By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor, In Athens
For most Olympic athletes in Athens the heat is a hindrance, but when it comes to track racers, the balmier the better. The heat makes the boards of the 250-meter wooden track expand and tighten, and that makes conditions fast. That was certainly the case on the opening day of competition at the Olympic velodrome, where two Olympic records and one world record were eclipsed on a sizzling Friday afternoon in Greece.
The new world’s best came in the women’s 500-meter time trial, with Aussie Anna Meares becoming the first woman to complete two laps in under 34 seconds. Her time of 33.952 also earned Australia its second cycling gold medal of these Games. Sara Carrigan won the women’s road race last Saturday.
“I can’t remember half the race, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to break the world record,” said Meares, who beat out the previous world recorder holder Yonghua Jiang of China. “The 2003 world’s was a big eye opener for me. That was the first time I really stood back and had the belief that I can really match it with these girls.”
Belarusian Natallia Tsylinskaya took the bronze. Canada’s Lori-Ann Muenzer was seventh, while Mexico’s former world champion Nancy Contreras Reyes had to settle for eighth.
Hoy, Hoy, Hoy
The next mark to fall came in the finals of the men’s 1km time trial, when four riders eclipsed the former best held by Britain’s Jason Queally, who won the gold in Sydney. Queally couldn’t have been too upset with day’s outcome, though. It was his U.K. teammate Chris Hoy who was the day’s fastest, completing four laps of the track in 1:00.71 to win gold for Great Britain. This was much to the delight of the sold-out crowd, dominated by Union Jack waving Brits.
“The crowd was unbelievable,” said Hoy, who outgunned France’s Arnaud Tournant and German speedster Stefan Nimke to take gold. “This is a complete shock. It took a few laps afterward for it to really sink in.”
Hoy’s mark is the fastest ever at sea level. Tournant owns the current world mark of 58.875, but that standard was set in the thin air of La Paz, Bolivia.
“I really didn’t expect in a 100 years to go that fast,” said Hoy. “It’s a lot of pressure being the last man but I knew what I had to do. Anyone of us could have won the gold medal tonight, it was extremely close, but it’s just my night tonight.”
The top Olympic mark was also felled in the qualifying round of the men’s individual pursuit. And again it was a British rider, as Bradley Wiggins covered 4000 meters in 4:15.165. Wiggins also had the top mark in the ensuing first round, putting him into Saturday’s gold medal final against Aussie Brad McGee. Spain’s Sergi Escobar and Brit Rob Hayles will battle for the bronze.
Racing on the first of six days at the velodrome began with the qualifying round for the individual pursuit, which saw a field of 15 whittled to eight. Five riders would come in under the old Olympic mark, set by German Robert Bartko four years ago in Sydney. Bartko didn’t has the gas this time around, being ousted later in the day from medal contention by McGee in the first round.
Next up was Meares and the rest of the 12-rider 500-meter field. The 20-year-old has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the sport this year, taking the 500 at this year’s world’s and finishing second in the sprint. On this day she was the final rider to take the track, but was impervious to the pressure.
Afterwards she brushed off questions about the drug scandal that has plagued the Aussie track program on the lead-up to the Games.
“There’s nothing to say,” she said. “The performances on the track will speak for themselves.” Finally came arguably the greatest night men’s kilo racing in history, as Aussie Shane Kelly and the three medal winners all came in under Queeally’s old Olympic mark. It may well have been five if Dutchman Theo Boss hadn’t mistimed his start. But the reigning sprint world champion barged the gate, and ended up fifth.
“When you see the Olympic record broken four times in a day that tells you a lot about the quality of the race,” Tournant said.
Olympic track racing continues Saturday in Athens at 4:30 p.m. local time. Besides the men’s individual pursuit, medals will be handed out in the team sprint.
Attendance has been on the soft side at some of the events in Athens, but the Olympic velodrome is sold out for all six evening sessions (There is one morning session on Sunday). The crowd was a little late in arriving on Friday, but the venue was full by the time the women’s 500-meter time trial started.
Built in 1991, the Olympic velodrome has a capacity of 5247, though spectators occupy only 3638 seats during Olympic competition. The wooden 250-meter track has already played host to a number of big events, including World Cups from 1995-1997. The facility received a major facelift in 2003 when the once-outdoor velodrome had a roof installed. The venue is still not completely enclosed, though, and there is an open area between the roof and seats.
No Americans competed on the first day at the track. Jennie Reed was qualified for the 500, but decided to keep all her focus on the sprint, which is her primary event.
The U.S. team will open racing Saturday, with Adam Duvendeck, Giddeon Massie and Christian Stahl contesting the team sprint. The trio is one of the youngest squads in the field (average age 21.7).
“The next Olympics are in the back of our minds, but that’s definitely not why we’re here,” said Duvendeck. “We’re here to compete. We had to prove ourselves all year and we walked away with some mixed results, but we’re hoping we can upset a few people. I don’t think the other teams are expecting us to do anything.”
But while Duvendeck is hopeful, U.S. sprint team coach Andrzej Bek has a more “realistic outlook.”
“Really, we only start the program eight months ago,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work and we will ask them to ride their best, but where that puts us in the field is hard to say.”
Bek says one of his squad’s big disadvantages is the fact that they had to race more than they would have liked in order to qualify for the Olympics.
“In five months we raced nine times including the world championships,” he said. “And because we are always worried about qualifying we always had to be at a high level, never just able to train though races.”
Also getting into the mix on Saturday for the U.S. will be Erin Mirabella in the opening two rounds of the women’s individual pursuit.
Bek has a host of Olympic experience. He was the guiding hand when Marty Nothstein and Erin Hartwell placed second in the men’s sprint and 1km time trial at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, and he’s a former Olympian himself. In 1972, representing Poland, he won a bronze medal in the since-eliminated tandem sprint. But his lasting memory, like everyone else at the Olympics in Munich, was the Israeli athlete hostage crisis.
“It happened right while I was winning my medal,” Bek recalled. “Basically there was no security like you have here in Greece. All I had needed to come and go was to be wearing my warm-up suit. I left the Olympic Village in the morning, but when I came back after my race they would not let me in. It was very sad for everybody.”
Women’s 500-meter time trial
1. Anna Meares (AUS), 33.952
2. Jiang Yonghua (Chn), 34.112
3. Natallia Tsylinskaya (Blr), 34.167
4. Simona Krupeckaite (Lit), 34.317
5. Yvonne Hijgenaar (Nl), 34.532
6. Victoria Pendleton (GB), 34.626
7. Lori-Ann Muenzer (Can), 34.628
8. Nancy Contreras Reyes (Mex), 34.783
9. Svetlana Grankovskaya (Rus), 34.797
10. Sayuri Osuga (Jap), 35.045
11. Katrin Meinke (G), 35.088
12. Tamilla Abassova (Rus), 35.147Men’s 1000-meter time trial
1. Chris Hoy (GBR), 1:00.711
2. Arnaud Tournant (F), 1:00.896
3. Stefan Nimke (G), 1:01.186
4. Shane Kelly (Aus), 1:01.224
5. Theo Bos (Nl), 1:01.986
6. Francois Pervis (F), 1:02.328
7. Craig McLean (GB), 1:02.369
8. Carsten Bergemann (G), 1:02.551
9. Ahmed Lopez Naranjo (Cub), 1:02.739
10. Alois Kankovsky (Cz), 1:03.038
11. Teun Mulder (Nl), 1:03.165
12. Ruben Donet (Sp), 1:03.505
13. Wilson Meneses Gutierrez (Col), 1:03.614
14. Grzegorz Krejner (Pol), 1:03.923
15. Dimitrios Georgalis (Gre), 1:04.204
16. Chih Hsun Lin (ROC), 1:06.240
17. Radoslav Konstantinov (Bul), 1:06.265