Last week’s announcement by the UCI that countries will be limited to one rider per individual track event at the London Olympics was met with the usual stiff upper lip in the British media.
"Ruling threatens Sir Chris Hoy’s medal hopes," thundered the Thunderer. "Olympic qualifying change hits British medal hopes," tutted Aunty. "Olympic Meddlers," punned the Mirror, before ranting that "Sir Chris Hoy was saddle sore last night after Britain's knight riders were hit by a dumbing-down of Olympic track cycling." "Spoke in Britain’s Wheel for London 2012 Olympics," was the best the Sexpress could manage, "Qualification shake-up puts spoke in Britain's wheels for 2012 Games" echoed the Indy and "UCI ruling puts a major spoke in wheel of British aspirations" whined the Scots Herald – making you wonder if Fleet St's finest know diddly-squat about wheel building. Even the local paper in Bolton picked up on the story: "Kenny’s Olympic rule change blow."
Following on the heels of the allegations of technological doping and the shake-up on the track programme in an effort to finally bring about gender parity on the track, this latest bout of messing around with the Olympic track programme is unlikely to endear Pat McQuaid to many. Especially in Britain.
Even so, McQuaid’s spinning of the announcement – presenting three different rationales for this latest change – is worth considering.
First up is this reason:
"These changes will assist us developing the sport around the world."
Encouraging emerging nations is something few would complain about. Once upon a time, away back in the deepest darkest depths of cycling history, cycling wasn’t just restricted to continental Europe. The UK and the USA were big on the bike, until the one went insular and the other isolationist. Over the next few decades, attracting the odd rider from North Africa, Australia or even Japan may have made for nice window-dressing for the events they competed in, but never really helped build the sport beyond its traditional continental base.
In the eighties Jacques Goddet offered his thoughts on what would come to be known as mondialisation in an editorial in L’Equipe, "Towards a Tour Mondialisé." Goddet proposed opening the Tour’s doors to amateur riders from cycling's developing nations every fourth year, making it a pro-am event. The route he suggested for the race further demonstrated his desire to make the race global: an American start followed by stages in the UK, the Benelux countries, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain before a final week of racing in France itself. Goddet’s dream of a Central Park prologue never came to much but travelling throughout Europe has become almost routine for the Grand Tours today.
Mondialisation of the peloton did come to pass though. And in more recent years the UCI has been trying to lead the charge toward a globalised racing calendar, particularly with the ProTour but also through its calendar of races in Africa, Asia and Oceania. And now – it would seem – the UCI is fiddling with the Olympic track programme in an effort to bring about the dream of a globalised sport.
But mondialisation may not be the real motivating force behind this latest round of changes. Here’s McQuaid, typically muddying the waters:
"It's something we have to do. We are limited in the number of riders and the number of events we have, so we have no option but to put this limit on participation in order to meet the demands."
Reducing the size of the Olympics is high up on the IOC’s agenda. Too many competitors in too many events have made – some claim – the Games too unwieldy. On this basis, reducing the number of cyclists at the Olympics could be just the thing to put cycling into the IOC’s good books.
If the new, lower quotas had been in place in 2008 – where the limit was two riders per individual event – five events would have been impacted: the Men’s Keirin, in which nine countries fielded more than one rider; the Men’s Individual Pursuit and Men’s Sprint, which each had six nations fielding more than one rider and the Women’s Individual Pursuit and Women’s Sprint which each had two nations fielding more than one rider.
But ... well, according to the Chinese, one hundred and eighty-eight riders qualified for participation in track events at the Laoshan Velodrome – thirty-five women and one hundred and fifty-three men. These came from a total of thirty-five countries. Under the new rules, the overall number will be the same – one hundred and eighty-eight – but this time will be made up of eighty-four women and one hundred and four men.
The pay off for making nice to the IOC could be worth the price being paid, if McQuaid’s last utterance on the subject is to be believed:
"It would be my ambition now to try to find more events to build on what we have got."
That certainly sounds good and is just the sort of quid pro quo we should be looking for. Except ... well if the IOC’s objective is to shrink the size of the Olympics, offering the reward of more events to those sports that lead the charge toward a smaller athletes’ village seems ... well, to quote Spock ... illogical.
There are, of course, other possibilities to be considered. Top of the list is that the British media isn’t just paranoid – McQuaid really is out to get them. Or maybe the UCI is just making it up as it goes along and there is no agenda one way or the other, neither to hamstring the Brits nor to globalise the sport by turning the Olympic track events into a glorified school sports’ day. Or – and this is one well worth considering – maybe McQuaid is looking after number one: having been made a member of the International Olympic Committee he needs to prove to his new bosses that he’s willing to put their interests ahead of those of his own sport. After all, who knows how far McQuaid could rise up the IOC’s greasy pole?