Taking a hard look at qualifying
I've been traveling around the world for a few years, trying to qualify for the Olympics, and I've come up with two opinions on just how difficult it is to get to the Games in cycling.
1. It's really hard: This is the whole blood, sweat and tears thing; the physical, mental, emotional, financial parts of the journey, where you get your butt kicked but get up and try again. This difficulty is expected. It is worth it. It's hard to be an Olympian. It should be.
2. It's really hard: This is the logistical side of Olympic qualification. Cycling for St. Kitts and Nevis, a small nation which has never earned a berth to the Olympics in cycling, my qualification quest is different from those of athletes in the big countries. "Big country" women compete in their own national championships or country-specific means of qualification. But new countries, like St. Kitts and Nevis, have to earn our way into the Games by being ranked in the top 100. To get in the top 100, I need to win or place highly in races put on by the International Cycling Union. This is fair in theory, but the system isn't equal for everyone.
UCI races are usually held in Europe, which isn't the easiest place for Olympic hopefuls in the South Pacific, Caribbean, Asia or South America to travel to. In June, for example, there is a UCI race in Syria -- in the Golan Heights, which is currently not the safest place to travel. Maybe having a race in the middle of a war-torn nation isn't the best way for a federation to look out for its athletes. I think we can do better.
I'm not looking for an easy way into the Olympics. This isn't about me. It's about what I see as the lack of opportunity for smaller nations. I hope I get to the Games and I know I'm doing all I can to qualify. But having seen how the system works, I'm concerned about the next generation.
There's a young rider in St. Kitts and Nevis named Sasha. She's 16, strong and a solid competitor. She could go places. Yet, in nations where small sports federations and athletes are not given the financial backing those in big countries are afforded, Sasha's journey to qualify for the Olympics could be over before it starts. There are no UCI points races in the Caribbean. There is no way for the professional teams to know she exists. There is no program to help smaller, inexperienced nations get a foothold in the old-school cycling world.
My journey to get to the Games isn't backed by a federation or a pro contract. It has been funded by personal airline miles, gift certificates, couch crashing opportunities and my job. But many cyclists in smaller nations don't have these resources.
If the Olympics were founded on the principle of allowing equal opportunity for the best athletes from around the world to compete, it's not OK that some countries barely even have a shot. I'm not advocating we let in inexperienced, unprepared athletes. I'm pushing for the UCI to help harness the untapped potential. The world's next Kristin Armstrong or Jeannie Longo could be saddling up her tricycle in the middle of Malaysia. Under the current system, we'll never know it.
We must establish a way to give the next generation of athletes a better chance. I've got an idea on how to do that.
Time trials -- where racers compete against the clock -- give budding cyclists strength, power and an opportunity to compete without a full team of racers. These races are a great indication of physical potential. Sure, not all cyclists have the gift of endurance (sorry sprinters, I'm working on a plan for you), but having an international database where time trial courses, power output and results can be seen by UCI teams and race organizers might yield terrific opportunities, invitations and point-collecting possibilities for the next generation of potential Olympians.
If the UCI were to promote time trial standards and race opportunities in smaller nations with the publication of results, courses and power data (cycling computers can record such things these days), then two major things would happen: The world would see a new generation of cyclists emerge and the Olympic qualifying system would be just as hard, but much more equal. Bringing the points-based races to developing countries only grows the sport and deepens the talent pool. It may take a few years to produce champions in "underdog" nations, but at least there'd be an opportunity.
At the moment, there is no time trial qualification for the Olympics. To race the time trial, athletes have to qualify in the road race or place in the top 10 at the world championships time trial preceding an Olympic year. This isn't a paid trip and is difficult for small cycling federations to attend. Asking a time trialist to qualify via road race is kind of like telling a freestyle swimmer to race the backstroke -- same sport, very different event.
If a country doesn't have enough riders to form a road racing team, there goes its best shot at the road race or time trial. By encouraging and allowing smaller countries to train athletes specifically in the time trial event -- and putting a program in place to do so -- we'd grow our sport internationally.
That's good for everyone, everywhere. It's a start, anyway. After all, if there is one thing harder than getting to the Olympics, it's telling a young athlete with potential that she has little chance to utilize it. That's really, really hard.