The turbulent year British Cycling have suffered was well and truly left in the past as the medals kept coming in the Olympic velodrome in Rio. To underline just how successful Team GB were on the track, every single member of the ten-strong team won at least one medal. Laura Trott lit up the final night of cycling when she defended her title in the omnium, and her fourth gold medal made her the most successful British female Olympian in history.
Trott was not alone, though, not least because her third career gold medal had come earlier in the week in the company of Jo Rowsell Shand, Elinor Barker and Kate Archibald in the all-conquering women’s team pursuit who set world records in each of the three rounds. And neither was she alone before the cycling competition closed down last night: Becky James, already a silver medallist in the keirin, and Katy Marchant added to the medal tally by winning silver and bronze respectively in the sprint. To round it off, Trott’s fiance Jason Kenny won the keirin to equal Sir Chris Hoy’s record medal haul of six golds. The future Mr and Mrs Kenny really are cycling’s power couple.
The British team finished with 12 medals on the track – six gold, four silver and two bronze – and were so successful, so dominant, and in such rich form, that it prompted French, Australian and German cyclists to question how it was possible, all but casting allegations of doping.
The success is all the more remarkable given the upheaval suffered in the months, weeks and days before Rio. From the allegations of bullying, and the setting up of an independent investigation into the behaviour of coach Shane Sutton, to the doping accusations levelled at road rider Lizzie Armitstead after her appeal against three strikes in the whereabouts system was made public, this has been a torrid year for the Manchester-based medal factory.
The women’s sprint had been an obvious omission in the racing schedule in Rio after Marchant and Jess Varnish failed to qualify for the event at the London World Track Championships in March. Both railed against mismanagement from the coaching staff, but it was Varnish who bore the brunt of the row. She was dropped from the Olympic podium programme and told “over the phone” that her contract would be ending. After The Telegraph quoted Sutton saying she was “too old” and there was “no point wasting” further Government funding on her, she accused him of sexist bullying and alleged he told her she was “too fat” and should retire “to have a baby”.
Para cyclists then revealed further allegations of discrimination, including being called “gimps” and “wobblies”, and Sutton was forced to resign just three months before the Games. Yet neither his absence, nor the subsequent upheaval, had any effect on the medal success.
It is perhaps not surprising, however, that male, able-bodied cyclists paid tribute to the disgraced Sutton; athletes who are much less likely to feel the sting of sexism or discrimination. Sir Bradley Wiggins said he believed Sutton would be cleared and hoped he would return to British Cycling. And despite Varnish stating she wouldn’t recommend joining British Cycling, and would want to protect a younger sister from a culture “with cracks”, Wiggins claimed he would be happy to see daughter Bella race under the governing body.
While the absent Sutton made the headlines, the coaches and support staff on the ground in Rio have been hailed as heroes. Trott paid tribute to Paul Manning in an Instagram picture of the duo, thanking the three-time Olympic medallist for “putting up with my crap” and being “the best coach in the world”.
Damaging leaks, bitter selection appeals, doping controversies and allegations of discrimination, it has been a toxic year. Yet from the darkest of days, female superstars and bona fide role models have emerged, as Trott, James, Marchant, Rowsell Shand, Barker and Archibald have shone through the gloom.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.