By Agence France Presse
With five gold, two silver and two bronze medals the Australian track squad was the talk of the Athens Olympic velodrome in 2004.
Just 17 months ahead of the Beijing Olympics, however, the talk at the end of the four-day competition world track championship in Mallorca was all about how the team’s dominance had all but evaporated.
This time around, the Aussies scored two golds and four bronze medals. That’s not a bad tally – good enough for second on the final medals count – but it pales in comparison to past performances and to the seven golds, two silvers and two bronzes earned by arch-rival Great Britain over the past few days.
Strong women, disappointed men
Australia’s only wins came from undisputed 500m time trial queen Anna Meares, who broke her own world record on her way to defending her world’s title, and from Katherine Bates, who lifted sagging Australian morale with gold in the points race.
Meares shaved nearly four-tenths of a second off her own world record time of 33.944sec for the two-lap race against the clock on Saturday to hand the Aussies their first gold of the competition.
Less than an hour after stopping the clock at 33.588 she defied the dizziness that often follows such bursts of sheer effort by getting back on her bike to win bronze in the sprint.
On Sunday’s final day Meares struck bronze again, when she finished third behind China’s Shuang Guo and British sprinter Victoria Pendleton in the women’s keirin in a carbon copy podium of the sprint.
Bates efforts lifted Australia to second in the medals table, but coach Martin Barras was far from satisfied.
“For us, it’s a righteous kick in the ass,” Barras said.
Meares’ and Bates’ victories helped cover Barras’ concerns after a series of poor performances, including from Olympic sprint and keirin champion Ryan Bayley.
Meares, said Barras, “made our championships.”
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the week was the surprisingly bad performance of the Australians’ usually hot pursuit squad, which finished sixth in qualifying to miss the medals for the first time since 2001.
Endurance coach Ian McKenzie was just as baffled as the Spanish public, who were instead given great performance by the British team as they clocked a new British record of 3:57.468 and took one step closer to attacking Australia’s world record of 3:56.610.
“I was pretty confident we could finish in the top four so to not finish in the top four is pretty disappointing,” said McKenzie, who will up the competition for a place in his Olympic pursuit team by bringing in some of the experienced road racers plying their trade in Europe.
Barras conceded that “we didn’t see that one coming.”
British team chief Dave Brailsford was obviously thrilled with his team’s medal haul, but promised the program’s track stars would not be resting on their collective laurels.
“We’ll be relentless now,” promised Brailsford. “There won’t be any let-up. We want to build on this, right through to Beijing and onto 2012. We’ve got a good platform and we just have to move forward.”
Barras said Australia now has to “go back to the drawing board” and examine every detail to see what went wrong.
“We’ve been talking and going over things in the past two or three days and done a fair amount of soul-searching,” he told AFP. “We’ll be going back to look at several important aspects of the whole track program, not just for Beijing but for the long term future, but we’ll be doing that with confidence.”
Barras noted that with a number of younger and less experienced racers competing in Mallorca, he hadn’t expected Australia “to dominate here, but it’s been difficult and definitely not the kind of championships we expected.”
A year ahead of the 2008 world championships in Manchester, Barras admitted the British team was currently at “the top of the tree,” adding that he remains confident that the program is on-track for a strong performance in Beijing.
“The core of the (Olympic) team is going to be the same as the one that essentially went to Athens,” he said. “That not may say much, but we know we’ll be going with proven and experienced riders.
“Obviously we prefer to do it and come back with a bagful of medals, but as long as we take care of business at our end, then we have no fear.”