Watching results filter through from the first two days of the 2020 UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Berlin has been a somewhat frustrating experience.
Yes, Australia picked up silver and bronze medals in the team sprints on opening night. But it was the results from two of our blue-ribbon Tokyo medal prospects, the men’s and women’s team pursuit, both reigning World Champions from 2019, that set off alarm bells no doubt all the way back to the Sport Australia offices in Canberra.
World Record holders just 12 months ago (notably in a time that is now more than three seconds slower than the flying Danes), our men’s quartet finished a distant fourth overnight, while our women’s team didn’t even get to ride for a medal, finishing fifth. Throw in our top women’s sprinter, Steph Morton, getting bundled out in the early rounds of the individual sprint – not to mention the personal health challenges that continue to hinder our top male sprinter, Matthew Glaetzer – and these results expose, quite starkly, what has been for many people, myself included, the long-feared folly of a model that has quite intentionally thrown so many of Australian cycling’s scarce financial eggs into the one basket over the past four years.
Trouble is, everyone lifts for an Olympic year. Everyone.
Yes, yes, yes. We understand the variables on a Siberian pine velodrome may well be considerable easier to quantify and control than when you’re racing out in the elements on the asphalt. But the fact is, track gold medals are still extremely hard to come by, and it’s getting harder with every Olympic cycle. For the past decade or so it was really only GB and Germany we had to worry about. Now it’s also NZ, Denmark, Italy, the Dutch, even the USA are getting their act together once again under the astute guidance of, amongst others, our very own Gary Sutton.
The global Olympic arms race is well and truly on and, sexy new bikes or not, based on the results in Berlin from Days 1 and 2, you’d have to say Australia will have its work cut out to win even two golds in Tokyo and maybe 3 or 4 medals in total…if we’re lucky. In Rio, Australia brought home just two track medals, one silver and one bronze.
Our no-longer-World-Record-holding men’s pursuit team is the perfect example. These guys are awesome and there’s certainly no shame in finishing 4th at the Worlds, especially as they were missing a key rider in Kelland O’Brien (who in a cruel twist of irony broke his collarbone racing at the Tour Down Under, on the road). But that’s not the point here.
Given the huge funding diversions seen in recent years towards the elite track program, the question must be asked, have all the sacrifices endured in other parts of our sport – the Women’s and Junior road programs spring instantly to mind – actually been worth it?
I’m sure plenty will disagree, and perhaps come Tokyo I will be proven hopelessly wrong, but in my view the answer is no. Not even close. Track is a wonderful part of Australia’s cycling landscape. But it’s only one part – and a small part at that, especially in terms of overall participation. Why should it be allowed, or forced, to absorb such a disproportionate amount of cycling’s limited resources with no guarantee of success?