Much has been written about the performances of British cyclists at their hometown Olympics, how Mark Cavendish failed to deliver in the opening road race, how Bradley Wiggins then began the gold rush in the time trial, and how track sprinters Sir Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton ended their Olympic careers with yet more medals (and a couple of defeats). Far less has been written about the enormous pressure they experienced in the build-up to the Games—but earlier this week one of those four athletes gave a hint of what it was like coping with the dark, lonely psychological burden of universal expectation.
At a Tuesday night press conference following the women’s sprint final won by Australia’s Anna Meares, Pendleton was asked if she were happier now that her career was ending than she was after winning gold in Beijing. She replied, “Definitely, because there have been so many points over the past four years when I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”
Pendleton said that cycling was never her dream or ambition, and so she was racing and training not for herself but for her coaches—and she was frequently at odds with those coaches. She ended by saying “I can’t do it anymore, literally I couldn’t do it for another year.”
The pressure of expectation on Pendleton and the other British athletes is multi-dimensional. Besides the pressure to succeed imposed by the riders themselves, they have had to cope with their coaches’ rugged training demands, the media’s constant need for interviews and photo-shoots, and the public’s desire for them to repeat (if not improve on) their eight-gold-medal haul from Beijing.
The British athletes have had huge success at these Olympics (and elsewhere), but it’s clear that the pressure to succeed within the British Cycling/Team Sky system is unremitting. As with every elite athlete, they have to put in the big base miles in the winter months, but after that comes intense specificity to their work in the gym and to their interval regimen on road and track. And then comes the Team GB “secret” of training sessions conducted at a harder and faster pace than actual races.
Team supremo Dave Brailsford has put together what are probably the most competent and comprehensive teams of back-up personnel—for road racing, time trialing, team pursuiting, team and individual sprinting, and endurance track events—that the sport has ever seen. This is not just very different from traditional, seat of-the-pants preparation but even a step up from the modern, power-based training that’s practiced by most other nations today.
As for the British media. it’s hard to describe the greater passion they exude compared with the comparatively bland coverage for Olympic sports seen in the United States (except during the games themselves). Cavendish, Hoy, Pendleton and Wiggins have been household names in the United Kingdom for many years, not just for winning gold in Beijing or world titles, but because they have become celebrities by being regularly featured on television and radio and in the extremely competitive British press.
While a top American cyclist might be interviewed for a national cycling magazine or a local newspaper, the best Brits are barraged by constant requests for one-on-ones by the national “quality” newspapers (The Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent), along with exclusives for the “juicier” daily tabloids (The Express, Mail, Mirror, Star and Sun). These papers have a total daily circulation upwards of eight million in a population of 62 million; that’s equivalent to being exposed to 40 million American readers on a daily basis.
Beyond the newspapers and their Web sites, there is a slew of contemporary magazines that celebrate British celebrities, whether they’re footballer Wayne Rooney, tennis player Andy Murray or cyclist Brad Wiggins. Then there’s radio, and its 24/7 national sports stations such as BBC 5 Live or the highly competitive regional stations that are constantly looking for stories on nationally known personalities. And that’s not even mentioning the demands of television, where there’s even more competition between the powerful BBC and ITV networks with satellite and cable stations such as the Sky network.
The popularity of cycling with the British public has been confirmed this past week by the massive crowds that have attended all the Olympic cycling events, while validation for the sport’s stars has come from winning Britain’s most prestigious sports award, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. It went to Hoy in 2008, Cavendish in 2011, and this year Wiggins is the favorite to win. The BBC award is a little like “American Idol,” whereby a nationwide TV audience votes for the most popular athlete.
Fame for British cycling is unbelievably exciting for fans in the UK but with that fame has come the pressure of expectation that can make life for the athletes far more complicated and challenging than any of us can imagine. No wonder Brad Wiggins said he got “blind drunk” on vodka tonics after winning his time trial gold medal!
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