Heron Report: Cycling NZ's toxic culture of bullying, lack of accountability and poor leadership

The Heron Report is out and it doesn't make kind reading for Cycling New Zealand (CNZ).

After the fallout from former head sprint coach Anthony Peden's resignation in May, High Performance Sport (HPSNZ) and CNZ implemented an independent review, headed by Michael Heron QC.

The review findings have been released, outlining a culture that lacked consequences for poor behaviour, a lack of accountability and provided "sub-optimal leadership".

The report was damning of Cycling NZ, claiming the organisation was primarily responsible for the toxic culture within the track team.

Heron also questions whether HPSNZ adequately protects the welfare of athletes across all sports and has urged for a review into how the organisation deals with athlete concerns.

Heron is satisfied allegations against coach Anthony Peden were true, including several instances of bullying by Peden and some senior members of both the men's and women's programme.

Heron also found evidence that an intimate relationship existed between the coach and a female cyclist, dating back to early 2016. That relationship was never disclosed to CNZ.

Heron identified several concerning examples including:

  • Pressure on athletes to give false accounts
  • A staff member sent aggressive text by Peden regarding his inappropriate relationship with a female cyclist
  • A female cyclist belittled by Peden and squad members for raising concerns with coach
  • A prank email sent to young rider, saying he was removed from the programme
  • Fat-shaming of one cyclist
  • Exclusion of anyone who disagreed with Peden's methods

The report states there was a worrying lack of accountability and effective leadership within the programme, outlining several factors including:

  • The personality of the coach
  • The programme’s culture - a reluctance to surface issues, which in turn led to a lack of reliable evidence
  • A lack of human resources capability within CNZ
  • The workload of the chief executive, taking on roles outside his primary responsibility
  • The perception of an 'old boys club' that prevented management from holding coaches, consultants and athletes to account for poor behaviour

Heron accuses CNZ of failing to react adequately to issues raised by athletes, even ignoring some issues by claiming a lack of evidence, when evidence existed. That responsibility fell at the feet of the CEO and the board.

HPSNZ doesn’t escape criticism from Heron either.

The 2016 Rio Olympic debrief was unduly complex and incoherent. Heron feels the collective information revealed serious problems with the cycling programme, which the HPSNZ board and leadership should have been aware of.

Heron believes the HPSNZ needs to take some responsibility for the cultural and leadership issues raised in the review.

Heron's recommendations include:

  • Sport NZ, HPSNA and CNZ to address current issues relating to high performance athletes, coaches and support staff
  • Sport NZ and HPSNZ to develop an athlete-safeguarding policy consistent with good international practice
  • CNZ to then implement a similar policy
  • Sport NZ and HPSNZ to reconsider their funding model to ensure national sporting organisations’ primary accountability for athlete welfare can be met (Herron raised concerns that the current model can lead to a win-at-all-costs attitude)
  • Reaffirm alcohol policy
  • CNZ to review recruitment approach and credentials of its coaching team

Although Peden wasn't involved in the review by choice, he did respond through his lawyer, claiming the report was grossly inaccurate in many aspects, based on unreliable and inaccurate evidence, and questioning the validity of Heron's findings.