Richard Davison: New cycling rules may break the chain of British success

BRITAIN has been basking in the light of cycling success of late, and the achievements of cyclists such as Sir Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton have helped grow the sport's popularity and prominence.

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, British cycling enjoyed unprecedented success, winning seven of the ten gold medals on offer on the track events and backing this with a further three silvers and two bronzes. But alas, new rules from the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world cycling governing body, mean that this fantastic achievement cannot be repeated.

An overhaul of the qualification system by the UCI for the London 2012 Olympic Games denotes that a maximum of one athlete, per nation, per track cycling event may participate.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

At Beijing, these rules would effectively have removed three of those silver medals and one bronze.

The changes will affect the ethos of the pursuit of excellence, as someone with the potential to win an event won't be allowed to compete.

Though potentially one of the most damaging, this isn't the first dramatic change to the governing of the sport. There has been a fairly substantial shake-up of the track events over the last two Olympic cycles. Removing the men's 1km time trial prevented Chris Hoy defending that Olympic title and there have also been changes to the programme for London 2012. Gone are individual pursuits for men and women – there go two golds, a silver and a bronze from the haul in Beijing – and also gone is the points race – another bronze.

This doesn't happen in other sports: athletics have a maximum of three competitors per track event and swimming two.

And so the big question is, what is the rationale behind this decision, which will have such a devastating effect on the sport as a whole? Edinburgh Napier is hosting the world's first Congress on Cycling Science this week, along with the Scottish Centre for Cycling Research, and this will certainly be a topic for debate and discussion.

The apparent justification is that it is to allow the "lesser" cycling nations an opportunity to compete at the Olympics, a fair sentiment that is in line with the Olympic charter. However, most of us associate the Olympics with the pinnacle of athletic performance – the best athletes in the world competing against each other to take home the trophy.

If we take the UCI decision to its logical and literal conclusion, if the best and the second best cyclists in the world are from the same country, you risk excluding the second best cyclist in a specific event. Clearly, for British cycling, that is a very real risk.

Do we really want an Olympics that does not have the world's top athletes competing against each other regardless of what nation they are from?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

If the objective is to see greater representation from the non-traditional cycling nations then there are other ways to achieve this outcome without damaging the quality of competition at the Olympics.

The British cycling model has two key ingredients– world class coaches and significant financial support – lottery funding.

As with so many things in life, progress and excellence will always be dependent on individual nations providing the finance required to fund a world-class sport. However, if the UCI increases efforts to improve and expand its coach education programme, it would go some way to creating a more level playing field – without the need to relinquish that all important driver of success, competitiveness.

• Richard Davison is a professor of exercise physiology at Edinburgh Napier University.