Feeling let down?

Ask MrsAB and it is an understatement to say I was disappointed on Saturday afternoon. A hard day’s work photographing a wedding and I receive a text with the news that Mark Cavendish had not won the Olympic road race. Not only that but the gold medalist is a cyclist who, despite his panache, is clouded by controversy. No, I was pretty dejected. But if I was, imagine being in the shoes of the five Team GB riders who put their all into that day’s racing. And then imagine being told that despite working so hard and against the spoiling tactics (for want of a better phrase) of your main opponents, you are labelled failures. And this, less than a week after one of those riders had won a certain French bike race, one had finished second and another had capped off 3 stage wins with his 4th in a row on a Parisian Boulevard. Fickle barely does this justice.

So let’s look at this from two perspectives of how to let down your nation.

The first is the way that teams rode the race. The British quintet rode with one thing in mind: getting Mark Cavendish to the line in a position to unleash his trademark sprint. They rode on the front of the race for most of the day and once the break had gone worked tirelessly to bring this back. In doing so they were helped little by others in the race. Put quite bluntly, some nations chose to lose the race themselves so that Cavendish didn’t win  either. If I was a fan from one of those nations rather than gleefully celebrating the disappointment of your opponent I would be feeling slightly let down by my team’s negative tactics. But that is bike racing, of which more in a moment.

The second persepctive is through the eyes of our own nation’s media. In the days leading up to the race Mark Cavendish had been portrayed as not just an odds-on favourite for the gold medal but a dead cert. How the press fuel the fires of confidence. Even the IOC President was reported as wanting Cavendish to win. No pressure there then.

Criticism of Mark Cavendish & Team GB

Voluminously negative headlines

So what happens when we “lose”. WalesOnline described Cavendish as a “flop”. The Sun’s well known cycling commentator Steven Howard claimed “the much-hyped home road race team miscalculated woefully to ruin our first big Golden dream”. The Daily Mail’s take: “In the morning they had already hung the gold medal around his neck. By the afternoon Mark Cavendish had sloped away from The Mall, his Olympic dreams in tatters.”  Build them up and throw them down.

Yet the BBC gets top marks for letting us down the most.  “Cavendish and co disappoint in road race” was the headline of the BBC Sports Editor’s blog piece. Cycling has consistenly delivered, he say, but “something clearly went wrong for the ‘Dream Team’ on the 250km circuit”. For us cyclists there was no one thing that went wrong, the race unfolded and the games within games within games unravelled. For those new to cycling it looked messy and that’s preceisley what a bike race is. But our journalists are more used to reporting on the success of our teams who play in more simple sports like football: two teams on a pitch defending one goal whilst attacking the other. Only cycling isn’t like that. Follow this analogy and you have upward of five or six teams and goals on the pitch, you know you have to strike at one and defend another but you aren’t sure which is which. And then they throw a few more balls at you to make life “interesting”. That’s cycle racing. Add in the weird alliances formed by differential team sizes and having your normal work colleagues riding for the other sides and it is clear to see the complexity of this “game”. I doubt David Bond has paid much attention to these complexities as they get in the way of a suitably critical and pithy piece.

Rather than report on the facts and provide measured and informed analysis, our press in large parts chose to drive heightened expectation and blame individuals rather than events when this failed to materialise. It seems some of our journalists have a lot to learn when it comes to sport, just as some of their colleagues have much to learn when it comes to everyday life. The success of the Olympics is measured in precious metal collections rather than effort, another colonial push, another expected right. A nation is left expectant and let down when it fails to deliver. Of course we want success but let’s savor that when it happens rather than before. And if it doesn’t instead of blaming our hard working athletes, the decision of officials, the course on which they ride or even the weather, let’s accept that this is sport, it is life, that we cannot plan its every turn.

The only people who have let us down are those sections of the press who build our athletes up and drop them when they fail to meet those expectations. Under a veneer of respectability they act like cyber trolls but get away with it unless we begin to ignore their callous calls. Whilst I feel disappointed by the result of this one race, I feel great pride in our riders. I just feel totally let down by our press and media – but what’s new with that?


6 thoughts on “Feeling let down?

  1. Good post. You can understand that some of the public, watching road racing for the first time,might not get what happened on Sunday. It took me many years of watching the TdF on TV to understand all the nuances, the races within races, the tactics, but surely it was the job of the media to explain what had happened. Doesn’t help that the time gap displays were so poor.
    I was lucky; I was in Paris the week before to see Cav’s victory! ( http://wp.me/pWzPW-h4 )

  2. A very insightful post, Rob. I can’t help thinking that the burden of expectation, possibly even certainty, has been put on all of our athletes far too heavily. Take the wonderful bronze medal that Rebecca Adlington won in the 400m freestyle. The first thing she did when she spoke to the BBC reporter was apologise! I felt so sorry for her that she felt she had to do that when she had just swum/swam fantastically to get a medal. Yes, she won the gold in Beijing, but that was a surprise and it isn’t her best event. Sport after sport seems to be having the pressure piled on, from diving to badminton to sailing, and it’s just not fair on them. I have no doubt that every single competitor will be doing their very best for themselves and their country.

    • Well put Stu. There’s two elements to this I think. The first is that like you say expectations have been set and then pushed up. Some of those expectations are funding related and so governing bodies are dependent on these results to receive their share of the cake in the next Olympic cycle. Whether those are realistic targets is another matter – and I will come back to that. But as we both have observed there is expectation inflation, sometimes driven by unexpected but very pleasing successes and others by the hype surrounding events often created by those with little knowledge of the sport. As you say, that is a dangerous precedent and does it reach the point of hyper-expectation? The second is that as other nations improve, competition stiffens. Other countries have adopted similar funding regimes for their sports or, as in the case of some Gulf States, have written blank cheques – whichever, they expect results. The result is more credible contenders for the medals. Its rather like academia where we expect everyone to publish in the top journals: basic logistics of competition means that more people into the same number of sports will not go. Therefore we need to temper our expectations. But then this is a topic I’ve talked about before in respect of wider society – the Olympics is just another reflection of it.

    • I have to say in my current state of mind, feeling mentally and physically drained, I actually cried out of disappointment for the team and anger with coverage. Its quite ironic that the same media outlets which were despising the trolling of Tom Daley were guilty of something very similar but via different technology and wrapped up in the veneer of journalism.

  3. Very well written Rob. Totally agree with you. And I agreed with Cav when he snapped at one of the journalists just after the race “Stop asking stupid questions. Do you know anything about cycling!?!” … quite right. Lots of journalists clearly don’t do their homework properly!

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