How quickly we forget. Less than a fortnight ago everyone was asking ‘What went wrong?’. Cavendish, a dead cert, a shoe-in, the red hot favourite, had somehow managed to finish 29th in the Olympic road race. While the non-cycling British public groaned and scratched their heads and accused the GB team of ‘just not trying hard enough’, cycling fans just shrugged their shoulders. That’s just bike racing. You lose more often than you win.
Expectations of Olympic success were high from the great British public. Those legions of armchair critics, bar stool pundits, the lazy-good-for-nothing-not-making-anything-of-their-lives critics (to paraphrase Wiggins) sat in anticipation of what has somehow become known as ‘The Gold Rush’. Our nation’s athletes were expected to deliver. And, thank goodness, for the most part, despite the odd ‘failure’, they have.
We’re racking up the golds, stacking up the medals, shooting up the tables. We’re the third best nation, we’ve won more than the Aussies. If the tables were based on land mass we’d be top, we’re breaking records, we’ve exceeded Beijing. So why does it all feel so empty, ever so slightly pointless?
Admittedly I’m a cynic. From the moment the first posters appeared on the tube in 2004 ordering Londoners to ‘Back the Bid’ I was mildly irked. I still believe a British Olympics might have been better held in Manchester or Birmingham, cities with more to gain from investment and international exposure. But, despite my reservations, it’s been great to be part of the host city to the games – to watch the road races and time trials taking in the routes I ride and train on every week.
But I get the sense, amongst the increasing tally of golds, that we’ve started to lose sight of something. Not only has success become expected, it’s become all we celebrate. As the headlines and front pages are dominated by tracksuited Britons wearing gold draped around their necks, everything else falls between the gaps.
There were just three GB track cyclists who failed to win a medal in London. The first was Jess Varnish, disqualified for a change over infringement after setting a time good enough, alongside her partner Victoria Pendleton, for the final in the women’s Team Sprint. Facing the television interviewer, Pendleton spoke of her disappointment, explained that each were equally to blame, and then looked ahead towards her two remaining events where she still had chances to win gold. Varnish had disappeared, her Olympics over.
Then there were those who didn’t even take to the track, the two reserves for the men’s and women’s team pursuit teams. Andy Tennant and Wendy Houvenaghel watched from the sidelines as their teams broke records and won golds. Despite training with the squads, being there trackside ready to slot in should illness or injury strike, their lives also totally focused on this one event, this once in a lifetime opportunity, they could only watch on as the drama and ecstasy unfolded without them.
“I’ve been treated really shabbily by an organisation which I have been dedicated to for six years, have won many medals for and have been a key member of the team pursuit team,” complained Houvenaghel, who at 37 is very unlikely to compete at another Olympics. It emerged that Joanna Rowsell had been feeling unwell before the qualifying rounds, and Houvenaghel had been instructed to prepare herself to ride in the final. Except Rowsell was kept in and Houvenaghel never got to ride – just an appearance in one of the qualifiers would have been enough to be awarded a medal as part of the winning team. “To not allow me to ride in a three-minute race, which I can do with my eyes closed practically, and let me pick up my Olympic gold medal was just vindictive and something which is going to take a lot of getting over.”
Brailsford responded to Houvenaghel’s comments by saying “”You’ve got to take the personal element out of it, look at the data and be professional, “Our job is to support the people on the track, to win medals and we’ve had a few tough decisions to make.”
In the pursuit of success there is no room for sentimentality, British Cycling has become clinical and efficient, ‘professional’. And with all that lottery and government funding at stake, so should it be. But what if Britain wasn’t so dominant in the cycling events, if the medals were shared more equally amongst nations? Would the Olympics be deemed less successful? A failure even? I would hope not, and that there were more important things than our position on the medals table.
Recently I’ve been considering winding up my racing season to concentrate on other pursuits (i.e. pursuits which might help pay the mortgage), but it has proved harder than expected. The racing habit isn’t easy to break, especially during summer when the form feels good. But it has made me consider what life would be like without racing and competing. There’s a respect and mutual admiration from your fellow competitors that would be hard to give up – and something I suspect those who never take part in competitive events struggle to understand. How else could they sit and watch the GB team ride on the front of the men’s road race for 240km and still accuse them of not trying hard enough?
When watching athletes compete, and especially the British with the weight of the nation’s expectation bearing down on them, the knowledge that four years of dedicated hard work is either going to come to fruition or be flushed down the toilet, I wonder how they possibly cope with the nerves and pressure. I have huge respect for how they’re able to hold it together – I’m practically in bits lining up for the club’s annual hill climb.
That’s why it heartens me to see comments like those from Cancellara, or from Rebecca Adlington (who ‘only’ managed to win bronze when gold was expected) – they’re just happy to be there, to compete, to enter into the spirit of competition. We should never forget just how exceptional these athletes are, even the ones who finished fourth or 29th. So few of the thousands of athletes will return from London laden down with gold and adulation.
But most will come home with new PBs, have surpassed their expectations, given it their best shot, and hopefully with cherished memories of competing at the highest level of their sport. That in itself should be worth its weight in golds.