London 2012 track cycling programme: did the UCI get it wrong?

The UCI introduced two major changes to the Olympic track cycling programme for the London 2012 games. First they introduced equal numbers of events for men and women, second they introduced a one rider per nation rule. The aims of these changes were to increase women’s participation, introduce more nations to the sport and reduce the dominance of an elite group of nations. Now that the track competition has ended, how successful have these changes been?

Event Equality and Programme Changes

In Beijing there were 3 women’s and 7 men’s events. There was no good reason for this inequality, the women are just as capable of competing in the 4 additional men’s events. The IOC is committed to increasing women’s equality and participation and the UCI rightly responded by increasing women’s events to make them equal with the men’s for London 2012. However, instead of giving the women the additional 4 men’s events they only increased the events by 2 while reducing the men’s events to 5. The total number of events remained unchanged at 10.

The UCI removed the men’s and women’s individual pursuit and points races and the men’s Madison. The omnium, track cycling’s equivalent to the heptathlon, was introduced for the first time.

Why did the UCI feel the need to keep the total number of events the same? In an IOC press release there is the following statement:

The EB [IOC Executive Board] agreed to this modification as the UCI has adjusted its track cycling programme to remain within its current number of events and athletes.

This strongly suggests the IOC did not want the UCI to increase its Olympic Programme. If so why? The answer is a mystery. Compared to similar race sports, track cycling has comparatively few events. Excluding the marathon, men’s athletics has 12 stadium running races, while the swimmers have a total of 32 pool events.

The velodrome will stand empty for half of the Games and the commissaires won’t be rushing off to cover other sports so why isn’t there a fuller programme? After all, there are days to spare.

One rider per nation rule

The one rider per nation rule limits each nation to one rider or team per event. According to UCI president Pat MacQuaid, the reason behind this rule was to introduce more nations to the sport. Another interpretation is to limit the British dominance of the track seen at the Beijing Games.

Dominance by one or a few teams is not unique to cycling, yet other sports do not feel the need for this rule. In the men’s 100m final Jamaica and the USA had 3 sprinters each. Had Powell not stumbled Jamaica may well have taken a clean sweep. Imagine Asafa Powell and Yohan Blake being told the honour of competing would go to Usain Bolt alone. But, that is the choice GB Team selectors had to make between Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny. In the end Kenny was chosen and won. It is not unthinkable though that Hoy would also have reached the final to battle his team mate for Gold. This scenario was not a problem for Badminton which saw an all Chinese women’s singles final. Spectators still saw great track cyclists compete, but they were deprived of watching the very greatest compete just because they are from the same nation.

Swimming is dominated by the US with a handful of other nations competitive, but their governing body has felt the need to limit events to one swimmer per nation. The UCI’s one rider policy does seem to be at odds with other similar types of sport.

Did the changes work?

In Beijing Britain won 12 medals (7 Gold, 3 Silver and 2 Bronze). Their nearest rival was Spain winning one medal in each colour. Compare this to London where Britain won 9 medals (7 Gold and 1 each of Silver and Bronze). Their nearest rival was Australia with 5 medals (1 Gold, 1 Silver and 3 Bronze). Look at the medal tables and you see in four of the Beijing events there were two British riders on the podium. With 7 Golds in each competition Britain seems to be just as dominant on the track, only in London the team didn’t have the opportunity to display the depth of British talent.

If the changes failed to dent British dominance, did they achieve the stated goal of introducing more nations to the sport?

In Beijing 14 nations won medals, in London 11 did. On this measure then no, but what about the countries who won medals, was there much change there? In 2012, three countries were new to the medals table: USA, Canada and Hong Kong. All new country medallists were women and included Sarah Hammer and Tara Whitten, both of whom have established a formidable reputation since 2008.

The nations that won medals in 2008 and not in 2012 are Ukraine, Spain, Cuba, Argentina, Russia and Japan. With the exception of Japan, all of these countries won their medals in events dropped for the 2012 programme.

Comparison of the medal tables shows the changes have failed to limit British dominance and have reduced opportunities for other nations to compete and be competitive, the opposite of the UCIs intentions. While equality between the sexes is clearly an improvement, the choice of events, biased towards the sprinters rather than the endurance riders, has allowed a group of specialists to continue to flourish; for example, Pendleton, Meares and Shuang won the women’s individual sprint medals in both 2008 and 2012. In 2008 it was the Madison and Points race, the two endurance races dropped from the 2012 programme, where Britain failed to shine.

The arguments over which events should feature in Rio will roll on. The one certain conclusion is that despite the differences between 2008 and 2012 the track didn’t fail to disappoint in providing the excitement, tension and speed fans of track cycling expect. Most likely the competition will be reshuffled for Rio, lets just hope the UCI introduce a more generous programme of events so that we the fans can enjoy the spectacle and drama for a little longer. Personally I would like to see the points race and individual pursuit added to the existing programme. That really would be a move in the right direction.

As for British domination, looking forward we have every reason to be confident success will continue. Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton may have bid an emotional farewell to their incredible Olympic careers, but their successors, Laura Trott and Jason Kenny, have already stamped their reputations in gold, while Mark Cavendish is threatening to return, hungry for an Olympic Gold of his own. Rio may be 4 years away and a lot can and will change, but right now Britain’s track cycling prospects are looking golden.

About velorichard

Riding a bike around Cambridgeshire looking for some hills
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2 Responses to London 2012 track cycling programme: did the UCI get it wrong?

  1. chbates09a753 says:

    Some very valid points, personally i think that the best way for the UCI to go would be to revert to the same events as Beijing, but with all events open to women riders as well and keep the one rider rule ensuring breadth of both events and countries represented and retaining equality. I also wrote some thoughts on the Olympic Track Cycling.


    • velorichard says:

      Thanks for the comment. I was very disappointed to see the individual pursuit taken out, OK I know it was in the omnium, but it isn’t quite the same. I also think taking out the points race and madison left the programme unbalanced. Although of the two I would prefer to see the points race restored, the madison is just too chaotic.

      With the current set-up I don’t think the one rider rule works well for the sprint disciplines. Track cycling, like rowing or sailing is always going to be a relatively expensive and elitist sport. The GB team have shown if you invest you get the rewards, conversely the Australians have demonstrated if you cut back funding you start to slip back. I think the sprint disciplines further exaggerate this. With the endurance events you can attract riders from a road background so there is probably greater scope for more nations to compete, so yes limiting to one rider in say the omnium or points race probably is a good idea. But for the more specialist sprint races, no I would like to see it dropped in favour of seeing the very best sprint riders on offer – GB won’t have been the only team having to make difficult choices.

      btw, I like your blog and good luck with 2nd cat!


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