Olympic Games | The Guardian
IIt’s easy to make excuses. The pandemic had disrupted preparations. Drivers had withdrawn, another withdrew for personal reasons. In a moment of momentum, the equipment failed. But the special thing about track cycling – especially in disciplines like team pursuit, which is measured on the clock – is that you can’t hide.
The Australian track cycling team traveled to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo with high hopes at the end of July. They came home deeply disappointed. Their overall win – a bronze medal and a lucky one too, as they only entered the men’s team pursuit after Britain’s relegation – is Australia’s worst Olympic track cycling performance since the 1980 Games.
An autopsy is currently in progress, during which AusCycling convenes a high-performance committee to investigate what went wrong and how to proceed. The top board has also started the search for a new performance director to replace the Englishman Simon Jones, who left after Tokyo. Another review, led by a former aircraft accident investigator, attempts to understand what caused the alarming mid-race handlebar slump that ended Australia’s hopes for gold in qualifying for the team pursuit.
All of this overshadows the UCI Track World Championship, which began in France on Wednesday. Only five Australian riders will take part – Olympians who traveled to Tokyo for Europe instead of returning home. All are long distance riders – without a full team chase roster, a medal or two in each discipline is the best Australia can hope for. It’s an anti-climatic way to start the next era of Australian track cycling.
But it is clear that a new era must begin. In the last four games, Australia has only won one gold medal on the track. The discipline is among the best funded disciplines from the Australian Institute of Sport; In that fiscal year, AusCycling received $ 8.3 million for high health benefits that included only swimming and rowing. While this sum is divided between the four main disciplines of AusCycling – track, road, BMX and mountain bike – the track receives the lion’s share. The current financing is at least partially dependent on results and the result in Tokyo did not meet expectations.
The multi-million dollar question is: Why? Some will blame Jones’ door – his tenure was divisive. In 2017, Michael Drapac, a financial benefactor of the sport in Australia, described Jones’ appointment as “the biggest mistake” of Australian cycling. Others say he oversaw a much-needed reform program and is being vindicated in a timely manner. Australia finished first in the medal classification at the 2019 World Track Championships, so it’s not that the team wasn’t successful during their tenure. But when it came down to it, his riders stayed behind.
Sport has a significant pipeline problem. There is an apparent shortage of high profile talent coming through the rail system. To make matters worse, the pandemic has restricted international competition opportunities for the next generation – AusCycling had a restrictive travel policy, which meant that no team was sent to the Junior Track World Championships in September.
Alex Porter after a device failure in the
Men’s team pursuit qualification race. Photo: Valery Sharifulin / TASS
The women’s sprint is indicative of this challenge. The discipline was once an area of great depth for Australia, led by two-time Olympic champion Anna Meares. But with Steph Morton’s resignation in 2020 and expectations that Tokyo Olympic gold medalist Kaarle McCulloch will end her career sooner rather than later, the field is largely unfilled. While only one pioneering young star is needed in the individual competitions, the women’s team sprint grows from two to three female riders. With the Paris Olympics less than three years away, it is unclear whether Australia will even be able to produce a competitive team.
“There was too much in Australian cycling to support the few,” said Andrew Christie-Johnston, a two-decade veteran of the sport who runs the BridgeLane home road team. “I’m not a fan of supporting 10 or 15 at the highest level [riders] and forget the rest. I think they did. You really need to start investing in the base because if you do that strong, everything else will take care of itself. “
The dilemma for AusCycling is how to revitalize that system without overly prioritizing the route (which, critics argue, takes too long – for diminishing returns). After a stormy governance overhaul, the four sub-disciplines merged in Australia last year. The only gold medal in cycling in Tokyo came in BMX freestyle, which made its Olympic debut.
“We need a leader, not a coach,” says Tom Reynolds, a former executive on the board. “AusCycling now represents all disciplines. Track, road, BMX, MTB – it’s too diverse for one person to be an expert on all of them. ”Reynolds argues that a non-bicycling recruit might be the best approach in this new environment. “I think maybe someone outside of the sport is a good choice as there is no baggage or perceived bias.”
The location of the new performance director will also be symbolic. Jones was based in Adelaide, at AusCycling’s rail headquarters, but having a representative in Melbourne, where AusCycling is headquartered, would mean more responsibilities.
Whoever is elected and wherever he is based, the new AusCycling Performance Director has a big task ahead of him. Reconstruction after the disappointment in Tokyo, reception by a new generation of rail talent, the supervision of the road team on home soil at the UCI Road World Championships 2022 in Wollongong, the support of BMX and MTB stars and the concentration on the Commonwealth Games and Paris – There is much to do. And just like with team chase, timing offers no hiding place. The clock is ticking.