no one line

Gender, The Pursuit, and the Olympic Track Program
November 24, 2009, 2:35 pm
Filed under: pro crap, the cycling world, track racing

Recent weeks have seen some fuss and outrage at the decision by the Union Cycliste Internationale and the International Olympic Committee to rearrange the Olympic track program for 2012.

A fine summation of the issue is here, in an open letter from John Wilcockson. The heart of it was the disparity of men’s and women’s events at the ’08 Olympics, which offered seven opportunities for men to medal, and three for women.

The rearrangement of the program for 2012, however, has attracted much grumbling, largely due to the elimination of the surprisingly fun-to-watch individual pursuit, an event that is young cycling phenom Taylor Phinney‘s bread-and-butter. Apparently suffering from a case of being-a-nineteen-year-old, Phinney has launched a Twitter campaign to save his event. Like his campaign, the mighty muscle of an internet petition also offers no support of addressing the gender disparity. It’s all about the pursuit, isn’t it, boys?

Wilcockson‘s article summarizes the proposed new program: the match sprint, team sprint, keirin, team pursuit, and the omnium. But the omnium includes a pursuit, along with a flying 200, a scratch race, a points race, and a kilo.

It doesn’t exactly take a sharp analytical mind to realize that the pursuit has not been removed from the Olympics – it just means that whiny specialists might have to suck it up and race a couple more races if they want to win a medal.

Wilcockson attributes the inclusion of the omnium to the nostalgia of an anachronism on the UCI Track Commission. Personally, as a fan of the sport (and participant, at its middling levels), I’m much more inclined to want to watch an omnium – to embrace the variables of mass-start races, to have to gauge the strengths of so-and-so in this event against the dominance of so-and-so in that event. It can be a much more exciting, dynamic, spectator-friendly group of events.

The pursuit, while it can have some delightful drama and tension drawn out over its kilometers, is really just two people racing in ovals.

I know which one I’d rather watch.

And considering the self-centeredness and immaturity displayed in the #SaveThePursuit campaign, which fails to sufficiently acknowledge the fact that the UCI and IOC are trying to do the right thing by equalizing medal opportunities for women and men, I’m inclined to hope it fails.

8 Comments so far
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Can’t say I can disagree with your thinking, but I do have what I’m sure is an incredible naive question (I’m just a road guy, afterall): If the issue is evening out men’s and women’s events, why not just add the four missing women’s events and be done with it?

Comment by aviewfromtheback

That’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer. I think it might have to do with the logistics of scheduling all the events.

I get close to swayed in favor of the pursuit by Wilcockson’s first letter, here. But then I found about the T-Phin debacle.

Comment by nooneline

I was awaiting your comments on this matter, and they don’t disappoint. Thanks for orienting me to the issues — I like your stance.
Sadly, I find Taylor P. more talented than personable, unlike his dad, who seems pretty stellar all around.

Comment by Velosopher

I think the IOC is afraid of watering down the medals, since track isn’t super competitive anyway. In fact, I think track was in danger of losing medals.

Comment by Karl

Wow, Noonline, this is great stuff (I have only read this one article and already feel compelled to comment). Thanks for the link also, by the way.
Upon first hearing this news, I admit that I’m very influenced by my American pride to conclude that this is bullshit and that Taylor Phinney needs his event! I’m usually pretty quickly influenced by my butt-pain about Americans’ lack of prowess in olympic cycling. But you’ve got a helluvan argument. Also, I’m just a big fan of the omnium event.
There are other considerations, though (qualifications for omnium limiting smaller countries, e.g.). Here’s an article with a different conclusion (you’ve probably already read it):
Either way, you’re right: the events shouldn’t stay the same just because T-Phin wants it that way (and Americans like me who have never met T-Phin want an olympic track medal).
I like the blog.

Comment by bikefag

Thanks, bike fag. I enjoy your blog, too.

For the record, I do think that the new/proposed program is a little bit whack.

But Phinney’s whining just bugs me so much!

Comment by nooneline

since you’re a decent omnium rider yourself you probably know the subtle distinctions between a the Kilo and individual pursuit, but your average joe sixpack doesn’t understand it, and doesn’t care, when flipping through Olympics coverage looking for womens beach volleyball. The omnium is the cycling equavlent of the decathlon, testing very different skills for a rider, rather thank looking for a single specific skill, that may not translate to TV coverage if the nuance needs to be described to most viewers. Since the Olympics are really driven by TV coverage (see the 17 medal events for each gender in swimming for example). No network presents swimming on TV any other time, but in the Olympics it is huge, not only because Americans excel at it but it is easy to present, and easy to understand.

Track cycling should look to swimming to understand how to grow interest, presenting events that drive casual fans to tune in, rather than hard core fanatics, who will watch even if they have to translate what’s going on from Flemish on choppy YouTube videos (You know you’ve all done it).

I agree that gender equality in the number of events presented is way too late in coming, but more effort should be made to introduce cycling to non-fans, as a way of building and growing the sport.

Comment by Dan

Dan – thanks. Which Dan is this, btw? R.?

While I’m hesitant to evaluate programs based on what makes for best TV viewing, I understand its importance for the sport.

I think that TV coverage THRIVES on telling a story to viewers, whether or not there’s nuance being described.

And with that in mind, I really think that an omnium can make for good viewing. How much can a color commentator say about two people going head to head over 4,000 meters? But if they can tell a story of two or three people competing against each other, they can say, “Now, so-and-so has put down faster times in the short, powerful flying 200. Will they have the endurance to post a good time for the 4,000 meter pursuit and keep the gap between them and so-and-so, a top pursuiter, manageable in order to make everything come down to a scratch race, which would be dominated by the powerful such-and-such team?”

That said… you’re right. How do we manage to ‘care’ about swimming once every four years? Cycling could indeed take some pointers from that sport, and a few others, as well…

Comment by nooneline

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