Monday, 17 December 2018 15:58

GB Climbing teams in chaos over funding and communications failures

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With the 2018/19 UIAA ice climbing Combined World Championships kicking off in Moscow the GB Ice Climbing Team is in a state of chaos, with suspensions, funding issues and serious communication problems.

There was no GB representation at Moscow and there are serious questions over any representation at the remaining 2018/19 World Cup events. While the BMC, who share “control” of the team with Mountaineering Scotland, were advertising for a Team Manager and announcing new team sponsors in Montane, members of the existing team were turning their backs on participating.

With allegation flying on social media we looked to speak to someone from inside the Ice climbing team and got the opportunity to speak to Steve Johnstone, Team Manager from 2014 up until he found out his voluntary position was being advertised this year. Prior to managing the team he represented GB for 10 years as an athlete.

The Thunderdome route

Ice Climbing at Buxton's Devonshire Dome in 2014

Sources close to the BMC have revealed that behind the scenes the situation arose due to a disagreement between “strong characters” over the selection process with accusations of favouritism. It is understood that a complaint was made to MS claiming there was a lack of transparency in the selection process with one athlete selected ahead of another “for no justifiable reason”. At this point it would appear communication between the BMC, MS and the existing GB Team broke down completely.

 A change to the previous situation

In a statement from the BMC, Zoe Spriggins, Competitions Programme Manager, reveals that “ The GB Ice Climbing Team is now run by the BMC and Mountaineering Scotland, and it’s important that there are transparent selection policies in line with the other GB Climbing Teams. A decision was made to put the GB Ice Climbing Team on hold until the team governance could be addressed, and we now have new selection procedures in place and are advertising for a new volunteer team manager. I fully understand that this is a change to the previous situation and believe that full clarity in the selection process will benefit both everyone on the team and its future development.” 

Steve Johnstone claims that he was never told he was no longer the manager, but heard the team was being “looked in to” by the BMC and MS and it was only when he spoke to someone at Mountaineering Scotland that he was told the team was being restarted. A week later and still with no official contact from the BMC he saw the recent post looking for new team members and someone to manage the team.

“The ice climbing / dry tooling community in the UK is a small one”, says Johnstone, and while he is “always on the lookout for new talent” he feels that over the four years of his tenure he has built a close-knit team who are progressing on the international stage and are ready to “compete at the level required”.

Dave Bowes

British paraclimber Dave Bowes on the Buxton ice-climb route in 2014

Until you've been there, been "spanked" by it and used that to learn from the team will struggle to qualify

“Within the BMC there have been some changes in the competition team, and when one particular employee left it seemed to leave a void”, Steve Johnstone explained. As there had never been one he wrote a set of criteria for athletes to be part of the team based on his 14 years’ experience as a competitor and manager. Johnstone explained "I just know when I see someone climb if they'll be able to make it at an event such as Saas-Fee. Until you've been there, been "spanked" by it and used that to learn from the team will struggle to qualify through the first round. Being able to flash every route on the UK British Tooling series doesn't mean a competitor is ready for the World stage”

Sources close to the team, or ex-team, say that while superficially the argument is a clash of personalities and selection it’s indicative of deeper issues with the governing bodies. After months of training as a team the decision to suspend the team was never, it’s claimed, communicated to the athletes or Manager. The first existing team members claim to have heard of the “new criteria” for selection was when they appeared unannounced on the BMC website alongside an “invitation” to anyone to apply – “you think you’ve got what it takes to compete for the GB Ice Climbing Team, then why not apply? The deadline for applying for the 2019 team is 2 January 2019. Full details here.” (After working last week, the link has mysteriously broken today 17/12/18). This is at odds with the BMC’s Competitions Programme Manager who states: “I’m contacting the existing team athletes individually to listen to their feedback and make sure that everyone is ready for what’s sure to be a fantastic 2019 season.”

Other issues our sources revealed include a perceived lack of funding and claims that Official Team GB kit failed to reach athletes. Identical claims have also been heard from sources in the GB Paraclimbing Team, although they have a different funding model and “kit list”. Although the BMC cannot confirm the figures, due to business sensitivity, it is believed that the Ice Climbing Team only have a budget of £4000 per year (excluding official clothing) and the Paraclimbing Team have a budget of £18,000. Despite the assertion that the BMC want to make sure that everyone is ready for what’s sure to be a fantastic 2019 season” the departing Team Manager, Steve Johnstone, claims to have been told that “the existing budget will be used solely for training expenses, not for travel to competitions.”

UIAA ice comp 1

Moscow Ice Climbing World Championships 2018 Image:© UIAA/Eugenia Aleekseva

The team was previously run through volunteers and produced some very dedicated athletes

Responding to the funding issues the BMC Competitions Programme Manager said “In a similar situation to the GB Climbing Team and the GB Paraclimbing Team, the GB Ice Climbing Team is run on a limited budget, and we’re hoping that the exposure of the 2020 Olympics will attract more interest and sponsorship. However, the reality is that the GB Ice Climbing Team currently operates with a small amount of funding from the BMC with Montane coming on board as the official kit sponsor for the next two seasons. The team was previously run through volunteers and produced some very dedicated athletes – including Emma Powell who came third in the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup in 2016.”

While the Ice Climbing Team’s 2018/19 season is in doubt both with a lack of funding and confusion, the Paraclimbing Team’s season appears to be over after a single event. Commenting on the 2019 season, Zoe Spriggins said: “The GB Paraclimbing Team is extremely strong at the moment, thanks to the dedication of our exceptional athletes, our committed support team of manager Robin O’Leary and coach Belinder Fuller and the three-year support of our two joint sponsors: The Quay Climbing Centre and Oakwood Climbing Centre.

The current sponsorship funding provides support to help the GB Paraclimbing Team compete internationally, however with 15 athletes and two coaches, there is a significant cost in sending the full team to events and decisions have to made on where to concentrate our resources. This year, it was felt that the World Championships in Innsbruck was the key event for the team and the 2018 budget was spent fully funding attendance at this eight-day event to achieve a major medal haul: an astounding five medals and three world titles.

Members of the GB Paraclimbing Team vary and the team will be re-selected at an open selection event scheduled to take place at The Quay Climbing Centre in March 2019. The plans for 2019 will depend on the budget and the final IFSC calendar, which has not been released yet.”

As with the Ice Climbing Team there have been complaints regarding the distribution of official clothing with claims that athletes have been told, during competition, “you only need a vest to comply with the ID rules” whilst non-athlete team members have fleeces and backpacks. In response to these complaints the BMC has responded with a statement that “We are very grateful for the support of Berghaus, who provide clothing for both the GB Climbing Team and the GB Paraclimbing Team. It’s key to emphasise that GB Climbing Team members are not just our amazing athletes, but also the highly dedicated managers, and chaperones for youth competitors, who all work voluntarily to support the team. Without these volunteers, many events would just not be possible, and so any team sponsorship also has to cover their travel expenses. Official kit is provided to the athletes and team managers, as they are required to wear it by IFSC rules in order to be identified. This year, the team received their kit at the start of the season: vests, a mid layer and a jacket.  “The Paraclimbing Team clothing is recognisably different as it features specific logos of The Quay Climbing Centre and Oakwood Climbing Centre through the three-year joint sponsorship deal, and is only worn by the Paraclimbing Team”

What is clear, having spoken to multiple sources within and close to the two teams is that there are serious problems with communication and questions over transparency over funding and clothing distribution. While the GB climbing teams have been volunteer led and staffed with the elevation of sport climbing to Olympic status and ice climbing to the Beijing Winter Olympics, everything’s changed. With £192,500 from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Aspiration Fund the funding regime is changing dramatically. Although this funding is targeted “to support specific athletes with potential for 2020 in terms of international travel” this level of investment requires a move from volunteer-managed teams to something on a more professional level. While there has to be clarity and transparency in team selection there has to be the same degree of transparency when it comes to communication.

Anna Wells 2

Anna Wells in action

As this editorial was being compiled we heard from the BMC that Montane have signed up to sponsor the GB climbing teams for 2 years with clothing and a statement that We’re currently seeking sponsors for two of the major British competition events of 2019: the British Lead Climbing Series and the European Youth Championships at Ratho in the autumn. We are also actively looking to capitalise on the 2020 Olympics to attract a major new GB Climbing Team sponsor.”

“Sponsors are required to make the national competitions commercially viable, especially as livestreaming is now expected. If a major new GB Climbing Team/s sponsor came on board then, yes, that would change the level of support across the teams.”

Team Managers and ex managers are confused over the funding available and how it’s being used and feels decisions are being dictated rather than taken after consultation. Athletes have been left in the dark and even if they were able to self-fund, they’re unable to register or take part in international competition due to lack of licences from the BMC. (It’s claimed that even prior to the recent suspension of the team athletes would regularly receive their licenses late, with some athletes not receiving them until they arrived at the venue thousands of miles from home).

UIAA ice comp 2

Moscow Ice Climbing World Championships 2018 Image:© UIAA/Eugenia Aleekseva

The result of mixed messages, and communication through press release and social media, is chaos

In the BMC’s own words The team (GB Ice Climbing Team) was previously run through volunteers and produced some very dedicated athletes – including Emma Powell who came third in the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup in 2016.”. The implication in this statement is that the team is no longer going to be “run through volunteers” – if that’s the case why does the advert for a new Team Manager state that it’s voluntary? The result of such mixed messages, and communication through press release and social media, is chaos – and chaos at a time when our paraclimbing team are having unprecedented success, our sport climbing team are preparing for an Olympic debut and the ice-climbing team should be preparing for Beijing 2022. The BMC have responded with a statement that The team was previously run entirely through the volunteers, but is now being run by the BMC and Mountaineering Scotland with support from volunteers” although how this changes anything is unclear given that the “new” Team Manager will still be a voluntary position and the position of Competitions Programme Manager doesn’t appear to have changed.

“While wishing his successor good luck Steve Johnstone says he is now “content to walk away”, and sources across the para and ice climbing teams have indicated he won’t be alone. It’s hoped that the appointment of a new Team Manager, as advertised for, will bring some clarity but their first job will have to be to address communication with the BMC and MS. Volunteers ask very little in return for their service, but they deserve clarity, transparency and fair treatment – and those are attributes they feel are lacking after recent events.