Comment: what is Australian cycling’s real quest?
The ASC’s so-called ‘Winning Edge’ program, based around Olympic success, strongly influences how sports administrators approach other elements of their respective charters. We consider the negative influence of this approach…
Photos: Yuzuru Sunada
The Australian Sports Commission continues to prop up national federations that have Olympic aspirations and the consequences of this are multi-layered. Forgetting, for a moment, the very impact that the quest for victory has on the individuals involved, let’s consider how it impacts other aspects of a sporting federation’s remit.
Changes to the funding model of Cycling Australia have been signed off on by the ASC and almost immediately we have seen the ramifications of the new approach; the team for the road cycling world championships is an abbreviated one that doesn’t allow for a full contingent for the women’s program.
Five riders instead of eight will race in green and gold in Norway later this month, and this topic has already been explored since the announcement was made. But what isn’t so widely known is that this is part of the reallocation of funding adopted by Cycling Australia since the arrival of Simon Jones as high performance director.
His remit, as he keeps reminding anyone who is interested, is to win Olympic medals – ideally gold ones.
But at some point, the question must be asked: what is the value of this investment?
Why should gold medals be the absolute priority of a federation like Cycling Australia?
This approach skews the balance in favour of what are essentially cycling’s least popular events.
With no disrespect intended to those who participate in the timed events of track cycling, which are noble pursuits and a fundamental component of what this sport is founded on, but they are far from the most popular. Still, as we keep being reminded, they are the events that provide the most tangible return on the quest of the Winning Edge program.
“Cycling has 22 medals at the  Olympics, 12 of those are on the track and track cycling will become a very strong focus of our program.”
– Nick Green, Cycling Australia
The Australian women’s pursuit squad (above) were the world champions – and world record holders – in 2015 but a crash in the days leading up to competition in Rio put a spanner in the works for the 2016 Olympic campaign.
The randomness of road cycling is one of the things that makes it appealing. But, as far as the ASC is concerned, the downfall is exactly the lack of predictability: Richie Porte was in the form of his life for the Rio road race but he spectacularly crashed out with broken bones and we’ll never know if he would have been able to win the gold.
More people take to cycling on a road bike than a track bike – it is, quite simply, more accessible. But the more predictable track cycling events are what Cycling Australia is focussing on when it comes to spending. This is where medals are most likely to be won.
Nick Green, the CEO of Cycling Australia, tried to explain the new budgetary allocations when he spoke to RIDE in August but it constantly harks back to the usual theme: Olympic gold is the ultimate aim!
“From a high performance point of view, we have – as an organisation, with the employment of Simon Jones as a high performance director – really looked closely at the investment we receive from tax payers and how do we deliver [a] return which is medals… gold medals,” explained Green.
“So we’re absolutely unashamed to say that the investment will be allocated to deliver medals.”
The mountain bike world championships are being contested in Australia right now and there will be big crowds in Cairns and spectacular racing. The growth of MTB is impressive and uptake of off-road riding is significant… trails are easily accessible, void of traffic and there are many other benefits. Most of all, it’s great fun!
Visit the trails around the nation on any given weekend and there’ll be a wealth of riders out there enjoying themselves and discovering some of the many beautiful things about cycling.
Some of these riders may be enticed into the Winning Edge quest, perhaps in the years to come we’ll see an Australian win Olympic gold on their mountain bike… but there are only two medals on offer in Tokyo: one for women, one for men – and, it could be argued, the cross-country is even more random than the road race.
Chance of success, even if you’re the best athlete in the field? Ah, it’s difficult to calculate. Sorry MTB, no funding priority for you.
“Where the changes are going to occur in the next Olympic cycle is, instead of supporting discipline by discipline and almost have a segregated model of investment into sprint or track or endurance or off-road, on-road… whatever it might be, the investment goes into an athlete-centred program.”
– Nick Green
There is the possibility of combining disciplines, even at Olympic level: Scott Bowden (behind Richie Porte, above) competed for Australia in both the road race and MTB cross-country at the Rio Olympics.
It’s all about Olympic glory. That’s what the government tells the ASC and it’s what the ASC tells Cycling Australia. And that’s why the funding is allocated the way it is.
What isn’t often stated, however, is that the increase in funding that Cycling Australia has earned from the ASC between the Rio and Tokyo Games – yes, there is an increase – has come courtesy of Paralympic success.
What isn’t publicised is that the additional funding will continue to prop up the campaigns of Australian Paralympic cyclists… and it will supplement the spend for other priorities: ie. winning Olympic gold – can’t get enough of that can we?!
The neglect shown to the women’s team for the world championships could be viewed as part of the latest initiative to prioritise the track program over everything else under Cycling Australia’s broad remit, and it’s all because that route provides the most likely out come for Olympic gold.
This line of discussion isn’t new. The issue has been raised a number of times by RIDE Media and sentiment subsequently expressed by many readers in emails and online forums suggests that, while there is admiration for Olympians – whether they succeed or not – there is frustration that the Games continue to be the priority of the federation.
“With one eye we look forward to the future and with the other eye we nurture the absolute world-class talent we have in this country and put them on that pathway to support them for that gold medal that the nation wants at the Olympics in Tokyo.”
– Nick Green
* * * * *
Cycling is about much more than the Olympics. The track events that Cycling Australia makes such a priority are part of the broader picture but they shouldn’t be the focus. According to Nick Green, the amendments to the system will work out in favour of the athletes.
“That’s not to say we’re prioritising or removing investment out of one area into another,” Green explained about the new funding structures.
“We’re actually investing into a different model that provides a central basis of support around world-leading coaches, world-leading athletes, and a system – a high performance network – that those athletes need to be able to win Olympic medals.”
Talk to him about grassroots and he talks about innovations such as the ‘She Rides’ and ‘Let’s Ride’ programs but the Olympics inevitably returns to the conversation. The ASC promotes this thought process: gold = success = funding… and it becomes cyclical from one Olympiad to the next.
We can’t point fingers at Simon Jones and chastise him for making decisions that aren’t terribly popular, but we can question the nature of the funding model that Cycling Australia and many other federations have been forced to kowtow to. And we should continue to question why the Winning Edge program is so heavily skewed towards propping up the IOC’s quadrennial sports carnival.
There’s no doubt that the fortnight of competition every four years is captivating but it shouldn’t be the main objective of government funding of sporting federations.
This year we have seen a series of new appointments for key positions: Steve Bracks, a new chair for Cycling Australia; Peter Conde, the new CEO of the AIS; Kate Palmer, a new CEO of the ASC… and, crucially, Greg Hunt, the new federal minister for sport and minister for health.
Despite changes to funding models, despite reviews of sporting federations, despite new appointments to key roles we still see the same old notions in action.
Apparently success in cycling – and many other sports – equates to bringing home Olympic gold medals. There’s much more to it than that and it would be great if the powerbrokers could at least begin to consider extending their vision and invest in a healthy future for all participants – before, during and after their competitive days.
– By Rob Arnold