The UCI’s folly and the continuing dominance of the British track cycling team

At the 2008 Olympics the final medal table for the track cycling looked like this:

Rank Nation Gold Silver Bronze Total
1  Great Britain 7 3 2 12
2  Spain 1 1 1 3
=3  Argentina 1 0 0 1
=3  Netherlands 1 0 0 1
=5  France 0 1 1 2
=5  Germany 0 1 1 2
=5  New Zealand 0 1 1 2
=8  Australia 0 1 0 1
=8  Cuba 0 1 0 1
=8  Denmark 0 1 0 1
=11  Russia 0 0 1 1
=11  China 0 0 1 1
=11  Japan 0 0 1 1
=11  Ukraine 0 0 1 1

The governing body of cycling, the UCI, were concerned by the dominance of the British team and to try to prevent this in future, they restricted nations to one rider per event (and therefore each nation could only win one medal per event) in individual events. The medal table for the 2012 Olympics then looked like this:

Rank Nation Gold Silver Bronze Total
1  Great Britain 7 1 1 9
2  Australia 1 1 3 5
3  Germany 1 1 1 3
4  Denmark 1 0 0 1
5  France 0 3 0 3
6  China 0 2 1 3
7  United States 0 2 0 2
8  New Zealand 0 0 2 2
=9  Netherlands 0 0 1 1
=9  Hong Kong 0 0 1 1
=9  Canada 0 0 1 1

It doesn’t look like much less of a dominance by the British team, who failed to gain a medal in only one of the 10 events (the women’s team sprint, in which a strict commissaire’s ruling resulted in a disqualification depriving them of at least a silver).

It should be noted that this one-rider-per-nation rule was not the only rule change made between the two Olympics. Rightly so the UCI decided to finally ensure parity between men and women in terms of number of events (at Beijing the men had 7 to the women’s 3). The IOC demand that currently the total number of cycling events (across track, road, mountain biking and BMX) be fixed at 18. Previously, between the 2004 and 2008 games, the men’s 1km and women’s 500m time trials had been removed to introduce the BMX events for men and women (this change possibly contributed to GB’s dominance as the 1km time trial was 2004 Olympic champion Chris Hoy’s sole event and for 2008 he switched to sprinting, winning three golds in the sprint, keirin and team sprint).

To achieve parity then, men’s events would have to be taken out. The UCI decided to keep the team sprint, sprint, keirin and 4km team pursuit for the men and sprint for the women while taking out the 4km individual pursuit, points race and madison for the men and the 3km individual pursuit and points race for women. These were replaced by the omnium for the men and the team sprint, keirin, 3km team pursuit and omnium for women. These changes were not received well by many – the individual pursuits were considered by many to be the blue riband event of the track, while the omnium, a multi-discipline event including time trials, the individual pursuit and bunch races like the points race, is seen as a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ by some.

(Side note: it’s possible that the removal of the individual pursuit also played into British success on the road as, had it stayed in for 2012, reigning champion Bradley Wiggins may have been tempted back to the track, and likely therefore not won the 2012 Tour de France.)

Ideally the UCI would not have been forced to remove men’s events to introduce ones for women, as in track & field the introduction of the 3000m steeplechase, pole vault and hammer throw for women did not come at the expense of any events. However, the UCI are to blame in that their choice of events appears to have help sustained the British medal table dominance, after all the three events which were not won by British cyclists in 2008 – the men’s and women’s points races and the men’s madison – were among those removed. These bunch races are, like road racing, more unpredictable, and cyclists can find that going into these races as favourites can work against them tactically, as Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins found in the madison in 2008. The omnium can be won by a rider who dominates in the events against the clock, if they can limit their losses in the bunch races, as Laura Trott did exceptionally well to take the first women’s gold.

Retaining of the team versions of the sprint and pursuit also benefits nations that have strength in depth: one superior rider could win the individual pursuit but they need 3 other teammates of sufficient ability to win the team pursuit. A good analogy here is that George Weah may have been the greatest footballer in the world at one point, but that didn’t mean that Liberia had a great national team.

That the event changes may have played into Britain’s favour makes the UCI look particularly silly, given that the effect of the one-rider-per-nation rule (which really only applied to the sprint and keirin) was to reduce the number of British silver and bronze medals, while also depriving fans with a weakened field.

So what can the UCI do to prevent British dominance in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro? They could combat British Cycling performance director Dave Brailsford’s philosophy of ‘aggregated marginal gains’ by insisting that riders across the nations all use standard equipment. I very much doubt that they would do this, and whether this would actually make the difference is another question (the UCI’s rule deprived us the chance of comparing British riders using the same equipment).

One thing they certainly couldn’t legislate against is British Cycling’s uncanny ability to get riders to peak at the right time. Frenchman Grégory Baugé looked formidable winning the sprint at the 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 World Championships (albeit losing his 2011 title after missing doping tests) but he was no match for Jason Kenny come the Olympics. Likewise the Australian pursuit team had looked very strong but could not compete with a world record-breaking British quartet.

With a budget the envy of the world, there may not be a lot the UCI can do to achieve their desired goal. The medal table for 2016 may well make for familiar reading.

Note: while I was writing this, it was reported that chief UCI numpty Pat McQuaid has said they will aim to get 12 track events for 2016. I hope they’re successful – bye bye omnium? (link) 

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