Archive for the ‘cycling’ Category

Summer sport: when pre-season feels like mid-season

April traditionally marks the start of the summer sporting season in the northern hemisphere: cricket in England, the Masters Golf tournament in the US, the Paris-Roubaix cycling race. Now that so many sports operate all year, the excitement of a new season risks being lost.

The burden of constant competition takes its toll on athletes too. Rafael Nadal had to withdraw from a semi-final match in Miami last week due to injury; England cricketer Stuart Broad may miss the next match in Sri Lanka; and Tiger Woods pulled out of a tournament two weeks ago. All of them want to make sure they are fit for high profile events coming up in the next few weeks.

There are significant debates going on in several sports between competing interest groups about how to manage the calendar (see, for example, FIFA trying to force clubs to release footballers for Olympic competitionNadal resigning from the ATP players’ council due to lack of agreement in changing the ranking system to give players more flexibility in their schedules; and proposals to establish a multi-sport European Games). The federations and leagues in each sport all want access to the best players and to stage events in as many markets as possible but the calendar is crowded.

Sports competitions have proved fairly resilient in tough economic times. Although some lower level tournaments disappeared from the calendar in golf, tennis and other sports, the higher profile events have kept going, even if they have had to cut costs. Quite a few world and continental championships rely on a hefty subsidy from host cities but still manage to attract bids from cities hoping to attract other events in future. Commercial considerations therefore have only a limited restraining effect on the ambitions of federations and leagues.

The disputes about competition calendars tend to involve player unions or representatives, leagues and governing bodies. Leagues and governing bodies often have competing interests (such as the “club v country” debate) and resolve their differences through a power struggle. In individual sports, athletes are probably in a stronger bargaining position to determine how often they compete because they are more difficult to replace. In team sports it is of course possible to solve the problem of player burn-out by having bigger squads. The logical consequence of this is that top European football clubs pay some international standard players vast amounts of money to play a handful of games a season.

As interest in professional sport develops in more and more markets, the pressure on athletes to perform all year round looks set to increase. Clashes between competing competitions (such as the Indian Premier League and English domestic cricket or between Olympic football and pre-season tournaments) will become more common. Unfortunately, athletes will sometimes be forced into making a decision which is not in their best interests: playing when half-fit, or choosing one competition above another due to external pressure. Legal clashes are inevitable.

Athletes in spring training are looking forward to the opportunities of the new season. No doubt the sports lawyers are limbering up too.

Can cycling capture the British imagination?

A view on cycling here in the UK from my colleague here in London, Charlie Almond:

In years to come, Sunday 24th July 2011 should be noted as one of the most successful in British sporting history; where we witnessed one of the most incredible achievements on one of sport’s most demanding and challenging stages.   It was certainly one for the headline writers, the triple success of Khan, England cricket & Lewis Hamilton was impressive enough and something to celebrate:

But it was the feat of a 25 year old Manx man on the Champs-Élysées that was the most remarkable, but possibly less appreciated.

Over the past 20 years, British cycling has had much success, particularly on the track.  The titanic battles between Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree in the 90’s saw them swapping the World hour record then in the 00’s Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins came to the fore, along with Nicole Cooke, Rebecca Romero & Vicky Pendleton in 2008.  But while gold medals briefly sparkle in the eyes of the public, the true measure of cycling success in the eyes of cycling purists is measured on tarmac, or to be precise, the cobblestones of Paris.

The Tour de France is one of the toughest events any athlete can compete in, both physically and mentally.  The first 10 days of riding see them maintain impressive speeds of around 45km/h over distances of around 175km.  Each day.  And that’s before the mountain stages kick in.  Visits to the Pyrennes and then the Alps have riders grinding out over two or three climbs on each stage, with climbs of around 12 – 20km long at gradients of around 8%.  It’s hard to comprehend the pain these guys go through, the lactic acid building in their legs particularly when climbing, but imagine walking to the top of the Empire State Building twice a day (without stopping)…and then you’re beginning to get close.

Only once before has a British rider ever won a jersey on the tour (Robert Millar was King of the Mountains in 1984).  Before Mark Cavendish, proud wearer of this year’s “maillot vert” (green jersey, awarded for sprinting) no British rider had been able to endure the pain and exhuastion of completing on these stages, day after day for three weeks and be there at the very end to sprint to victory on the final day on the Champs-Élysées.  Cav has done it three times now.

Now despite appearances, road racing is not just an individual sport.  You cannot reach the end of the race and be fresh enough for a sprint finish unless you have an exceptionally disciplined and supportive team.  They protect their lead rider: conserve his energy, keep him out of crashes, keep him fed and watered.  And in HTC-Highroad, Cav has one of the best teams out there.  And boy does he know it.  After every stage victory, one of the first things the Manx Missile will do is thank his team.  His best friend Bernie Eisel and the Australian Mark Renshaw are particularly important to him, both going beyond the call of duty to support his sprints to the finish line.

Unlike in France, Italy and to a lesser extent Spain (where cycling is a way of life and the main protagonists are treated like Demigods):

…here in the UK they are very much second fiddle to the stars of football, rugby, cricket, golf and even tennis (albiet for 2 weeks a year).  And that’s understandable, but perhaps that’s about to change.  One guy who will be looking on ruefully at Cav’s picture on the front pages will be Bradley Wiggins.  Riding for Team Sky (which for all intents and purposes is the Team GB Cyling team) he started the Tour in the form of his life and was looking to eclipse his 4th place finish of 2009 and challenge for the overall victory.  Sadly a innocuous looking crash on stage 7 saw Bradley break his collarbone, forcing him out of the race.  It was a cruel blow, both for Wiggins and for Team Sky who had prepared to support him all the way to Paris.  But he will be back – seeing the 34 year old Cadel Evans claim overall victory will encourage Wiggins that he still has time on his side while his absence allowed two younger Brits, Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift to shine and they have a bright future.

The question is will cycling now take a bigger place in the hearts of us Brits?  The heroics of Cavenidsh will certainly help.  So too will the major investment by Sky and hopefully other sponsors will follow suit.  Potential brands must have looked on enviously at HTC being plastered across the pages over the past few weeks – and Cav certainly knows the score when it comes to keeping sponsors happy…

With the likes of Cav, Wiggins, Thomas & Swift set to command the front of the peloton and hopefully keep their faces and jersey’s front of mind, this could be the ideal time for brands to invest in British cycling and take advantage of a golden generation.

Long march to Olympic qualification

At the European Track Cycling Championships next week and a number of other forthcoming sporting events, Olympic qualification will be on the minds of athletes and media.

Now that the mid-point of the cycle between Beijing 2008 and London 2012 has passed, competitions in many sports take on another dimension because results count towards Olympic qualifying.

Next week’s track cycling event in Poland is the first of 12 in the qualification process. British Cycling makes a commendable but ultimately baffling attempt to explain how the system works – see the full rules here.

It really isn’t as simple as you might think to determine the best athletes in a given sport, not once you take into account continental allocations, male and female athlete quotas and the opportunity for riders to double up in multiple events. Beyond that there is the distinct whiff of political meddling in several sports, as international federation officials look to serve the interests of the members they represent.

With limited financial resources and injury-prone athletes to consider, coaches and management teams (that’s “dad” in quite a few cases) spend hours studying rules, competition schedules and recent results trying to work out which events athletes should enter.

Journalists who dip in and out of different Olympic sports could be forgiven for getting confused from time to time. What chance then for the fans following competitions on television or reading about them?

The complexity of the Olympic qualification system hinders the promotion of some of the less commercial sports. World rankings in tennis or golf are imperfect and occasionally produce odd outcomes but they do at least provide a straightforward guide.

In a complicated world there is little prospect of qualification processes becoming less convoluted. International federations and sponsors would do well to consider how they communicate what is happening. A simple ranking list or well-designed graphic would be much appreciated. Not least by dad.

Commonwealth Games: differentiate to survive

Looking beyond the construction delays in Delhi as the city prepares  for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, there are some useful lessons for the future of major multi-sport events.

The Times of India is one of many news outlets that has covered in detail the scramble to finish preparations in time for the opening of the Games on 3 October. It has featured a number of stories about athletes withdrawing, sometimes blaming minor injuries, sometimes explicitly citing potential risks to their health.

The first and perhaps biggest name to withdraw was sprinter Usain Bolt (focusing on 2011). He has been followed by numerous elite competitors including  British cyclists such as Chris Hoy (clash with European Championships), Australian discus thrower Dani Samuels (concerns about health and safety), tennis player Elena Baltacha (health worries), and many others.

The clue is in the sports of the high profile absentees:
- Athletics – this is the only year in a four year cycle without either a World Championships or Olympic Games (and there were European Championships this year) so athletes want to have a rest
- Cycling – the European Championships clashes with the Commonwealth Games and has become an important event for Olympic qualification
- Tennis – with the focus on the four Grand Slam events, players have often appeared indifferent to the Olympic Games and other multi-sport events featuring tennis

It is noticeable that there are far fewer absentees in sports such as rugby 7s, netball, hockey, swimming and indeed the para-sport events on the Commonwealth Games programme in athletics, swimming, table tennis and power lifting.

These are all sports which have room in their calendar for the Commonwealth Games and which draw many of their top athletes from the eligible countries. From a British perspective there is also the interest of seeing England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland plus Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man compete in separate teams.

While athletics and tennis draw big television audiences for their biggest events, they will not do so in the absence of their star performers. I would argue that multi-sport competitions such as the Asian Games, Pan-American Games and others would benefit from differentiating more in their sports programmes and schedules.

Attempts to cut sports from major events will always be met with resistance – few stakeholders will vote for their own abolition – but innovation can bring success. The Commonwealth Games was the first to introduce rugby 7s to a multi-sport event and it is now on the Olympic programme. Similarly, the recent Youth Olympic Games in Singapore trialled new formats such as combined male/female relay events, which were well-received.

It is inevitable that hard-pressed athletes will pick and choose major championships in an over-crowded calendar. For event owners it is better to acknowledge that fact and to look for ways to differentiate than to imitate the Olympic Games and fall short.

Tour de France and the 3Ls

After a week of racing, the Tour de France has reached the mountains, when huge crowds line the streets to see the cyclists gasp their way along winding lanes. With as many as a million spectators each year, it is sometimes claimed that Le Tour is the world’s third largest sports event.

It is clear that the FIFA World Cup and summer edition of the Olympic Games are the two largest sports events, each involving over 200 countries and attracting a TV audience that is a significant chunk of the world’s population.

Regarding the next in line, however, there is some doubt. It really depends whether you measure participants, crowds, TV audience, economic impact or some more subjective criteria. In addition to the Tour de France, claims have also been made that quite a few other events are the third largest. Here is a list of what might I would like to call the 3Ls:
UEFA EURO – large TV audience and economic impact – next edition Poland/Ukraine 2012
Asian Games – over 30 sports and 6,000 participants - next edition Guangzhou 2010
Commonwealth Games – involves over 50 countries and one third of the world’s population – next edition New Delhi 2010
Maccabiah Games – over 7,000 participants – happening 12-23 July 2009 in Israel
IAAF World Championships in Athletics – large number of participating countries – next edition in August in Berlin
ICC Cricket World Cup – massive interest in India with over 1 billion population - next edition India/Bangladesh/Sri Lanka 2011
IRB Rugby World Cup – ticket sales – perhaps not a very strong case – next edition New Zealand 2011

A case could also be made for the Olympic Winter Games (Vancouver 2010). The fact that ardent sports fans may not have heard of some of the 3Ls, depending on where they live in the world, demonstrates that only football and the Olympic Games are truly universal.

Organisers, rights-holders and sponsors can be forgiven for talking up the significance of their events as nobody particularly wants to be promoting the 8th biggest sports event in the world and it’s difficult to make a fully objective judgement in any case. What is relevant to fans in India is not necessarily of interest in France and vice versa.

The Tour de France has a unique place on the list of 3Ls as the only event which takes place every year – the others are quadrennial - and always predominantly in the same country. Completing the Tour is a great feat of endurance and it is worth bearing in mind that it will only be in two weeks, on Sunday 26 July, when the riders will be greeted by the welcome sight of the finish line in the Champs Elysées in Paris. By that time many other major sporting competitions that are not among the 3Ls will have been and gone.