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Inside Cycling – Olympic pursuit decision coming this week

The International Olympic Committee is reviewing UCI recommendations to make changes to Olympic track events for 2012.

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This is the week that the International Olympic Committee will decide whether to accept Union Cycliste Internationale recommendations to make dramatic changes to the track-racing program at the next Olympic Games.

As readers of this column well know, there is no disagreement with the IOC and UCI’s goal — to give women the same number of events as the men — but both sexes and a large percentage of the sport’s insiders are upset that cycling’s governing body plans to achieve that goal by eliminating the individual pursuit race from the Games.

Was 2008 the last time the individual pursuit appears on an Olympic track?
Was 2008 the last time the individual pursuit appears on an Olympic track?

By now, both the UCI and IOC know from the open letters published on the Web, a petition drive being delivered Tuesday (with 4,408 unique signatures from people in more than 55 countries), and pleas by various national cycling federations that there’s a consensus to keep the individual pursuit. Track racers do not want the pursuit to go the way of the kilometer time trial, which was cut from the Beijing Olympics to make way for BMX.

Yes, the reason given for cutting the pursuit (along with the points race and Madison) from the 2012 Games in London is gender equality. The IOC needed the UCI to eliminate two men’s races and add two events for women. But, of the three eliminated events, the pursuit is the only one that was already raced by both men and women (see below). So why cut such a marquee event and add a completely new one, the multi-event omnium?

  2008 OLYMPICS     2012 PROPOSAL  
Sprint Yes Yes   Yes Yes
Keirin Yes Yes   Yes Yes
Ind’l pursuit Yes Yes   No No
Team sprint Yes No   Yes Yes
Team pursuit Yes No   Yes Yes
Points race Yes No   No No
Madison Yes No   No No
Omnium No No   Yes Yes

Over the past few weeks, we’ve communicated with administrators, riders, coaches and other insiders. Besides the members of the UCI management committee who voted for the proposals — “The decision was unanimous,” said UCI president Pat McQuaid — the people outside the UCI talk about “being kept in the dark,” or having it “sprung on us” with no consultation.

McQuaid, speaking last Friday from the World Anti-Doping Agency meeting in Sweden, told VeloNews that one reason for the lack of consultation was timing. He said that the UCI did not learn of the IOC’s gender-equality directive until mid-August this year. This was apparently too late for discussion by the 2009 UCI track commission, which had already held its last meeting; and it left only five weeks before a proposal had to be finalized for discussion by the management committee in late September.

Perhaps it was during that small window that a more open discussion could have taken place about which events to cut, and which ones to add. McQuaid, though, said that consulting with all of the national federations was not on the table. “We went through the federations when we took the kilometer off [the Olympic program],” he said, “and from 24 different federations we got 24 different responses.”

But that doesn’t tell us why the UCI’s inner circle decided that track racing’s signature event, the individual pursuit, had to be cut — for both men and women.

McQuaid explained that the management committee was guided by two main principles: (1) keeping the track races sufficiently diverse and attractive that they would sustain the public’s interest for at least five days; and (2) making sure that the whole cycling program was attractive enough that the sport remains part of the Olympics.

“There was full discussion [of the proposals] within the management committee and everybody had full opportunity to make their points,” McQuaid said. “It’s not that we haven’t tried to get more events — and we will continue to try to get more events in the future — but we were told we couldn’t have more events, and that was some weeks before the management committee meeting. So I couldn’t introduce [a proposal] in September and wait until January to make a decision. And the UCI has to make decisions in the best interests of the sport.

“I’d love to keep the pursuit in there, along with the Madison and the points race, but we were faced with a situation where there’s another review of the Olympic program coming in 2013, when one sport is going to be voted out. And we can’t see cycling put into a position where it is voted out of the program; so at the end of the day we have to work within the constraints that the IOC gives us.”

The UCI president is aware that cycling’s name has been dragged through the mud by the media because of frequent doping offenses. And that reputation didn’t improve at the 2008 Olympics when Spain’s national women’s road champion Maria Isabel Moreno was the first athlete sent home from Beijing for a positive drug test, and Italy’s Davide Rebellin, one of five athletes caught out retroactively, was recently stripped of his road race silver medal.

McQuaid did not mention doping as an issue, but he is well aware that the percentage of positives in the sport is much higher among road and six-day racers than it is among pure track racers. And as he pointed out, the pursuit is the one track event “that attracts road riders.” And he could have added that the other eliminated events, the points race and Madison, are the ones most suited to six-day riders.

As for keeping the track program long enough, McQuaid said, “If we put in the pursuit and not the omnium we would have an Olympic program that would be over in two days; but there’s still the team pursuit — and the individual pursuit in the omnium will be the full distance [4,000 meters for men, 3,000 meters for women] — so the events that are coming out of the program are in the omnium. And that will give us six days of racing instead of the current five.”

This argument is dubious at best. Because the Madison and points race went straight to finals, without qualifying rounds, their elimination from the programs deletes just two races. And they will be replaced by women’s races in the team sprint and team pursuit, which, assuming 12 nations take part in both events, would provide 16 separate races. Just these changes (while retaining the individual pursuit for men and women) makes 14 additional races — so the overall schedule would still run for at least five days.

McQuaid said that another part of the decision was a balance between sprinters’ events and endurance races. And though there are three sprinters’ races in the UCI proposal (sprint, keirin and team sprint), he claimed that endurance riders have not only the team pursuit but several races within the omnium.

“The distances [in the omnium] will be more reflective of an endurance event than the current shorter disciplines,” he said. “We haven’t put the whole project out yet, and we will when the proper time comes … and that will explain everything.

“The IOC makes an evaluation based on a whole load of issues, such as television, and we have to take into account other factors not just the history of the event [as in the case of the pursuit]. We have to adjust to modern times and modern demands — and the modern public. The arguments are all one-sided at the moment … so we’ll just have to wait and see.

“Right now … we’re waiting for the IOC decision to whether they accept it or not. But very rarely would they [change a decision]; they’re tendency is to accept the proposal from an international federation.”

As for the future of the individual pursuit (Madison and points race), and the future of track cycling, McQuaid concluded, “It’s not as if these event are going to disappear; they’re staying in the world championships every year. It’s not the end of track racing. And the program we’ll have for the Olympic Games will be attractive … both to the live public and the public at large.

“First we’ve got to wait and see when the IOC makes a decision and puts out a statement, and then we work within it. I do feel overall that it was agreed [by the management committee] that you’ve got to take something on the chin, but overall it’s better for the track sport. If it comes out being five and five [events for men and women in 2012], we can work towards getting six and six in the future.”

But as the international petition has shown, there are interested parties in at least 55 countries that want to see track sport’s classic event, the individual pursuit, remain as one of those five events.

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