find much to discuss with former Red Bull team principal Tony Purnell, now British Cycling’s technical chief, but it is to the likes of Iain Dyer and Heiko Salzwedel that he must pay the closest attention.
Purnell might serve as useful model: one who has transferred skills from an entirely different sport to bring success to the national cycling team, even if the most advanced bicycle can hardly compare to the sophistication of a Formula One car.
Experience within cycling is important, but it is clearly not everything, evidenced by Purnell’s ability to gain the confidence of athletes like Mark Cavendish. The Manxman rode his English Institute of Sport bike to World Championship glory with Wiggins in London last March, but by Rio was on Purnell’s Cervélo-branded machine.
Further evidence for the technocrat model can be found in the success achieved by Sir Clive Woodward with the England rugby team, winning the World Cup in 2003, and in Woodward’s subsequent success in the performance director role at the British Olympic Association.
Park will begin his new appointment with a significant head start in the off-track machinations of elite performance: in the winning of hearts and minds within the Manchester Velodrome and the battle for funding beyond.
He knows what it takes to focus a large organisation on success and in this regard the substitution of boats for bikes is unlikely to hamper him.
Park will start his new job in the earliest phase of the Olympic cycle for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Barring disaster, he will end the cycle in the same position, even if the good ship British Cycling, once so impervious to the tides of fortune, finds itself adrift in deep and choppy waters (Ian Drake, the federation’s long-term CEO, will leave the helm in April). The appointment of a sailor, and such a successful one at that, might prove to be timely indeed.
Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.