Rue Britannia: the winner’s curse in track cycling

What would you do about a table like this if you were the International Olympic Committee?

The table shows the complete domination of track cycling by one nation — Great Britain. The results are from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Britain’s 12 medals in this one sport were a touch over a quarter of the nation’s total medal count for the entire Games that year.

Also, what stands out in this list of track cycling events? Again from the Beijing Olympics:

•  Individual Pursuit Men
•  Sprint Individual Men
•  Keirin Men
•  Team Pursuit Men
•  Madison Men
•  Points Race Men
•  Olympic Sprint Men
•  Individual Pursuit Women
•  Points Race Women
•  Sprint Women

Notice how there are fewer events for women? Pourquoi?

Thanks to a number of changes, neither the domination by British cyclists nor the lack of parity in men’s versus women’s events will feature in these games. Rue Britannia.

A side effect of imposing parity is that two of the men’s events are lost: the Individual Pursuit and the Madison. The former was a double podium for Britain, with Tour de France hero Bradley Wiggins taking the gold.

Concerning double podiums like that one, the total number of track cycling events was 10 in Beijing and is again 10 in London, making for a total of 30 medals. What Britain’s previous haul of 12 reveals is that the country must have had double podiums. In fact, it did so often: in four out of the 10 events.

For London 2012, a “one nation, one cyclist” rule was put in. Hence no doubling up for Britain in the sport that it so clearly dominates. This will, without a doubt, affect the nation’s total medal haul. (It also, as many commentators have noted, means that Chris Hoy will not be able to defend his Sprint gold, as the sole space for Britain went to Jason Kenny — a move that Hoy is supportive of.)

As of Friday morning, medals have been awarded in two track cycling events. Britain’s sprint team, inclusive the aforementioned Chris Hoy, took the gold in the men’s event and the women’s team didn’t reach the podium at all. Already the maximum possible medal haul is down to 9.

So, is this this new “one nation, one cyclist” rule a good thing?

Courtney Rowe, the track manager of the Newport Velodrome, isn’t so sure: “It’s negative to the extent that you don’t have the best three riders taking the gold, silver, and bronze.” He points out that swimming, for example, is quite different as nations can still have double podiums. That said, the pool isn’t as completely dominated by a single nation as the velodrome is.

Another thing that sets track cycling apart from other Olympic sports is the complete lack of wild card spots, known as “Tripartite Places“. The goal of having such entrants is to further the distinctly Olympian concept of universality. The “one nation, one cyclist” rule is, in a blunt way, a means of achieving greater diversity on the track and this is probably what the IOC had in mind.

That rule is, however, just the start of the new system put in place for London 2012. Quotas for entrants were put in place for continents. As Cycling News outlines, this led to a number of developed countries losing places in favour of less developed nations:

Although there were 10 spots for the men’s team sprint, The Netherlands, which ranked 10th, was bumped from the event in London by Venezuela because of a limit to the number of European nations per race.

Similarly, Colombia missed out on the individual sprint in favor of Greece, Germany was left off the men’s team pursuit for Korea and the USA, Venezuela and Chile were awarded place in the men’s omnium because higher-ranked Russia, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands were outside of the allotment for countries from their continent.

In the women’s events, Colombia slotted in ahead of 10th-ranked Spain, and 16th-ranked Germany lost its spot to Korea in the omnium.(The “omnium” referenced in the above quote is a new and comprises several events.)

The end result sees this Olympiad’s track cycling having a more international flair than Beijing. While surely this is a better embodiment of the Olympic ideal, you’re going to have to forgive the Brits among you for being perhaps a little put out. Not to worry though, they have a stiff upper lip and all that.

H/T Anselma Gallinat and David Weber, a couple of cyclists who took us through some of the ins and outs of the track.