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A roller coaster ride: A fact file on cycling at the Olympic Games
The important thing in life is not the victory but the contest; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937). Founder of the modern Olympic Games.
Speech delivered at the Fourth Olympiad, London 1908.
Introduction: Cycling at the modern summer Olympic Games
Since 1896 a total of 27 modern summer Olympic Games have been held at regular four year intervals. The exceptions were during WWI and WWII. Cycling competitions have featured at every one of these 27 Games held between 1896 and 2012. However, there have been many variations and changes in the Olympic cycling programme down the years. Controversies have surrounded many of these as well as certain participants and the outcomes of specific events. In short, Olympic cycling has been a rollercoaster ride.
This fact file traces milestones in Olympic cycling contests down the years in point form. It first identifies different eras in Olympic cycling history and then explores each of these in further detail.
Five distinct historical periods are evident in cycling at the Olympics. These, together with the date and location details of their constituent Games, are:
• The ‘Originals’ (1896–1912): 1896 Athens; 1900 Paris; 1904 St. Louis; 1908 London; 1912 Stockholm [Total: 5]
• The Interwar Games (1920–1936): 1920 Antwerp; 1924 Paris; 1928 Amsterdam; 1932 Los Angeles; 1936 Berlin [Total: 5]
• The Post–WWII Games (1948–1960): 1948 London; 1952 Helsinki; 1956 Melbourne; 1960 Rome [Total: 4]
• The Cold War Games (1964–1992): 1964 Tokyo; 1968 Mexico City; 1972 Munich; 1976 Montreal; 1980 Moscow; 1984 Los Angeles; 1988 Seoul; 1992 Barcelona [Total: 8]
• The ‘Open’ Games (1996–2012): 1996 Atlanta; 2000 Sydney; 2004 Athens; 2008 Beijing; 2012 London [Total: 5]
What follows are details of the Olympic cycling competitions in each one of these periods.
The Original Games (1896–1912)
Table 1 is a summary of the cycling competitions held at the five Games held during this period.
• The cycling programmes over these five Games varied widely. Virtually all they had in common was that the events were limited exclusively to amateur male cyclists.
• Many of the Olympic cycling events contested in this period were unique to only one Games programme, thus:
• The first Games in 1896 included a 12hr. track race
• At St Louis in 1904 all the events were based on the Imperial mile and there was no road race
• At Stockholm in 1912 the road race was a 320km. individual time trial in which the 126 riders started at two minute intervals beginning at 2 a.m.
• The Olympic cycling events at Paris 1900 were contested over a period of several months as part of a ‘World’s Fair’ and were mixed in with events that included professionals. This occurred at a time when the governance of world cycling was in crisis, ultimately resulting in the founding of the UCI (Union Cycliste International) in 1900.
• At St Louis in 1904 the cycling events had only American competitors who totalled 18 riders
• The track cycling events at London 1908 were contested at White City. At these the sprint event was declared null and void when the competitors exceeded the stipulated time limit.
• The Games organisers of Stockholm 1912 did not want to stage any cycling events at all. Only after other nations protested was the road race hastily included but no track events were arranged.
• The Stockholm 1912 road race was won by the South African Rudolph ‘Okey’ Lewis in a time of 10:42:39 for the 320km. individual TT. It was the first and only time that a South African has won an Olympic gold in cycling. Freddie Grubb (GB) won the silver medal in 10:51:24.2 and Carl Schutte (US) the bronze in the event in 10:52:38.8. The British multi–world champion Leon Meredith finished fourth.
WWI (1914–1918) decimated the ranks of early 20th century cyclists. Few who survived were to return to competitive cycling after the war.
The Interwar Games (1920–1936)
We swear we will take part in the Olympic Games in a spirit of chivalry, for the honour of our country and for the glory of sport.
Original Olympic Oath (first taken by competitors at the 1920 Antwerp Games)
During the interwar period the cycling programme of events held at successive Olympics exhibited stability and continuity. This was in marked contrast to the situation which had prevailed during the pre–war original Games. Table 2 provides details of Olympic cycling contests during the interwar period.
• At the 1920 Antwerp Games the British pair of Thomas Lance and Harry Ryan won the gold in the tandem event. They were the last British riders to do so for 72 years until Chris Boardman won the gold medal at Barcelona 1992 in the 4 000m individual pursuit.
• From 1920 to 1932 the Olympic road race took the form of a long distance individual time trial with individual times being aggregated to decide on the team medals.
The interwar Olympic road races run
as individual TTs (!920–1932) served to produce several
At London 1948 – the
‘Austerity Games’ – it was anticipated
that the home
favourite and reigning world amateur sprint champion, Reg Harris, would
win the match sprint gold medal. It came as a shock, therefore, when
Harris was beaten in the sprint final on the outdoor Herne Hill track
by the Italian teenager Mario Ghella in two straight races. Harris also
won silver in the tandem event with partner Alan Bannister. Ghella went
on to win the UCI world amateur sprint title in 1948 on the Amsterdam
1928 Olympic track.
Sport was an important way in which the communist nations of Eastern Europe asserted themselves during the Cold War, and cycling was one of the key disciplines … By the 1970s Poland, the Soviet Union and East Germany all boasted ‘amateur’ cycling teams … with full–time cyclists whose ’jobs’ were often military.
William Fotheringham (2010). Cyclopedia. p.122.
• Patrick Sercu (Belgium) who won the 1000m individual TT at Tokyo 1964 went on to enjoy a glittering professional career on both road and track. He was twice world pro sprint champion (1967 and 1969) and won many six day races.
• At Tokyo 1964 the reigning world amateur road champion Eddy Merckx (Belgium) dominated the Olympic road race. However, when in a small breakaway group approaching the finishing straight Merckx was controversially brought down by another rider in a crash on the final corner. He finished unplaced. Mario Zanin (Italy) won the mass sprint for the gold medal. Merckx turned professional shortly afterwards.
• Eastern Bloc dominance of Olympic cycling gathered momentum during this period. At Moscow 1980 five of the six gold medals were won by riders representing East Germany and the USSR.
• Hennie Kuiper (Ned) who won the Munich 1972 road gold became a successful pro roadman. This included winning the world pro road championship in 1975.
• At Montreal 1976, where the track events were contested on an indoor track for the first time since Paris 1924, the tandem event was discontinued. It had been contested in 13 previous Olympics beginning with London 1908.
• Daniel Morelon of France won the match sprint gold at two Olympics: Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972. He thus became the first person to win two Olympic sprint titles. (This feat was later repeated by the woman sprinter, Erika Salumae). At Mexico 1968 Morelon also won tandem gold with partner Pierre Trentin.
• In the sprint final at Mexico 1968 Morelon set an Olympic record for the final 200m of 10.68 secs. At the same Games in winning the gold medal Trentin set an Olympic record in the 1 000m individual TT of 1:03.91. The tandem pairing of Morelon and Trentin achieved a final 200m time of 9.83 secs in beating Jansen and Loevesijn (Ned) for the gold. These times were achieved on an outdoor track at the high altitude of Mexico City. It was the thinner air at this altitude which subsequently attracted both Eddy Merckx and Francesco Moser to successfully attack the world hour record in Mexico City.
• In Olympic cycling during this period East–West rivalry was reflected in the gold medal tally. This was headed by the USSR (6 golds) followed by France (5 golds), Italy (4 golds), West Germany (4 golds) and East Germany (3 golds).
2. Los Angeles 1984–Barcelona 1992: the advent of Olympic women’s cycling
There is still no category for women riders in the Olympics. This should be changed.
R. Watson & M. Gray (1978) The Penguin Book of the Bicycle. p.236
While the UCI first introduced women’s title events into its annual world championships in 1958, as the above quote indicates, in the 1970s Olympic cycling still remained an exclusive male preserve. It was to be 26 years before the Olympics admitted women’s cycling at Los Angeles1984.
In 1958 the UCI instituted three women’s world championships: a mass–start road race together with the match sprint and the 3000m individual pursuit on the track. Russian women dominated the sprint event for two decades. Galina Ermolaeva (USSR) won the first four women’s world sprint titles (1958–1961) and was succeeded by her compatriots Savina and Tsareva who both became multiple world sprint title winners. The first woman to win the road world title was Elsy Jacobs (Luxembourg) to be followed in subsequent years by Yvonne Reynders (Belgium) and Beryl Burton (GB). Although Lydia Kochetova (USSR) won the first UCI world pursuit title, it was an event which Beryl Burton dominated, winning the title five times in the period up until 1966. Thereafter a succession of Russian women proceeded to win the event.
In contrast to the UCI, the IOC delayed the inclusion of women’s cycling at the Olympic Games until the 1980s and even then kept it to a minimum. The initial breakthrough came at Los Angeles 1984. However, at these Games women’s cycling was confined to a single event: a road race. The gold medal winner was Connie Carpenter (US), a former speed skater, who outsprinted her team mate Rebecca Twigg for an historic victory.
Over the course of the three Games in
this period, women’s cycling events gradually increased from
at LA 1984 to two (match sprint and road race) at Seoul 1988 and three
(match sprint, 3000m individual pursuit and road race) at Barcelona
1. The Expansionist era in Olympic cycling (1996–2004)
Following Barcelona 1992,
the IOC abandoned its longstanding
distinction between amateurs and professionals and the UCI followed
suit. As a result the 1996 Atlanta Games were
‘open’ to all
cyclists. In the process the Games cycling programme was progressively
enlarged and modified during this phase (See Table 6).
2. The ‘Team GB’ Games (2008 – 2012)
Improvements in British
track cycling performances at the Olympics
continued in the wake of Boardman’s gold at Barcelona 1992.
Sydney 2000 Jason Queally (GB) won the 1000m individual TT. Then at
Athens 2004 Chris Hoy won gold in the same event and Bradley Wiggins
took the gold medal in the individual pursuit. However, Team
major breakthrough came at Beijing 2008 where the team won gold medals
in eight of the 14 cycling events. Five golds were won by British men
and 3 golds by British women Clearly British competitive cycling had
undergone a transformation. This is directly traceable to the advent of
a cycling performance programme generously funded largely by the
British national lottery.
At Beijing 2008 the cycling programme
scaled back by discontinuing the men’s 1 000m individual TT
the women’s 500m individual TT. Eliminating the
was particularly controversial as it had a long Olympic history, having
been first introduced at Amsterdam 1928 and won by many iconic track
cyclists down the years. These included Falk Hansen, Dunc Gray, Van
Vliet, Mockridge, Faggin, Sercu, Trentin, Fredborg and Hoy.
In British cycling circles it was
widely believed that the new reduced Olympic track programme and the
limitations on riders per nation at London 2012 were the result of an
IOC/UCI conspiracy to undermine the British dominance of Olympic
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