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Why remove individual pursuit from the Olympics?

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Nov. 17, 2009
  • Updated Aug. 15, 2010 at 8:31 PM EST

AN OPEN LETTER TO:

Mr. Pat McQuaid, President of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI); and Mr. Michael Turtur, President of the UCI Track Commission

cc: Mr. Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC); Mr. Hein Verbruggen, Member, IOC and ex-president, UCI

Dear Messrs. McQuaid and Turtur:

In defense of the individual pursuit remaining in the track cycling program at the Olympic Games

I understand that (1) discussions are currently taking place between the UCI Management Committee and the IOC to finalize the changes in the track cycling program for the 2012 Olympic Games in London; (2) the purpose of the discussions is to have an equal number of events for men and women; and (3) the current proposals include the elimination of the individual pursuit competition (for both men and women).

While no one disputes that women should be given as much opportunity as men in sports, as is already the case in road cycling, mountain biking and BMX, many people within the sport of cycling (including the competitors themselves, cycling insiders, and members of the media) believe that eliminating the individual pursuit from the Olympics would be a catastrophic mistake. It is the equivalent of deleting the 1500 meters (the metric mile) from track & field athletics — something that the IOC would never consider.

I understand that the event being considered to replace the pursuit, one of the most prestigious events in cycling history, is a new event called the omnium — which has very little support from the athletes, some of whom regard it as a “joke.” Featuring five different races, including a 200-meter sprint and 1km time trial, the omnium has generated very little enthusiasm in the three years it has featured at the world track championships, whereas the pursuit has a 70-year legacy and is the only cross-over event truly accessible to both road and track racers.

I am surprised that Mr. Turtur would even consider supporting the elimination of the individual pursuit from the Olympic Games. He was an accomplished track racer, and I still remember reporting his dominant victory in the individual pursuit at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane — as well as his gold medal in the team pursuit two years later at the Los Angeles Olympics. Mr. Turtur is also aware of the many riders whose racing careers have evolved from the pursuit event.

Although it was not called the pursuit at the first modern Olympiad in 1896, there has always been a middle-distance cycling race in the Games for individuals and/or teams. The individual pursuit has been contested at world championships since 1939, and its popularity with the riders, coaches and crowds made it a natural to become an Olympic discipline for the first time at Tokyo in 1964.

The inaugural champion, 24-year-old Jiri Daler, was the first cyclist in Czechoslovak history to win an Olympic gold medal. His victory greatly popularized cycling in his country, and five years later the world cycling championships were held in his hometown of Brno. Daler went on to become the first professional cyclist from eastern Europe when he signed with the French team Frimatic.

Many leading pro racers in that era began their careers competing in the team and/or individual pursuit. They included Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil (the first man to win the Tour de France five times) and Roger Rivière (a world hour record holder), German Rudi Altig (who became the world pro road champion), and Britons Tom Simpson (another world road champion and multi-time classics winner) and Barry Hoban (his country’s most prolific Tour de France’s stage winner prior to Mark Cavendish)

Another legendary pursuit rider, Knut Knudsen, was the first Norwegian cyclist to win an Olympic gold medal, in 1972. He went on to become a leading professional and wore the race leader’s pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia. Other Olympians who progressed to the upper echelons of pro cycling were Alain Bondue of France, Gregor Braun of Germany, Tony Doyle of Britain, Viatcheslav Ekimov of Russia, Steve Hegg of the United States, and Hans-Henrik Oersted of Denmark.

Olympic cycling was still restricted to amateur athletes in the Barcelona Games, where Britain’s Chris Boardman startled the sporting world with his emphatic victory in the pursuit over the favored east Europeans. His aerodynamically designed carbon-fiber machine revolutionized the art of bicycle building, and Boardman went on to conquer the world hour record and set a speed record in the prologue time trial of the Tour de France. His breakthrough success in the 1992 Olympic pursuit was the spark that generated Great Britain’s subsequent climb to the pinnacle of world cycling.

Women’s track cycling first entered the Olympics in 1988, when only the match sprint was contested; the individual pursuit was added in 1992. Some of the world’s best women racers have medaled in the individual pursuit, including Germany’s Petra Rossner and Judith Arndt; Rebecca Twigg of the U.S.; Marion Clignet of France; Leontien Van Moorsel of the Netherlands; and Sarah Ulmer of New Zealand.

The current Olympic pursuit champion, Rebecca Romero of Great Britain, has said this about the current proposals of the UCI Track Commission to add two specialist sprint disciplines for women (the team sprint and keirin) and eliminate the endurance riders’ pursuit: “I think we should move towards equality between males and females in the medals available, but I just think this isn’t equality in terms of sprint and endurance riders. You’re taking away, essentially, with regards to the individual pursuit, one of the purest forms of competition that there is on the track.”

The value of the Olympic pursuit competition has been emphasized by the experiences of the Beijing finalists Bradley Wiggins of Great Britain and Hayden Roulston of New Zealand. Wiggins, the gold medalist in both 2004 and 2008, this year went on to finish fourth overall at the Tour de France. He is now regarded as one of the sport’s true stars. As for Roulston, his performance in China has revived his career as a pro cyclist, and he made his Tour de France debut in 2009.

Keeping the individual pursuit in the Olympics is vital to our sport. Just imagine the men’s lineup in London: Wiggins says he will defend his gold medal at home; silver medalist Roulston will be back for New Zealand; the world’s fastest current pursuiter Geraint Thomas is Great Britain’s second counter; USA’s world pursuit champion Taylor Phinney will be 22 in 2012; Australia has two strong contenders in 2009 worlds runner-up Jack Bobridge and former world junior champion Cameron Meyer; and Belgium’s Dominique Cornu is improving fast. And that’s just seven of the men who’d vie for pursuit gold in 2012.

In the five decades that I have been reporting on cycling, the individual pursuit has remained one of the keystones of the sport. It is very healthy at the junior (under-19) level, with the number of entrants increasing impressively at recent world junior championships from 27 riders in 2007, 36 in 2008, and 46 in 2009 — a 77 percent increase in two years.

The first Olympic women’s cycling gold medalist and former world pursuit champion Connie Carpenter recently told me: “I did pursuit because all the great road riders did it — it was a place to showcase your pure power and form.” She is just one of hundreds of top cyclists who chose to contest the individual pursuit because of its pure athletic challenge.

If the UCI and its Track Commission continues to recommend the elimination of the individual pursuit from the 2012 Olympics, it is making a monumental error. Please reconsider your decision on this historic event that is vital to the health and popularity of cycling throughout the world.

Very sincerely,

John Wilcockson
Editor-at-Large, VeloNews

Recognized by ASO for 40 years’ service to the Tour de France
Former editor of VeloNews: The Journal of Competitive Cycling, Inside Cycling, Winning: Bicycle Racing Illustrated, Cyclist Monthly and International Cycle Sport

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