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In a nod to the cancelation of the Australian international cycling calendar, we are turning our gaze Down Under for a week of feature stories, interviews, historical analysis, and other content to celebrate Australian cycling as part of Aussie Week.
Kathy Watt inspired others with her successes at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona on the road and track. After attacking on the final lap of the women’s road race to fend off the peloton that included the French four-times world champion Jeannie Longo, the image of Watt soloing across the finish line represents the moment that Australian cycling shifted up a gear and began to establish itself as a major world power in track and road cycling. To cap off the enormity of Watt’s victory, she then won the silver on the track in the 3,000-meter individual pursuit.
Upon Watt’s induction into the inaugural Cycling Australia (CA) Hall of Fame in November 2015, along with 11 others, CA chairman Peter Bartels said that her 1992 Olympic win remains, “One of the iconic moments in the history of Australian sport.” In spite of her many disputes with Australian cycling officials, coaches, and riders making it into newspaper headlines, Watt’s gold medal win made her a household name. Her many other feats included four Commonwealth Games gold medals, one world championship time trial bronze medal, stage wins in various tours, including four stages at the Giro Donne in Italy in which she also placed third overall in 1990 and second in 1994, four Oceania gold medals and 24 national title wins in road, track and mountain bike.
Watt’s 1992 gold medal also signaled a number of firsts. It was the first gold medal for Australia in any sport at the Barcelona Olympics, and the very first gold by any Australian woman cyclist in the history of the Olympic Games. It was also the first gold medal ever for Australia in men’s or women’s road racing at the Olympics and also the only gold medal at Barcelona for the Australian cycling team.
Watt’s success also inspired future generations of riders, especially women who benefited from the Australian Institute of Sport’s national women’s program. Her feat also triggered the commitment of Melbourne businessman Gerry Ryan, who sponsored her Olympic preparation to the tune of $10,000, to put his financial backing into Australian cycling, from the national body to domestic races. In 2012, he also funded the creation of the Orica-GreenEDGE team with an estimated $12 million a year for a men’s and women’s team.
Since then, Australia has become a force in world cycling.
The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta were memorable, not because of medal wins, but because of how well Shane Kelly, a major favorite to win, handled the disappointment of a mechanical mishap that cost him gold in the men’s 1,000-meter time trial. As he had been the 1995 world champion and world record holder, he started last in the time trial. Somehow he pulled his foot from his left pedal at the start, only to roll out from the starting block slowly and, realizing that his anticipated medal hopes were dashed, he soft-pedaled slowly around the outdoor track in stunned disappointment. His sportsmanship in accepting the misfortune and lauding Frenchman Florian Rousseau for his win is still celebrated today.
One of the great stories of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney was Brett Aitken and Scott McGrory’s gold-medal-winning ride in the Madison on the last night of the track program on the indoor boards of the new Dunc Gray velodrome at Bass Hill. It was Australia’s first track cycling gold in 16 years — the previous one coming in 1984 in the men’s team pursuit in Los Angeles. It was also an emotionally laced victory with both McGrory and Aitken, having been touched by death and illness among their children. McGrory and his then-fiancée Donna Casey, now his wife, had endured the death of their three-month-old son in June that year due to heart problems, while Aitken’s two-year-old daughter continued to battle Rett Syndrome.
On the road, the strongest showing came from Anna Wilson who was fourth in both the road race and the individual time trial; while from the cross-country mountain biking events at the Fairfield City Farm circuit in western Sydney, Mary Grigson placed sixth and Cadel Evans was seventh.
Australia’s six gold medal haul in the 2004 Athens Olympics included five on the track — a double by Ryan Bayley in the keirin and sprint, the men’s team’s team pursuit, the men’s madison of Stuart O’Grady and Graeme Brown, and Anna Meares in the 500-meter time trial. But the surprise win came in the women’s road race from Sara Carrigan, with a solo attack and Australian favorite Oenone Wood placing fourth.
Even though the Australians were left relatively empty-handed in all areas of cycling in 2008 at Beijing, Anna Meares’ silver medal ride in the sprint was beyond remarkable. Seven months earlier, Meares had been nursing injuries sustained in a high-speed crash in the third round of the World Cup series in Los Angeles — those injuries included a fractured C2 vertebra, dislocated right shoulder, and torn ligaments and tendons.
The silver inspired Meares, especially amid her public rivalry with Briton Vicki Pendleton. In the 2012 London Olympics, the pressure was on Pendleton to win gold, but Meares typically tapped into every ounce of her desire to win, a desire topped up even further by her disappointment at placing fourth in the keirin final. Against Pendleton, Meares won the sprint gold medal race, Australia’s only cycling gold for these Games.
The London Olympics had fueled hope for better fortune at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, but it was not to be, with Australia ranking equal to 13th. Meares had endured an extremely tough Olympic campaign — injury, fluctuating form, and separation from her husband that year. Perhaps her performance was less than her fans may have wanted, but she had met the two goals she had set for herself and had kept private until she had raced: to win a medal and to improve on her keirin result from the 2012 Olympics.
The sight of Meares leading the entire Australian team as its flag bearer into the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics was one of the finest hours for the sport, let alone for the 32-year-old. The respect that her peers from all sports on the Australian team had for her showed during her speech on the eve of the ceremony when many shed tears. The challenge for Meares, whose father is a coal miner and mother a former state athletics champion, was to be as great as any. Before her was her defense of the Olympic sprint title she had won in 2012, but also opportunities to win a medal in the keirin and in the team sprint with Kaarle McCulloch.
As she stood on the dais after the keirin final in Rio with a bronze medal around her neck, it was mission accomplished. With that bronze, she had become the first Australian of any sport to win a medal in four Olympic Games. She had become one of Australia’s greatest sporting champions, notwithstanding her frustration at a fourth in the earlier team sprint with McCulloch and her disappointment at her tenth place in her last event, the sprint in which she had won gold four years earlier.
Meares told the media:
“It’s 10th overall … not what I wanted, I knew that a sprint was going to be very difficult here, but I didn’t think I’d be that far off the mark. But I’ve given it my everything and I hope people can forgive me that I didn’t deliver this time.”
Meares had nothing to be forgiven for, but everything to be thanked for by the many people who had been entertained and inspired by a journey she had yet to declare as over despite likelihood at the time that Rio would be her last Olympic Games. At the Rio Games, Australian cycling only won two medals in the road, track, BMX and mountain bike events.
This was a far cry from what Cycling Australia had hoped for, with predictions of as many as five on the track alone and optimism for what could come from the road race and time trials, as well as from BMX, where Caroline Buchanan and Sam Willoughby were strong chances. While it was a disappointing outcome for Australian cycling, it took the nation’s total medal tally in all Olympic cycling to 51, with 14 of them being gold medals, 19 silver, and 18 bronze. Of those medals, 47 came in track events, four on the road while mountain biking and BMX — the latter only added to the Olympic program in 2008—had yet to produce any medals.
Rupert Guinness is a longtime contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald and was a regular contributor to VeloNews in the 1990s. This is an excerpt from his new book: Power of the Pedal — The Story of Australian Cycling. You can order your copy today.