Wednesday 27 November 2019

Women's road race at Tokyo Olympics - strength and depth

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently published the number of places available for each nation and the size of the field in the road races for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Olympic Games rings which represent five participating continents
In the men's road race there are 130 places available, while in the women's race there are 67 places.

Once again this has been followed by the customary outcry and accusations of sexism on the part of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).

In an article by cycling campaigner and former professional road racer, Kathryn Bertine she went so far as to suggest that the UCI and the IOC had a policy of "corrupt inequity" that is holding back future Olympians.

I must say that I am not really minded to join the chorus with Katryn Bertine and the numerous other women on this matter. When taking into account the entry criteria for the race, what the Olympics represents, the lack of strength and depth of women's racing compared with men's racing, and the intention to stage a rounded competition, I find it understandable that the field would be the size it is. I cannot see how a women's field of 130 would make for a good quality race in this event, one of the highest levels of women's international cycle racing.

One of the aims of the Olympic movement is to blend sport and culture, and promote sport to everyone across all five continents.

A women's cycle race featured in the Olympics for the first time in 1984 in Los Angeles. At that time the field had only 45 women from 16 nations, most which were in Europe. There wasn't much depth given that outside the top 20 finishers the time gaps over the 79.2km race were huge, with the last placed rider finishing almost 40 minutes behind the winner, Connie Carpenter of the USA.

Bear in mind too, that this event took place within a few weeks of the inaugural women's Tour de France. As funds were not available for women to compete in both sets of races on either side of the Atlantic, riders would have had to choose one or the other, particularly as they will have self-funded their competitions.

Thirty-five years on, the depth of women's racing has increased and many nations have access to funds to allow women to contest the Olympics. Also, riders from more continents are also entering the competition. In Tokyo there will be 42 nations represented in the women's road race, with more nations from Africa than ever before. We could therefore extrapolate that to mean a bigger field.

Indeed the size of the field has increased to almost 70. It is still a lot fewer than the men's field, and the figure has not increased significantly since the Athens Olympics in 2004. (Bear in mind that the men's field for Tokyo will be smaller than the field in Rio 2016.)
The size of the field for the women needs to be considered within the context of the depth of abilities from the different nations, and the question then is, what composition of race is needed when increasing the size of the women's field?

The depth of racing has strengthened, but this is the case when you look at specific continents rather than globally. When comparing the development of cycling between continents there is a vast disparity, meaning that the strength and depth in racing has been driven more from some continents than others - notably Europe, which includes countries like the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany which are churning out very strong riders.

So, if the number of riders in the Tokyo Olympic Women's Road Race is to be increased the result will be a field with a lot more riders from across Europe, plus USA and Australia.

That won't be so much of an Olympic competition tending towards the values and representation of the five contents of the Olympics movement, but more like just another Women's World Tour race.

The top riders, including Britain's Emma Pooley force the pace on Box Hill
So, the Olympic Road Cycling events need to find a way to include riders from the rest of North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and the rest of Australasia while maintaining a high level of competition.

Some nations may well be fielding their best riders, but they may still not be quite at UCI Women's World Tour level.

So it is only fair that the allotted quota of riders from the top nations be capped to a low number, so that those smaller nations that only have one or two riders can still take part in a more harmonised competition than if the field were dominated by nations sending teams with five or six high-ranking UCI Women's World Tour riders.

The qualification criteria for the Tokyo Olympics road race are:
  • Nations in the top 15 UCI country rankings
  • Highly-ranked individual riders in UCI rankings who represent nations outside of the top 15
  • One highly-ranked rider from continental championships (Pan-American, Pan-African Pan-Asian)
  • Highly-ranked riders in the 2019 World Road Race Championships, representing nations outside of the top 15
  • Host nation (Japan) gets automatic qualification
This has given the opportunity for as many countries as possible to field riders so that a maximum spread of continents are involved in the Olympic Road Race.

When quotas for individual countries are examined, smaller nations may only have space for one or two riders, and these smaller nations are unlikely to have more than one rider who can mix it with the top racers.

So, to those who decry the apparent small field for the women's race and who are calling for a field size comparable to the men's race, I would be interested to know how they propose to increase the field, and how this would be composed.

Being a Londoner, I had the opportunity to watch the women's road race during the 2012 Olympics. What was shown on television and transmitted across the world were the attacks at the front of the 35-strong peloton by the likes of Ellen van Dijk, Kristin, Armstrong, Shelly Olds, Emma Pooley, and other highly-ranked riders. The race looked very exciting.

What those of us who spectated at the side of the road saw, and wasn't shown on TV were the 25 or so riders who couldn't handle the pace and were so far behind the front-runners and the main peloton. Each time the race scaled Box Hill, the gap to the gruppetto (the group of backmarkers) steadily increased, to the point that the last placed riders were easily 10 minutes behind Vos, Armitstead, and Zabelinskaya - the medallists.

These slower riders were mainly from Central American, South American, and Asian nations. They probably did the race of their lives and will definitely have a tale or two for their grand children, even though they were pulled out of the race for being outside of the time limit. But is this really the sort of competition they would have felt happy doing - given that they were probably used to being at the head of the pack in their home nations?

So having a larger field would mean either increasing the number of riders from the stronger nations - which would mean an even larger time gap between the front of the race and the back markers, with them being dropped even before reaching the Doushi Road climb, at KM60. Alternatively the number of riders from the smaller nations could be increased, which will mean far more than 25 riders being shelled off the back on the very testing roads near Mount Fuji, and the majority of them may end up not being allowed to complete the 137km-race.

Furthermore, that scenario would prove costly for those national delegations who may not even have the funds to take so many riders to Tokyo, and this could end up being a waste of money for sports governing bodies, commercial organisations and even the athletes themselves.

In my opinion neither of these scenarios would be a good advert for women's cycle racing.

Mt Fuji and Lake Yamanakako - the setting for the Tokyo Olympics road race
So, before people start calling "foul" to the UCI or the IOC for not having a larger women's field, it is worth bearing in mind the wider implications of simply increasing the number of women racers to equal the men's race men.

It is worth considering the global strength and depth of women's cycling compared to men's cycling, rather than just nominally replicating the size of the men's field.

Hopefully, on Sunday 26th July 2020 the 67-strong field will have the optimal mix of racers that will provide not only a high quality women's competition on the Doushi Road and the Kagosaka Pass, but also enough of a peloton left to see an exciting finale around the  Fuji International Speedway circuit.

UCI document on cycle events in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

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