MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia’s hopes of battling Britain for Olympic cycling supremacy were smashed at the Rio velodrome last year but the nation’s new high performance director sees a golden future ahead for the fallen superpower.
In Simon Jones, Australia have an insider and an architect of British cycling success, the Somerset man having guided Team GB riders to medals at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, and helped Team Sky dominate professional cycling in a three-year stint as head of performance and innovation.
Australia will hope Jones can quickly bridge the gap with Britain at the Olympics, while avoiding the scandals and collateral damage that have accompanied their rivals’ relentless pursuit of success.
Only two months into the role, Jones has already made his presence felt, firing veteran women’s endurance coach Gary Sutton and announcing a replacement for track sprint coach Gary West.
New endurance coach Jason Bartram and sprint coach Nick Flyger are both qualified sports scientists, a pointer to Jones’s more numbers-oriented approach.
More tough decisions loom for a programme that yielded only one track silver and a bronze from all cycling events at the Rio Games, after winning six medals at the 2012 London Games.
“I want to be successful, measured by gold medal outcomes at the Olympic Games,” Jones told Reuters in an interview.
”We have to make challenging decisions along the way.
“Tradition is one thing but the future is more about a more systematic and planned performance-based approach. And that’s all part of the decision-making approach in where you intend to invest. Otherwise, it’s all quite a gamble.”
Australian cycling has long enjoyed generous government funding as a sport seen to have medal-winning potential but since their cyclists dominated the 2004 Athens Games, the Olympic returns on investment have steadily diminished.
Britain, meanwhile, has enjoyed roaring success, its cycling teams lavished with funding from the national sports lottery and contributing to the nation’s burgeoning medal hauls at Beijing, London and Rio.
Jones, a former coach to Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and champion sprinter Mark Cavendish, said Australia could not hope to “cut and paste” the British experience as a roadmap to success.
But the country could learn from Britain’s more targeted approach to identifying and investing in talent.
“If you look at the UK system, they support less sports and they have less athletes identified in their athlete pathways with three times the population,” he said.
”So we’ve got around 1,000 athletes identified with a smaller population. When I look at our cycling programme, we seem to not have an unequal distribution of athletes but are trying to do the same things in the same programmes.
”Going forward, we need to have a very athlete-focused approach. Who can win, do we have the quality of athlete, do they have the potential to progress?
”Are they in an environment in which they can optimise their performance? Do we have shared goals? That’s absolutely vital.
“You have to have a blueprint for each athlete and a systematic process to assess whether an athlete is on a trajectory to get that outcome.”
The Australian Olympic Committee and a number of sports have bemoaned dwindling government funding for elite athletes and the federal sports minister is championing a new UK-style sports lottery to bridge the gap.
Jones, however, said his programme had enough resources to produce Olympic champions.
The problem was more where the money was being spent.
Jones noted that Australia sent a strong team to the track world championships in Hong Kong in April where they topped the table with 11 medals and three golds.
But the result was something of a mirage, given other nations elected to rest their top riders in a post-Olympic year.
“The ones I‘m counting are the Olympic ones, that’s one gold, three silvers and a bronze,” Jones said of the Hong Kong haul.
”Do we need to be the leading nation in a post-Olympics year?
”I think our funding system needs to have a bit of re-think. It’s very year-to-year. We need to have a strategic approach to how we incentivise.
“Again, we’ve got to pace ourselves over the (Olympic) cycle.”
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty