In hindsight, a curt tweet publicly admonishing Jamie Nicholls for bad language wasn’t the best way for new BSS Performance Director Paddy Mortimer to introduce himself to the UK snowboarding community. These days, it’s never been easier to whip up a Twitchfork-wielding mob, and the digital response from the UK scene was predictable. Soon, everyone from Ed Leigh to Dalikfodda’s Ian Ashmore was weighing in. Check this Whitelines blog for a handy summary.
Now it goes without saying that Mortimer’s tweet was epically misjudged on a number of levels. There was that cringeworthy diction and phrasing – which referred to one of our most internationally respected and successful riders as a ‘tryout GB athlete’ – for a start.
Secondly, it also betrayed zero understanding of Jamie’s character, as many people rushed to point out. Let’s remember that Jamie Nicholls is one of the UK’s most loved and respected snowboarders. He’s been in the limelight since he was a young boy, and everybody is justly proud of the way he’s risen to the top of the sport while remaining the same open, friendly kid.
No wonder his supporters are protective of him. Particularly when his Performance Director, a man you would expect to get this, seems to completely misunderstand the character and standing of his athlete – surely a far greater and potentially more damaging oversight than Jamie’s fairly innocuous tweet.
Thirdly, Paddy Mortimer could not have pushed the buttons of a suspicious snowboarding community, who’ve spent the last 15 years being damagingly misunderstood by people with zero understanding of the sport, any more effectively if he’d tried.
Given Mortimer’s background in rugby and football, a slight culture clash is perhaps forgivable. But again, you would expect a presumably well-paid Performance Director of the British Snow Sports Association to have at least some kind of understanding of the long-term issues here. It’s not like it hasn’t been well-documented, or he isn’t working with people that have an intimate knowledge of the situation. Try asking – I don’t know – Lesley McKenna maybe? If anything, it makes you fear for the effectiveness of the BSS as an organisation as whole. These are the people in charge of helping Jamie, Billy and the others get to the Olympics?
So the vociferous reaction of the snowboarding community was understandable. But for me the most interesting thing about the whole storm-in-a-Twit-cup was the point Mortimer was obviously trying to make about the standards of professionalism expected by a ‘GB funded’ snowboarder.
Because that’s the reality of the snowboarding and professional sporting world that Jamie Nicholls (and peers such as Billy Morgan and Jenny Jones) now finds himself in. If Jamie wants to go to the Olympics, he’s going to come across a lot of people like Paddy Mortimer in the next year. And it’s quite likely he’ll face way harsher criticism than Paddy’s ill-advised tweet.
In that light, wouldn’t it make more sense to actually try and understand what Paddy Mortimer is actually on about? Not least for Jamie’s benefit? I think it would.
So I contacted Paddy Mortimer for a chat about the whole thing. Here’s what he had to say.
Were you surprised at the reaction your Tweet caused?
Yes I was.
Do you have any idea why people reacted so badly?
Well, yes. I do now, especially after speaking to Lesley McKenna and Colin Holden (BSS British Snowboard Director). I mean, I want to try and understand snowboarding, but clearly I got it very wrong in this case. I come from team sports, and obviously there are big cultural differences here. That’s why the BSS have brought me in as Performance Director in a way, because I wouldn’t come with previous baggage. And I have championed and been single-minded about championing snowboarding and freestyle skiing at the highest levels of UK Sport ever since.
Do you accept it was misjudged to communicate in this way?
Yes. I would agree that my actions were misjudged. That’s painfully obvious. I won’t be doing it again. I’m willing to admit my mistakes. After all, I’m asking athletes to admit mistakes so they can move forward and learn lessons. If I can’t do that as Performance Director, then how can I ask them to?
Can you explain the point you were trying to make?
Simply this – we have worked very hard – well, people like Hamish (McKnight, UK snowboarding coach), Lesley and Pat Sharples (UK ski coach) and all the athletes – have worked hard for a number of years to get to this position and to get this level of public funding. And I know the corporate nature of funding agencies, and I know they do not enjoy language like that. Personally, I can’t use language like this publicly because of the position I’m in. In a way, I act as the intermediary between the corporate world and the freesports world. That is a very difficult line to tread. I’m not perfect at it.
I think language like ‘the corporate nature of funding agencies’ is the kind of thing that gets snowboarders’ backs up. Who are these ‘funding agencies’, and why do wield such power?
They’re the people that pay their taxes. The middle classes, and they’re not comfortable with this unfortunately. UK sport money comes from the government, and that money comes from people paying their taxes. And once you’re awarded that money, you’re in the public eye. The Daily Mail, for example, will get hold of a story like this and write ‘We’re funding people like this to have a good lifestyle in the mountains’. They will pick up on this. It happens in all sports. And I don’t want us to be subjected to that. I mean, I get that snowboarding is different from other sports on a fundamental level. But unfortunately that’s not the way the mainstream sees it just yet. And we have to be aware of that.
Yet Jamie would seem to be the perfect role model. As Whitelines put it, ‘ If Jamie Nicholls isn’t squeaky clean enough for official-dom, then who the hell is?’
Yeah he’s a lovely young man. I can see he’s an absolute role model. But if that feed got into the wrong hands, then he’ll be portrayed as an oik. The mainstream media don’t deal in nuances. They deal in broad strokes. I know what this can do.
Like I say, I know there are people who think this has nothing to do with snowboarding and that we should walk away, but the fact is that there are some people that do want to compete, who want to go the Olympics. Like Jamie and Billy. There should be room for both sets of people in my view.
The other point is that, the more positively we represent this to the public, the more funding we can get. And that means more funding at a grass-roots level. More skateparks. More kids being encouraged by their parents to do these sports. That means kids off the streets. It’s all positive. You know, I’ve got two kids under ten. They don’t play football or rugby. They scoot. They skate. And there currently aren’t many facilities for them to do that safely.
So what do you have to deliver to get this funding? And how much have we been awarded?
Like I say, we’re under scrutiny here. We’ve been given £300,000, and there are certain things they’ll look for after Sochi when they come to decide how much money we get in the future. Most of the time, it is simple – did you win a medal? But in our case, we’re actually being judged on slightly different criteria. Have we got a good performance structure in place? Did we spend the cash well to help the athletes? And – this is the key – did we improve the skill level? Because we’ve made the case that judging us on medals won’t work for action sports. We need to take the time to support the riders to get them in a position where they can challenge, first and foremost. And then if we get into the finals – and, fingers crossed, even win something – our funding could double or treble for 2018. At the moment, bobsleigh get £2 or £3 million, and I’d rather that money went to our sports.
A lot of people made the point that Jamie’s progress to this point has little to do with BSS and everything to do with his long term commercial sponsors such as Nike and Red Bull. So if anything, he is answerable to them. Presumably that is a similar for all GB athletes. How do you try and balance these potentially conflicting responsibilities, especially in a sport like snowboarding, where there are two very different agendas at work?
Well, all athletes sign a UK Sport agreement when they accept the money, and part of that agreement is that they act in a very professional manner. These guidelines include social media, and part of that is that use of liberal language is frowned upon. I take your point about Jamie, but there are plenty of example of other riders who haven’t had anywhere near the level of commercial support that he has. Billy Morgan, for one. I think the public money Billy is receiving will help him to continue. Katie Summerhayes is another. I know from speaking to them and their parents that it’s difficult to find the money. So the money we can give Billy helps take the sting out of it a bit. And that should enable Billy to get more commercial opportunities, and then hopefully it starts to escalate. And we can help them in other ways as well, with media opportunities, which is also working. Billy and Jamie have been interviewed on 5 Live, they’re on the BBC Sport website. It’s starting to encroach upon the mainstream.
What’s the role of a Performance Director? How will you help Jamie, Billy and the others achieve their goals?
My primary role is to support Hamish support the riders in the best way he can. I need to make sure all the services we can provide for each individual are appropriate. And I have to find funding. And I have to be answerable for the results we get to the people that provide the funding. Overall though, I try to the guys that know best -Lesley McKenna and Hamish McKnight – run with it. The culture has been successful so far, so why change it. I try and listen basically.
What’s your background? What do you bring to this role? How will it help someone like Jamie?
I spent twenty years in high performance sports – by which I mean the top level of sport. So I can make people aware of what other sports have done at the very top level, and how that might work of us.
But today high performance basically means the Olympics. This summer really nailed that to the mast. That is the key indicator at the top level of sport funding. Those are the goals posts I’ve been given, and that’s basically what we’re working on now.