Analysis: Enforcement of passing rule makes a mess of women’s team sprint

Officials relegate two medal-qualifying squads and while Germany wins the women's team sprint, no one else benefits

LONDON, England (VN) — China’s Shuang Guo and Jinjie Gong smiled through their tears as they were awarded silver medals in the women’s team sprint Thursday at the Olympic velodrome.

Their tears, however, were not of joy, but rather of bitter disappointment, after having gold medals stripped away just moments after they’d won the final.

On a fast track in warm, humid conditions the Chinese duo had set a pair of world records in the evening’s qualifying rounds, setting them up for the final against Germany’s Kristina Vogel and Miriam Welte.

And though they didn’t match their previously set world record times of 0:32.447 and 0:32.442 in the two-lap event, the Chinese finished ahead of the Germans in the final — they were gold medalists in the first-ever Olympic women’s team sprint event.

Only, as it would turn out, they weren’t.

After several tense moments of deliberation between UCI commissaires, the Chinese were informed that they’d been relegated to silver for violating UCI rule 3.2.153.

Similar to the baton-passing zone in track and field relays, in the team sprint there is a specific zone on the track where the lead rider must draw away (move up-track out of the lead). In the team sprint that zone is 30 meters long: 15 meters before and after the start/finish line, marked by a white line. If race officials feel a lead rider pulled away either before or after the zone, the team is relegated to last place in the current round.

It was the second instance of the opening night in the velodrome that the commissaires had taken a medal away from a women’s sprint team for violating the rule.

An hour earlier, officials relegated Great Britain’s Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish in the semifinals when Pendleton took over too early, passing Varnish’s rear wheel before the legal changeover zone at the start of the second lap of the two-lap race, en route to beating Ukraine.

After a long and protracted deliberation process the biased crowd inside the velodrome, which included Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton, sang a chorus of boos.

Unlike track and field, which allows for a warning after a false start, in track cycling a violation such as irregular overtaking means an automatic relegation.

(Seeing the Chinese stripped of gold for a marginal, unintentional violation was especially hard to stomach just an hour or so after Great Britain’s Philip Hindes intentionally crashed so that his team could have a better start in round one of the men’s sprint.)

Instead of moving into the gold-medal round with China, Great Britain — which had first broken Welte and Vogel’s world record of 0:32.549, set by the German pair last April — was relegated to eighth, last of the semifinals, and out of medal contention.

Britain’s exit opened the door for German pair, who twice benefited from their rivals’ relegations to take the gold medal. Those who did not benefit included those inside the velodrome, as well as the greater international viewing audience, left to wonder, twice, why what they’d seen was ruled invalid.

Boiled down, two teams that had broken world records had each been relegated. Great Britain was removed from the final, where it would have won either gold or silver, and then China was stripped of gold.

In the end, Germany took gold, China silver and Australia bronze, with Great Britain’s Pendleton and Varnish taking home nothing. And while Pendleton can still look for medals in the keirin and sprint, it was a sad end to Olympic competition for Team GB’s Varnish.

Pendleton backed the officials’ decision.

“I think it was a commissaire who identified that the change may have been illegal and then when they looked at the footage they decided it was a meter or so too early, so we’re talking about a hundredth of a second, a blink of an eye, but these things happen,” Pendleton said. “Jess and I were going faster than we’ve ever gone before and it just happened so quickly.

“The rules are there to make it fair for everybody so I think it’s best that they stick to the guidelines very closely rather than have a very wishy-washy approach to the rules,” she continued. “The rules are there for fair sport and I agree with that. I take responsibility entirely for the error we’ve made there in that race and I’m devastated to for Jess.”

Rule 3.2.153 was been around for years, but was first heavily enforced by UCI officials at the 2012 world track championships in April in Melbourne, Australia, where Germany, Great Britain, USA and Greece were all relegated in the men’s team sprint. It’s a rule intended to keep the team sprint just that — a team event, rather than allowing the final sprinter to launch either too early or too late.

However, for riders traveling at speeds over 40 mph, staying aware of exactly where a small piece of white tape is on the track is easier said than done. To make sure its duo wouldn’t make the same mistake, Germany planted one of its coaches at the point on the course where it is legal for the second rider to overtake.

“We knew coming into the race that we had to be concentrated at the changeover,” Welte said. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t make the mistakes the boys made in April. It’s hard to see the lane, you’re going 65 kph, there’s just the white tape. We had the (coach) on the line, and when I saw him, I knew we could change.”

Gong said China had also placed a coach on the lane to signal when Guo could overtake her.

Upon watching instant relay, BBC broadcaster and former Olympic gold medalist Chris Boardman called China’s takeover violation “marginal” at best.

“It wasn’t the way we wanted to win,” Welte said. “Great Britain was disqualified for their mistake at the change, and I said to Kristina, ‘Maybe we can get [the gold medal], we’ve done the second-fastest time (0:32.630), the same as the GB girls (0:32.526).’ It wasn’t the way we wanted to win, but the rules are there, and we haven’t made a mistake.”

Asked about Pendleton and Varnish’s relegation, and the impact it had on the British squad, Chris Hoy of Great Britain’s gold-medal winning men’s team sprint squad — who was among those relegated at worlds in April — said he would accept the rules in place so long as they were enforced with consistency.

“We knew before we started today that the commissaires would be watching closely,” Hoy said. “The important thing is consistency, as long as they are consistent. The watershed moment was in Melbourne. We’re all aware now that you have to be careful with the changeover. It’s the same with the keirin and in (individual) sprinting; you have to be safe or you’re going to be disqualified.”

Once informed they’d been relegated, the Chinese briefly walked off the velodrome’s infield, and for several awkward moments it appeared as though they might skip the medals ceremony in protest. However, cooler heads prevailed, and several minutes later they reappeared.

On the podium, the Chinese riders raised their arms high, almost in defiance, as if to show the world which team had truly been victorious. Later, Gong essentially said as much, pointing out that they had not been relegated in their first two rounds, when they’d set two new world records: “The silver medal is regrettable, but we accept it — with grace.”

Like Welte, Gong said it was very difficult to be sure whether or not a rider had begun to overtake in the legal passing zone. “Because the speed is very fast, it’s difficult to control the bike at that kind of speed,” she said.

Asked about the fact that China had taken silver after setting two world record times, Gong said, “I think our results demonstrated to the world our strength.”