By Steven Downes
Probably the greatest achievement by a British triathlete in the brief history of the sport seems likely to be overshadowed by the revelation that Chrissie Wellington, winner this month of the toughest race on the planet, the Hawaii Ironman, is being coached by a convicted paedophile.
Wellingtonâ€™s emergence in the past year as a world-class performer has been nothing short of fantastic. The 30-year-old has transformed herself from being a civil servant who did some running and cycling to keep herself fit, into the winner of a $100,000 first-prize cheque as she beat a field of experienced professional triathletes through swimming 2Â½ miles in the rough swells of the Pacific Ocean, cycling 112 miles up and down a Hawaiian volcano, and finishing off with one of the fastest 26-mile 385-yard marathon runs ever produced by a woman in the 30 years the event has been staged.
â€œIt’s been a really steep learning curve for me,â€ Wellington said after the race, which she finished in 9hr 8min 45sec, the second fastest time on the gruelling course for a decade. Remarkably, it was only Wellingtonâ€™s second attempt at the Ironman distance, as she qualified for the annual world championship in Hawaii just eight weeks earlier, when she had won a race in Korea in 9:54:37.
But after her victory, officials at the British Triathlon Federation have had their efforts to maximise publicity for their sport frustrated, as instead of flying to London and appearing on daytime TV chat shows to talk about her success, Wellington has been difficult to contact, believed to be in Singapore with her coach, the Australian, Brett Sutton, and her teamâ€™s sponsors.
Privately, insiders have been voicing concerns that Wellingtonâ€™s breakthrough will not only go unnoticed by the broader British media, but because of the influence of her coach and her Asian-based backers, she might also miss out on the chance to bid for a medal at next yearâ€™s Beijing Olympics.
Since February, the woman from Suffolk has been dividing her time between training bases in Switzerland and Thailand, where she has been working under the guidance of Sutton.
Some in triathlon acclaim Sutton as the worldâ€™s greatest coach.
To others, he remains notorious as the former highly paid national triathlon coach in Australia who in 1999 was arrested on 10 counts of sex with a teenaged girl.
In court, Sutton pleaded guilty to five offences – those that he had been secretly taped admitting to in a phone conversation – but he declined to give any evidence. This meant his victim never had to endure cross-examination. It also allowed Sutton’s lawyer, in his plea for mitigation, to make assertions about consensual sex with the 14-year-old which could never be challenged in court, and which Sutton and his supporters have been able to repeat ever since.
Sutton never even served a jail sentence. The Australian judge, despite saying that Sutton had â€œinterfered with her sexually in a gross and disgraceful wayâ€ and â€œabused [his] role to an inexcusable degreeâ€, opted to pass down a two-year sentence which was suspended because â€œa large number of leading athletes will suffer disadvantage from your absence from the sceneâ€. In effect, the judge did not want Sutton to go to jail and cost Australia any medals at the Sydney Olympics.
Since then, Sutton, now 47, has lived a peripatetic existence. Banned for life as a coach in Australia and denied a work permit anywhere in the European Union, he has set up training camps in a remote Alpine village and more recently in Thailand. In the past, he has charged the athletes who train with him at least $1,000 per month.
Sutton has a messianic hold over some of his athletes, many of whom defend his reputation despite the conviction. They adopt his training unquestioningly. In Australia, Sutton’s group was dubbed â€œThe Sectâ€.
Suttonâ€™s training group also includes Scotlandâ€™s Bella Comerford, the 2006 world long-course champion, and Andrew Johns, Britainâ€™s former European champion. All three Britons receive some degree of Lottery funding, although this is at a low level for Wellington and Comerford.
A BTF spokesman said this week, â€œNone of these athletes receive funding to fund their coaching by Mr Sutton.
â€œAll these athletes made a personal choice in selecting Mr Sutton as a coach and did not consult the British Triathlon Federation in reaching that decision.â€
For as well as his paedophilia conviction, Suttonâ€™s coaching methods and his behaviour towards his athletes, particularly women, has been described as â€œbrutalâ€, and â€œremorseless and dangerousâ€. One senior woman triathlete who once trained with Sutton, and has won international titles since, said, â€œHe fucks with your head.
â€œI was young then, growing up, developing, having boyfriends, and he uses all that against you.â€
Sutton is known to have used questionable techniques, such as daily weigh-ins of his athletes – a policy known to encourage disordered eating – and to deny his athletes fluids during training sessions, which he claims helps them to adapt to dehydration in race conditions. Sports science experts warn repeated and regular dehydration can cause long-term health problems, event death.
Over the years, as well as producing around 20 world champions at various events, Sutton has seen several of his athletes forced to retire from sport prematurely due to chronic injuries linked to over-training or eating disorders.
â€œIf you took a dozen eggs and threw them against a wall,â€ one critic says, â€œchances are, one or two might not smash. That’s his training philosophy, but the eggs are his athletes.â€
Sutton forbids masseurs or physios from visiting his athletes, sometimes preferring to offer massage himself. Nor does he use lactate testing or pulse monitors, basic tools for most modern coaches. Sports science, he has said, â€œis full of too many losers with their theories about losingâ€.
Professor Celia Brackenridge, who has recently headed up a Unicef review on child abuse in sport, has been aware of Sutton for some time. â€œHis coaching practices are typical of that controlling form of behaviour,â€ she says. She expressed concern that Sutton was allowed to coach at all, â€œI know from working on sex offender treatments that it is hard enough to change the behaviour of a person with proper treatment.
â€œBut as far as Sutton is concerned, he probably feels that he has got away with it so far.â€
This is an edited version of an article published last week by the Sunday Herald