Track cycling begins today with a six-day programme to determine 10 gold medals, five for the men and five for the women. That sounds like a a lot given track cycling is a niche within cycling when compared to the road and its four gold medals but that’s half the fun of the Olympics, to see contests that don’t appear so often. Only if indoor cycling was indoor swimming there would be 32 medals up for grabs and the chance of winning titles multiplies given the repeat chances of comparable efforts.
Here’s the list of the events in the pool:
- Freestyle: 50, 100, 200, 400, 800 (women), and 1,500 (men);
- Backstroke: 100 and 200;
- Breaststroke: 100 and 200;
- Butterfly: 100 and 200;
- Individual medley: 200 and 400;
- Relays: 4×100 free, 4×200 free; 4×100 medley
Two things stand out:
- The similar distances reward a certain physiological profile over and over again. If you’re a world class swimmer over 200m then you can probably double-up or even triple-up up by doing the 100m and 400m and then there’s the relay races on top too. If swimming was cycling then it’d be like having a 3km pursuit, a 4km pursuit and a 5km pursuit, each would attract some specialists but remain comparable efforts accessible to the same rider; and then there would be a team pursuit across each of these distances
- The variety and diversity as there’s only true contest to determine the fastest swimmer: the freestyle. After this there are deliberately slower contests, including one where they backwards, the backstroke. Now imagine if swimming was cycling, we’d have our 3, 4 and 5km pursuits and then branch off into slower versions. Is backwards cycling possible? A bit dangerous but you could cross the chain into a figure-of-eight and create back-pedalling contests. It’s still a cycling race but would test slightly different muscle groups and pedalling action. Placing a tongue more firmly into the cheek another competition idea would be to have bikes without opposing cranks/pedals, instead both cranks are mounted in the same position, ie when the drive side pedal is at 3 o’clock so is the non-drive side. This would be inefficient and slower but if swimming can have the butterfly we could have this.
Godzilla vs King Kong
None of this is to knock swimming, even neutrals indifferent to track cycling and pool swimming may look at indoor cycling and see a sport bordering on an oxymoron. Comparisons over which sport is better or more deserving of medals is like comparing cats and dogs or asking who’d win a fight between Superman and Batman, Godzilla and King Kong. If cyclists still want to compare medals it’s not worth worrying about other events, the question is why track cycling has so few?
Swimming’s governing body FINA hasn’t come under the same pressure to reduce events as the UCI. In recent years the track’s scrapped events, including the blue ribbon the individual 4km pursuit. This happened in 2009 after the UCI’s track programme was reviewed because it offered more medals to men than women and in order to up the count for women they had to scale back the count for men’s events. Out went the individual pursuit, the points race and Madison races from the Olympic programme. It was right to make the medal count equal but was it unfair to do it by reducing the events? Maybe but track cycling is a minority sport with modest participation levels so it can’t stake a claim for many more medals.
If Michael Phelps was a Country
There’s been a stat doing the rounds that if swimmer Michael Phelps was a country he’d sit high on the medals table thanks to 25 medals so far. He’s got an impressive record but this is surely as much a function of his choice of sport as it is his talent and determination? If he’d decided on, say, the pole vault he’d could win 100% of the time but could never hope for the same haul. If track cycling offered as many opportunities as swimming then the likes of Bradley Wiggins or Chris Hoy could sit equally high, Wiggins could feasibly sit higher given he’s won the road time trial gold which, superficially, is like Phelps opting for the open water marathon swim too. Hoy has six golds and one silver are partly because the track does offer several chances, win the sprint and there’s the keirin and so on.
The big difference between swimming and cycling is the zenith of the sport is located in different places. For swimming it’s the pool in Rio and a four year cycle. In cycling it’s far away, a matrix of the Tour de France and the rest of the pro calendar. Greg Van Avermaet’s gold medal in the men’s road race is special but you can bet there’s some bloke in a bar in Belgium – probably Roger De Vlaeminck – saying “that’s nice but, jonge, you have yet to win De Ronde“. Similarly two of the biggest stories in the velodrome are the fortunes of Bradley Wiggins and Cavendish as they’ve become household names thanks to their success on the road rather than characters who pop-up every four years. However this only holds for men’s endurance cycling. For sprint cyclists and for many women the Olympics are the pinnacle for the sport for them, just look at how many women’s road cycling teams see their fortunes and funding linked to the Olympic cycle.
Swimming does seem to offer multiple chances to win medals for comparable, albeit not identical, efforts, even giving golds to deliberately slower methods. With just ten gold medals available on the track and 32 in the pool it’s tempting to look on with envy as green as the water in the diving pool. But that’s only if we measure the value of the sport by gold medals supplied in the Olympics. Good for swimming and FINA but they have a sport that tends to get noticed once every four years while cycling has a rich calendar of races with some events that aren’t just sports events but richly significant socio-cultural events but only for the men’s road endurance side. Having extra gold medals in the Olympics for track cycling would be nice but since participation levels for the track are low the Olympics are unlikely to listen to pleas for more. Instead the big work ahead is to take cycling’s weaker areas like the women’s cycling and create annual, viable opportunities for these.