Alan Hubbard

Back in February 1976 when I edited the magazine Sportsworld, then the official publication of the British Olympic Association, I received a telephone call from a Melbourne radio station in the middle of the night following the British figure skater John Curry’s breathtakingly artistic gold medal-winning performance in the Innsbruck Winter Games.  

"Hi," said an Aussie voice. "We’ve all been watching your guy John Curry win the Olympics. Isn’t he something? Understand you know him quite well." I concurred that indeed I did.

"Great. Look, mate, would you mind telling us a bit more about him – we’re all keen to know. Can we go live with an interview now?" "No problem," I replied.

"Okay,” he told his listeners..."We’ve got Alan Hubbard, editor of Sportsworld magazine live from London, who knows this Pommie skater John Curry we’re all talking about... tell me Alan, is he a poofter?"

I recall I quickly mumbled something about his sexual orientation being his own business. "Well," came the response, "he sure looks a poofter from here!"

Thankfully, things have moved on since then – even in Australia, though maybe not quite as much as in the UK – where to some of us old schoolers the current kowtowing to PC seems just a tad OTT.

I was reminded of that Aussie interviewer amid the kerfuffle involving British Cycling and its now departed technical director and head coach, Shane Sutton.

He happens to be Australian, and Aussies remain renowned for not pulling their verbal punches.

I remember another incident during the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain when a colleague was telephoned by a newspaper in Australia and bluntly asked whether the match between West Germany and Austria (when a win by one or two goals for West Germany - it was 1-0 - would result in both them and Austria qualifying at the expense of Algeria),  was "bent". He responded that he wouldn’t like to say. "Well mate," came the reply, "it sure looked bent from here!" 

Shane Sutton's resignation has caused a storm in British sport
Shane Sutton's resignation has caused a storm in British sport ©Getty Images

If you believe what certain British cyclists are saying about what Sutton is alleged to have said about them then some might shrug and say, "Well, he is an Aussie."

Sutton resigned last week, 100 days before the Rio 2016 Olympic Opening Ceremony, after allegations that he bullied athletes, made sexist remarks, suggested that female cyclist Jess Varnish would be better off having a baby and that she had "a fat ass", and disparaged Paralympian bikers, calling them "gimps and wobblies".  All of which he denies.

Coming from a nation who are world champions at sledging (outrageously dissing opponents) on the cricket field it would be easy to believe that Sutton is simply true to type.

But sport is a hard, uncompromising business these days and it often takes hard, uncompromising coaches to get results, with sensitivities quite often trodden on. Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough were prime examples of this.

So was another Australian, the late Arthur Tunstall who became notorious for his bawdy outspokenness during his tenures as Australia’s boxing coach and also Chef de Mission at Olympics and Commonwealth Games. 

Arguably the most controversial figure in Australian sport, Tunstall spent more than 60 years involved in Australian boxing in various capacities and was an Olympic official from 1960 until 2000. He called everyone "pal" whether friend or not.

Feisty and dogged, he was in one scrap after another all his life until he passed away in Woollahra in Sydney in February of this year aged 93. He occasionally scuffled with reporters and was once bashed over the head with a laptop computer by a disgruntled Samoan boxer at the Sydney Olympic trials.

Ironic that the offending weapon should be a PC - something Tunstall certainly wasn’t.

“C’mon then, let’s go and see the ****” was how he invited a group of us wanting to interview a celebrated Aussie superstar athlete during the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

He was frequently the centre of controversy over jokes that were labelled racist and for his tough discipline against athletes who refused to toe his line.

"I don’t believe in political correctness," he once said. "I’m of the old tribe and if I want to say something, I say it."

At the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games, he suggested New Zealand be considered the seventh and eighth states of Australia.

He sparked an international incident when as Chef de Mission to the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton in Canada he threatened to send Cathy Freeman home for carrying the Aboriginal flag in her victory laps after the 200 metres and 400m, saying that all Australians had to compete under the one flag.

As a media storm erupted around him, Tunstall explained that he was just enforcing the rules that applied to all athletes, adding: "I didn’t even know what the Aboriginal flag bloody looked like."

Australian official Arthur Tunstall caused controversy with comments about Cathy Freeman's use of the Aboriginal flag at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria ©Getty Images
Australian official Arthur Tunstall caused controversy with comments about Cathy Freeman's use of the Aboriginal flag at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria ©Getty Images

Freeman and Tunstall reconciled, though, and filmed a tea commercial in 1998 in which Tunstall, asked by Freeman how he’d like his brew served, delivered the punchline “Black is fine, thanks Cathy.’’

He was made an OBE in 1979 but he also made many enemies and even into his 80s told Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper he was planning to "get square with those bastards" who had voted him out of his job as the secretary/treasurer of the Amateur Boxing Union of Australia, a position he held from 1953 to 1999.

No-one is suggesting that Shane Sutton is a latter-day dinosaur like dear old Arthur Tunstall but he stands in the dock as British Cycling instigates an independent review into its performance programmes following Varnish's comments.

Dropped from the squad after failing to qualify for the sprint team for Rio 2016, she said she spoke out against Sutton in order to change attitudes at British Cycling.

Yet Sutton certainly has his supporters as well as detractors. The former includes Sir Bradley Wiggins, who says: "He’s a bit like Jose Mourinho. He speaks from the hip and he doesn’t mind upsetting people.

"He says it how it is and people either like that or they hate it. But when he’s on your side he’s 100 per cent behind you and he will give you the world. He’s the kind of guy you want in the trenches with you when you’re in these battles."

Bill Sweetenham, another hard-line Aussie who resigned as British Swimming performance director in 2007 having been cleared of allegations of bullying, is confident Sutton used methods intended to "get the result that's best for the athlete," adding: "If he's done something that is inappropriate but is not going to ruin GB's chances, slap him on the wrist if necessary but keep him in to get the job done."

Sutton’s track record is exemplary in helping transform cycling into Britain’s most successful Olympic sport since his arrival in 2002.

One hopes the wheels are not coming off. Maybe what is needed is culture change rather than regime change.