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Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 5

So last time, in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 4 I started a discussion of UK Track cycling and how the UK went from also rans to the highest levels of the sport in a relatively short period of time.  First I introduced track cycling in general, bored you to death with a bunch of sociocultural crap, talked about some of the events and the physiology involved in success

From there, I introduced how the UK  decided to go from nobodies to dominance, did so in the span of about 10 years and how an infusion of UK lottery money was sort of the ‘key’ to let this happen (I’m sure the idea that money solves everything will make at least one forum poster happy).  But there was still a critical factor in all of this.

Oh yeah, briefly, it has been brought to my attention that some of my description of the the UK and what it is comprised of are not exactly correct.  I can live with it; my goal is not to give a geography lesson but rather to detail sports dominance in whatever the UK exactly comprises.  Trust me, when you see me completely garble the distinction between Russia, the USSR and the Soviet Union on Thursday you will realize I’m just a dumb, lazy American in this regard.  I can live with it and it doesn’t really change the point I’m trying to make.  Moving on.

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The UK’s Got Talent

Because as I talked about in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 3, none of the above means squat if you don’t have the talent.  But as I mentioned it’s not as if cycling isn’t monstrous in Europe and the UK.  It’s part of the culture, the country is set up for cycling and there are just tons and tons and tons of folks riding bikes.  The numbers of potential athletes were certainly there.  But did they have what it would take (or the interest in the first place) to pursue this odd little niche sport called track cycling?

And as it turned out there were a small group of dedicated track cyclists who had been doing what they could to perform to the best of their ability already.  But they were hamstrung by having to work, not having the equipment or coaching that they needed, not having the facilities that they needed or any of the other important factors I discussed in the first three parts of this series.  They had zero support and that meant zero results.

And UK Cycling changed all of that by giving them the money, the coaches, the equipment, the facilities to finally be able to realize their potential, whatever was needed.  And make no mistake they were expected to produce.  Continued funding was predicated on finding talent and producing medals so they couldn’t just dick around.  It was produce or lose funding (as it should be).  They either needed one monster star, or more than one who could start winning medals, and do it quickly.

This point is worth reiterating: it’s not as if they grabbed a bunch of untrained guys and took them to the top level overnight. Or pulled a bunch of folks from a different but related sport and tried to convert them.  The athletes were already there working their nuts off for no benefits and with no support.  And while track cycling has it’s nuances, riding a bike isn’t the most technical of sports compared to a lot of other activities (where it can take 5-10 years to learn good technique).

Probably the biggest issue is learning how to ride the velo itself in terms of holding a good line, learning to utilize the banking for accelerations and attacks (in time trials cyclists switch off by coming up and then back down the banking to reattach to the line of cyclists).  Most velos will actually make you take a qualifying class before you can ride so that you don’t kill yourself or someone else.

There are also some real tactical issues in the match sprint and it’s like a chess match where the winner may be the best tactician, not necessarily the best rider.  Explaining why would take too long and get too far off track (ha ha redux).  The technique of the velo excluded, the other events tend to be more about pure physiology and pacing.

As I said above, road cyclists can transition to the track fairly easily in the endurance events.  Once they learn how to ride the velo itself (apparently coming down the banking is all kinds of exciting, it’s like running down a 2 story building) they’ve got the physiological tools necessary to compete.

And initially UK Track Cycling did focus more on the enduros, much to the chagrin of the sprinters.  It wasn’t as if there weren’t a billion and one road cyclists who might potentially generate results.  Sprinting on the track was its own black art with secrets and tactics and nobody present in the early days had the knowledge or experience to really help those guys (that would change with the hiring of some ex-Aussie sprint coaches).  Which makes it a bit more amusing that the UK’s first monster talent came in the sprints.

So, again, they needed to take their newly found resources, provide it to the athletes who were already there and hopefully find a monster talent who had what it took (physically and otherwise) to reach the top.   And fairly soon after starting the program they found him.  His name was Chris Hoy.

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That’s Sir Chris Hoy, Mate

Chris Hoy was an ex-BMX rider (a sport predicated on explosive power and starts and bike handling) from Scotland (land of sheep and haggis) who had toiled on the track for years for apparently nothing more than the sheer love of the sport and wanting to be the best.  He had reached the limits of where he could go with BMX, wasn’t wired or built for the road and that left sprinting on the velodrome as pretty much his only option.  His autobiography is excellent reading and I highly recommend it.  This is Chris Hoy, by the way.  Excuse me, Sir Chris Hoy.

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Ride a bike to get jacked!
Ride a bike to get jacked!

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He was the guy in the standing start video I put in the previous part of the article and here you can see him explaining squatting technique better than most S&C coaches or personal trainers.

Let me make it clear that he was far from the only successful UK track cyclist.  The UK also had success with other sprinters, in the women’s events (see below) and in the endurance events.  But he was arguably the most dominant and the one who did the most to put a face on the sport in the UK.  So I’ll focus on him for now.

After years of such toil, when UK track cycling finally get their program in place, Hoy rose to the top of the sport and simply dominated the 1km time trial and the team time trial (with 2 other sprinters in the program).   After the 1km time trial (his premiere event) was eliminated from the Olympics, he spent the necessary years figuring out the match sprint (again, one of the most technical/tactical events) and dominated there.

He also got involved in the Keirin, that weird race I mentioned where riders are pulled up to speed behind a Derny (a weird looking little motorcycle) before launching what amounts to a final sprint to the finish.  Where he kicked butt both in Japan and elsewhere (a small number of non-Japanese racers are allowed to do the circuit in Japan).

A race often predicated on tactics (in Japan you actually have to declare your tactics ahead of time for betting reasons and then stick to it or you get penalized), Hoy would get behind the Derney and then just go hard off the front.  Tactically it wasn’t ideal (it’s easier to sit in someone’s slipstream and pass them at the end) but he was so strong that nobody could get around him.

He became a multiple Olympic medal winner and world record holder and nearly killed himself (literally) trying to set a 1km world record at the high-altitude velodrome in Bolivia (he put himself into shock with the effort due to the lack of oxygen).  During his two attempts on back to back days in 2007 he not only clocked two sub 60 second kilos (he’s was one of only three riders to crack 60 seconds) but missed breaking the record by a soul shattering 0.005 seconds: he went 58.880 to a Frenchman’s 58.875.

Clearly, Hoy had the talent and the ability (and make no mistake, he wasn’t the only rider producing, just the most well known and visible) to reach the top.   Remember how I talked about some of the physiological requirements of track cycling in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 4?

Well Hoy was 6’1″, 93k (200 lbs) and you might compare that to a typical road cyclist who might be 60-70kg soaking wet.  At his peak, he had a maximum power output of 2483watts (a good road sprinter might hit 1200-1400w, mind you that’s usually after 70-100km in the saddle; an untrained 93kg individual might expected to do 930w).  His maximum back squat of 227.5 kg (500 lbs) came before one of his best performances.  His goal going in was to hit PR’s in each individual component important to his races, that meant in the gym, in the flying 200m on the track, etc.  Interestingly Ben Johson did the same thing prior to his world record run, hit PR’s in each individual component contributing to his performance.

Basically, he was the right height/weight, had/developed a monster power output and the strength needed (to turn over the big gear so critical to top speed) along with the years of background in BMX as a kid along with a decade of pursuing the sport on his own until the funding came along.  This was a man built for bicycle track sprinting.

And when UK Cycling came along with the support, coaching, facilities, equipment, he was finally allowed to realize his potential.  I’m actually not going to detail the issue of support, rest and recovery here as I did for the Kenyans, I already talked about it in oblique terms in the last part.  Sufficed to say that the UK track cyclists were completely supported, allowed to train full time, rested when they weren’t training and provided with everything they needed to realize their potential.

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Diet and Drugs

Briefly I should touch on this I guess.  I don’t have much information about the diet issue except what Hoy talks about in his book.  His diet is very standard sports nutrition based around fruits and vegetables and lots of lean protein.  Plenty of protein shakes and it looks like what you’d expect a more or less sprint athlete to eat.  Sufficient but not excessive carbs or calories, lots of protein.  He swears off of alcohol for 6 months before big events.   Just about what you’d expect from the best in the world in what is a sprint event.

The drug issue isn’t something I genuinely do not have any information about.  As I mentioned in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 4, part of the reason that UK Cycling specifically targeted the track is that not only was road cycling dirty as hell when the project started (the late 90’s, the Festina bust happened in 1998) but they felt that either track cycling didn’t have the same culture of doping or that they could get around it with better training, equipment, etc. and their focus on finding that extra percent here and there.  Beyond that, I am completely in the dark about the extent of use in track cycling or whether or not any of the UK cyclists used or have failed a drug test.

But all of this still doesn’t address one of the most important issues, for either Hoy or the other cyclists.  The factor that, even with the rest of the system in place, ensures that nothing will happen.

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Incentives and Motivation

So what was Hoy’s motivation (or that of the other trackies)?  What drove him to pursue a sport for years that literally provided no incentives or benefits with not even the remotest light at the end of the tunnel?  Based on his autobiography it seems to have been primarily an internal drive to be the best and out of love for the sport.  As I said above, he had reached the limits of BMX, wasn’t suited to the road and sprinting on the track was his only option short of retirement.  So he just kept going and going until the windfall of the UK Lottery money allowed him to finally reach his true potential.

There appears to have been an element of national pride (both for Scotland, his home country, and the UK) involved as well. Certainly Scotland was his homeland but he raced under the UK/GB flag and wouldn’t have reached the top without UK Cycling’s support.  He certainly didn’t appear to do it for money or fame or to get knighted (that came later anyhow).  He simply spent too many years toiling against all odds to reach the top for that to have been his primary goal.

Once when asked if he supported the idea of a Scotland only Olympic team, he simply got pissed off.  He states in his book that he seems himself as Scottish AND part of the Great Britian/the UK and considered the question absurd.  Without UK support he’d never have gotten to the level that he did; he has plenty of Scottish pride but that’s within being a member of the UK as a whole.  This is important for the bit about psychology next.

As I mentioned in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 4 that doesn’t meant that future trackies won’t do it for potential financial gain or fame or glory now that that is part of the package; again cycling overseas is a very blue collar activity and many pursue it for a better life than they would otherwise have.  And while the opportunities and interest were always there in road cycling, what Hoy and the others have done is create a tradition of success (and emulatable heroes) on the track.   Kids growing up will see their country representing itself at the highest levels and they just might ask for a fixed gear bike instead of the geared model.  Maybe.

Effectively this is what happened in Kenya in the late 1960’s with the first Kenyan marathon win.  It started the tradition of success that only drove itself forwards, driving more peolpe into the sport which combined with everything else…you get the point.

The tradition in track cycling in the UK that has now been established increases the likelihood of finding another monster talent who will get the support, coaching and equipment that they need to realize their potential.  The cycle (track cycle?) once created becomes self-sustaining.  It was always there on the road and now it’s there on the track (and the UK now has the facilities and experience to develop the best going forwards so the necessary infrastructure is in place).

Whether it’s for national pride, fame, glory or money won’t matter; they will be riding their hearts out with the support that they need to realize their potential if it exists.  It’s the same basic story as the Kenyans with the one major difference: UK cycling put this in place as a deliberate choice (and had the resources to do it) whereas Kenya developed seemingly by a happy set of accidental coincidences.  Moving on.

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Psychology

Since I touched on psychology when I talked about the Kenyans I should mention it here.  Especially as there is an oddity about the psychology of British sport that is worth mentioning here, I can’t recall if it comes from on of my sources below or one of the other books I’ve seen on this issue (might have been Obree’s book).    But one of them made the explicit point that, for purely cultural reasons, folks in the UK have had somewhat of a block against striving for success in sport.

Basically there was a culture of mediocrity and it was more of a ‘It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game’ kind of thing (very process oriented to be sure but that doesn’t necessarily get you to the top).  I imagine it came out of the underlying ‘properness’ inherent to the culture.

Mind you this is the same group that says ‘Never kick a man when he’s down’ when any good American knows that that is the best time to kick a man; he’s right by your foot.  It’s also the same group that glorified dying pointlessly to make a point about ‘doing what’s proper’ in Charge of the Light Brigade.  I’ll let a Freudian analyze that one.  My point being that winning or even attempting to win at sport seemed to be ‘improper’ at a cultural level.

And this is distinctly different than the psychology of the Kenyans (who believe on every level that they can win, a belief backed up by the facts that they usually do) and that kind of negative psychology can certainly hold people back.  Put differently, while believing that you can do something doesn’t mean that you can or will (you may not have the talent ability or opportunity); believing that you can’t pretty much ensures that you can’t (because you’ll subconsciously prevent your own success).

Reversing this type of thing is not easy, not on an individual level and certainly not on a country-wide level.  Certainly Hoy and the others on the track must have believed on some individual level that they could and/or deserved to win; if they hadn’t they wouldn’t have put in the work that they did or achieved the results.

But what about changing this on a country-wide level, in terms of promoting the sport in the long-term.  For track cycling to impact in any fashion on the overall mentality about success in the UK would require something different. First of course it required that someone actually reach the top level.  You can’t make folks believe that you can win without winners.  The UK had those.

But I’d argue that it took something more: Hoy and the rest had to win in what I’d call a culturally appropriate way.  That is, they had to fit the overall cultural mold of the UK and it’s people for it to matter.  Consider that Lance Armstrong, who I’ll talk about later in this series, pissed a lot of Europeans off by being a typical American: loud, boastful and arrogant.  He talked a lot of shit but he had the results to back it up so everyone had to suck it up and take it.  He was culturally inappropriate for the continent; of course Americans (who are loud, boastful and arrogant whether we should be or not) ate it up.

To change the mentality about winning and sport in the UK would take not only victory but victory by folks who fit the proper cultural mold.  And Hoy seemed to fit that bill as well.  Not only did he show that UK cyclists could succeed and dominate at the highest level, he showed that they could do it while retaining their UK’ness.   Hoy seems to be about the most soft spoken easy going guy you’d ever meet; he’s just a bloke from Scotland who happened to ride the sheer hell out of a track bike for love of God and Country (or something along those lines).

And yes, this will play a role in later discussions which is why I’m going on about it.

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Let’s Talk About Sex (Well, Gender)

Briefly I should mention the gender issue.  Because while I focused on Hoy, not only were there other male UK trackies generating results but there were several women as well.  Victoria Pendleton kicked some major chick ass at the world level and she wasn’t the only one doing so.

While it’s doubtful that there would ever be as many women in most sports as there are men, certainly there doesn’t appear to be the large bias against British females in cycling as there are for Kenyan women.  And the women have certainly produced on the track as well.   This is Victoria Pendleton, kinda makes you want to ride a bike, no?

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Any caption I'd write would be sexist.
Any caption I’d write would be sexist.

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Summing Up

So there you have it, a precis on how the UK went from being complete nobodies in track cycling to outright dominance in about 10 years with an overview of what they did (mind you, some details were omitted, if you want more information read the books I source below).  They already had a culture of cycling inherent to the country, that meant tons of people at least involved in some aspect of the sport.  As it turned out they had a group of dedicated track cyclists who had been toiling for years without much to show for it.

And then the UK lottery money came through.  Having made the conscious decision to become a force on the track, UK Cycling used that money to build a plan and then implement it.  This ranged from facilities, supporting the athletes, coaching, equipment and optimization of every aspect of performance that they could.

They had to produce so they couldn’t just dick around or let money be used by greedy bureaucrat for holiday junkets (like many sports federations do).  The money was put where it belonged and they settled for nothing less than the best in all aspects of their preparation.  They tried to find that extra 1% in each area and, again, in a sport decided by the tiniest margins, it adds up.

Mind you, they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the talent and they found it in Sir Chris Hoy along with the others (sprinters and enduros both men and women).  Their best laid plans and all the money in the world wouldn’t have gotten them to the top without folks with the drive and inherent physiological or physical talent to be the best.   That wouldn’t have happened if not for the monstrous cycling culture that already existed there.

Their success is likely to drive a feedforward cycle whereby more people pursue the sport, especially boistered by the fact that Hoy and the rest showed that citizens of the UK could kick ass in a sport and still do it ‘properly’.  They fit the right cultural mold to put the right face on the sport (and I could have said the same thing about the Kenyans but it would e redundant, of course Kenyans fit a Kenyan cultural mold).

In many ways it was similar to the situation that developed in Kenya over the past 40 or so years in distance running.  In at least one there is a huge difference: intent.  The Kenyan situation, by and large, seems to have developed organically (or accidentally depending on your point of view), a staggering number of important factors just all happened to be present.Call it a lucky accident that just happened to produce one of the most dominant groups in a single sport in recent history.

The biggest overall difference was that the UK program was more planned.  Again, the culture was there as were the numbers but the rest of the program was laid out and implemented (and at the risk of beating a dead horse) with the help of a huge infusion of money.    It was mainly an issue of UK Cycling first deciding to focus on cycling, second to focus on the the track, and third having the necessary resources (from the UK lottery) to develop the program that they needed.

But hopefully you can see it was just another vast interconnected web of factors that all had to be present for success to happen; had any part of it been missing, the numbers of athletes, the trackies, the talent, the resources, the cultural interest in the sport, nothing would have happened.  It was another integrated whole where everything came together to generate success and dominance.  It all had to be there and, thankfully for UK Cycling, it was.

Sources
Heroes, Villains & Velodromes: Chris Hoy & Britain’s Track Cycling Revolution by Richard Moore. This details the approach the UK took to track cycling outlined above.  It focuses quite a bit on Chris Hoy but the real focus is on the program.
Chris Hoy by Sir Chris Hoy.  Chris Hoy’s autobiography including BMX, his early years and his involvement with the developing UK track cycling program.

And that’s where I’ll stop.  On Thursday I’ll turn my eye to some groups that are at least familiar (if not terribly understood) by most.  I’ll start with the Russian sports machine, move to East Germany and Bulgaria with a stop in Australia then it’s off to China.  Then, finally I can look at the US.  I’m getting there, promise.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 6.

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