Commentary: Why Olympic medals matter so much to Cycling Australia

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It seems that every time we write about Cycling Australia’s new plans to chase better results at the Olympics, the comments section fires up. Not everyone thinks medals are a worthy priority.

“Medals schmedals” was the reaction of one commenter to our latest story on changes to CA’s high performance strategy. Another was: “Cycling in Australia needs two bodies – one for the Olympics and one for the rest of us, that actually advocates for and supports its members”.

This highlights the challenge facing the national sporting body – it has two very different key interests to manage. One is its largely road-focussed membership, and the other is an Olympic medal-focussed government program, which is its single biggest source of funding.

At the heart of the matter is this: if you want Olympic medals, track is the most viable option. It’s more predictable than the road race. Most importantly, there are three times as many Olympic medals on offer on the track as there are on the road.

There can be no argument that Australia’s Olympic success has historically been found on the track. It’s where the nation won its only cycling medals at the 2016 Olympics. In 2012 BMX came to the party, providing one of six medals, and back in 2008 it was just track that got the nation on the cycling medal tally. It is not since 2004 that Australia’s road cyclists have delivered a medal, when Michael Rogers took bronze in the individual time trial and Sara Carrigan won gold in the road race.

Carrigan’s 2004 gold medal winning race.

Even so, Australia’s two road medals at the Athens Games were dwarfed by nine on the track. So, it’s no surprise that some of the most concrete changes to come out of a sharpening of Cycling Australia’s focus on medals was walking away from involvement in road-focussed development programmes for up-and-coming riders.

Instead, young riders wanting to find a place in the Cycling Australia development programmes will have to initially opt for the track. The opportunity to step over to the road will only come later in their careers, when Cycling Australia says their prospects of winning a medal on the road are statistically stronger.

Cycling Australia’s new plan includes targets of four to six Olympic gold and 15 Paralympic medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, plus eight Commonwealth Games gold medals on the Gold Coast in 2018. Pursuing these high-level targets isn’t something Cycling Australia feels is at odds with the desire of its grass roots.

“I think the strategy is not diverse from the views of the broad public, particularly the cycling community,” Nick Green, Cycling Australia chief executive officer, told CyclingTips in Adelaide last week. “We just want Aussies to be successful in cycling, whatever the discipline, because we know that success breeds engagement and interest and a talking point.”

Following the money

The reality is, without a strong prospect of success, high-performance money may dry up.

Through the government’s Winning Edge programme sports are categorised and allocated different amounts of funding. It’s the foundation sports – those that are expected to make the largest contribution to the programme’s targets – that soak up the largest allocations of money.

Cycling, being a foundation sport, is one of the best-off. In fact, the only sport that received more funding in 2017/18 was swimming, which delivered 10 medals in 2016 at Rio. Cycling delivered just two.

Team pursuit silver at the Rio Olympics.

It was that Rio performance – well short of the target of five to seven medals – which led to Simon Jones being poached from Team Sky to try and turn things around. Given that was the motivation for his recruitment as high performance director, it’s hardly surprising he is unambiguous about Cycling Australia’s need to focus on medal targets.

“I’m not going to make excuses for aligning our resources to our objectives,” Jones told CyclingTips. “I can understand that might be tough and hard for people to understand but that is what we have been provided the resources to do.”

As mentioned, the money from the Australian Sports Commission is Cycling Australia’s biggest single source of revenue, dwarfing that derived from membership fees. In 2015/16, the $8.9 million provided by the Australian Sports Commission for high performance compares to $2.3 million from membership and $1.6 million from the sports commission for participation and general support.

In total, Cycling Australia had revenue of $20.2 million in 2015/16, which pales in comparison to the lottery funded British Cycling. British Cycling, working with revenue of over $50 million (£30.6 million), has shot to the top of the Olympics cycling results table. It’s held that position, which Australia is chasing, for the past three Olympics.

It was Australia that topped the leaderboard in 2004, but since then it has tumbled down the results list. Indeed, the nation fell to 13th at Rio. The drop in Australia’s medal performance wasn’t limited to cycling alone, which has led to questions being raised about the whole Winning Edge strategy.

Australia is now in the middle of a review of its sports strategy and is expected to release a new National Sport Plan in 2018. As part of this it looks like Australia may again be trying to take a leaf out of the British Cycling book. The country is contemplating lottery funding as part of the new approach.

But, for now, the Winning Edge strategy dictates the rules cycling has to play by if the sport wants the high performance money to keep flowing.

The cost of medals

In some ways the medal-focussed targets of Winning Edge work well to redress the gender imbalance in cycling. At the Olympics, at least, there are an equal number of medals up for grabs in men’s and women’s cycling. That means there is an equal incentive to put money toward the development of potential medallists from each gender.

However, outside the Olympics, there is often less commercial investment in women’s cycling. That means the opportunities are more limited, magnifying the importance of those few which do exist. That’s why the withdrawal of Cycling Australia’s support for the two High5 women’s road development teams as part of a refreshed medal focus is such a hard blow to take.

Cycling Australia withdrew their support from the Orica-Scott women’s team and Mitchelton-Scott development team as well, but owner Gerry Ryan stepped in to fill the gap. Ultimately this means little has changed for the athletes in these teams.

The same can’t be said for the domestically focussed High5 Dream Team and High5 Australian Women’s Development Teams, the latter of which takes developing riders to race in Europe. Manager and contributor to both programmes, Rochelle Gilmore, has told Ella CyclingTips she is trying to find a way to keep them afloat but that with Cycling Australia’s withdrawal the future is uncertain.

If these teams do cease to exist, it’s not likely to have much of an impact on medal prospects. After all, there is only one, unpredictable women’s road race at the Olympics. That makes the withdrawal from the women’s development teams a very rational decision from the perspective of fulfilling the existing benchmarks in the Winning Edge strategy.

The question is, are better medal prospects really worth adding another immediate barrier to Australian female road cyclists trying to launch into the top level at Europe? Does a programme that takes a step toward addressing the imbalance of opportunities in the sport for women hold more value than a medal?

Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith

Cycling Australia said that just because they are cutting their involvement in the road programmes doesn’t mean they are completely moving away from early stage road development. “We have got less chance to win in road racing, full stop, but we know the sport is vital,” said Jones. “Road is the backbone. It has the ease of entry … and we need people in cycling.”

Cycling Australia is working on a plan to close the gap to Europe, by lifting the level of Australian road racing. The top level, the National Road Series, has long been floundering and as a result has been subject to a lengthy review process.

“As a vision we need a stronger domestic base. We need to have a more viable stepping stone,” said Jones. “Our domestic scene has got to be at a higher level and that’s what we have been talking about at board level.”

A rising tide lifts all boats

The Olympics can seem remote from the grassroots of the sport, but Cycling Australia’s contention is that this is far from the case.

When the Olympics is on nearly everyone becomes a sport fan. It doesn’t seem to matter what sport, as it is national pride that dictates the one we will see most of on the screen. If our country gets a medal, particularly a gold one, it’ll loom large in the news.

That type of event, which draws the attention of a nation, is the type of publicity most sports can only dream of in non-Olympic years. It has the potential to make an athlete’s career, deliver a swathe of commercial opportunities to the individual, and woo a huge influx of new participants to reinvigorate an entire sport. And that’s what Cycling Australia is counting on.

“I think we have to be really clear that we are delivering a strategy to deliver that success and then the flow-on effect will happen to the broad cycling community,” said Cycling Australia’s Green. “Not just the track community, or the road community, or the BMX community — everyone will benefit. That’s the aim.”

It’s an aim of replicating the British Cycling experience, or at least some elements of it. The organisation has not been without its controversies, but it has gone from strength to strength in terms of medals and membership. British Cycling membership has grown by 75,000 since 2012, to reach 125,000 in 2016. Not that the Olympics have been the sole driver, with many other high profile top-level performances. There have also been participation programmes such as Sky Ride and the highly successful Breeze women’s cycling programme, plus plenty of other steps forward in the provision of local cycling opportunities. Plus there has been a hefty lottery-funded revenue stream to carry out these and other plans.

But is there any evidence of the same lift in Australia when medals are won? Looking back at participation statistics in 2004, when Australia topped the cycling medal table, participation spiked 13% according to the Australian Sports Commission’s report on participation in exercise, recreation and sport. It then fell less than a percent over the next two years.

Ultimately, only time will tell if this latest plan to return Australia to the top of the medal table will in fact help deliver a sustained re-invigoration of the sport from top to bottom. Or if the focus on medals could come with a cost to the broader health of the sport. However, one certainty is that if Cycling Australia wants to retain its hefty slice of high performance money from the Winning Edge programme, it has little choice but to chase medals.

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