By road- and mountain bike
In the world of cycling you will most likely encounter difficulties finding a person who has not heard of Peter Sagan. The extravagant Slovakian cyclist who competes in the shirt of the Russian Tinkoff-team for the mayor part of the year is a well-known face in the professional peloton, loved by sponsors and fans. Recently, Sagan has spoken out his ambition to not just compete in the Olympic road race in Rio with the Slovakian team; he wants to compete on the mountain bike as well. Knowing his medal chances on the road will be small Sagan seeks another opportunity to score an Olympic medal.
Peter Sagan and the mountain bike
Sagan is not unfamiliar with the mountain bike. In 2008 the Slovakian became the junior European- and world champion in this discipline. In 2009 he finished just next to the podium in the U23 MTB World Championships after combining the MTB and a light road program. One year later the Slovakian was impressing on the road and he has continued to impress ever since, the mountain bike appeared to be forgotten. In April Sagan started in two MTB competitions, according to the team, to prepare for the Tour of California. The Slovakian did not reach the finish in Graz but scored a nice 4th place in Teplice. Asked in California about his next race on the MTB, Sagan answered ‘I don’t know.’ Now it appears to be the Rio Olympics, if not sooner to have a little more preparation. However, if you objectively look at his results this should never be enough to compete in Rio on the mountain bike. Slovakia has obtained one spot for the MTB race via the official UCI qualification system, this spot should go to Michal Lami or Martin Haring who are both higher ranked and have scored more points than Sagan. However, a route via the backdoor might give Sagan the opportunity to fulfil his Olympic mountain bike dream. The Slovak cycling federation has applied in the name of Sagan for one of the ‘wild card’ spots, this system is about reallocation of unused quota spots by the countries. “We sent an application specifically for Peter Sagan to be the second a rider for Slovakia. Should Peter be present in Rio, it would be a benefit to all of cycling, not only to Slovakia. However, it depends on the terms of the UCI,” John Žilovec, chairman of the Slovak cycling association (SZC) confirmed to the news website aktualne.sk. On June 7th however the SZC announced that Sagan would go to Rio anyway and gave him their only qualification spot. Something that seems pretty unfair against Lami or Haring who were responsible for obtaining the Slovakian spot via the ranking system.
The Olympic qualification system
The qualification system for the Rio Olympics is one that has received quite some criticism. Let’s go back to the European Championships at the beginning of May in Huskvarna, this was one of the last opportunities for athletes to qualify. Either top-8 or top-10 rankings for the national selection criteria would be needed by some athletes to secure participation in Rio so an exciting race would be a guarantee. Switzerland and France, who dominated the Olympic qualification ranking were overly present in the top10 of the final result, both countries had four riders in the top10 but both are only allowed to send a maximum of three riders to Rio giving the national federations a hard task to select their participants. However, Switzerland and France don’t have a lot to complain. The two reined the Olympic qualification ranking with respectively 9877 and 9378 points followed by Spain with 5936 points. The Olympic qualification ranking awarded spots to the 23 best performing countries, 3 quota spots for the five best performing countries, 2 quota spots for the numbers 6 to 13 on this ranking and with the numbers 14 to 23 receiving one quota spot. If not otherwise qualified the host country and the two best individually performing countries from the continental championships (with exception from Europe) also received one quota spot. In case of Oceania (who qualified with Australia and New Zealand directly) this led to Guam obtaining a spot but as no other NOC from Oceania managed to score points on the Olympic qualification ranking the other spot from Oceania went to Hungary. Also the host country spot was reallocated to Russia as Brazil had obtained quota spots by the Olympic qualification ranking. The fact that Europe was excluded from the last system has most likely to do with trying to globalizing the sport as many European countries already managed to qualify via the Olympic qualification ranking. But this does not soften the pain for some well performing European athletes who are missing out on Rio due to an insufficient country ranking. This is the case for the Estonian MTB rider Martin Loo. Estonia ranked 30 in the Olympic qualification ranking, however in the individual cross country ranking Loo is in the 17th place, which is his best ever spot, showing that he is having a great season. In Huskvarna Loo fell just short of a top10 place, ranking 11th and in the MTB World Cup in Albstadt later that month Loo ranked 11th again. It seems unfair that Loo will miss out on Rio just because his country has not scored enough points while he belongs to the top15 in Europe. The fact that an athlete is dependent of its country ranking to qualify directly to Rio seems a severe weakness of the Olympic mountain bike qualification system. The best three riders of a country determine a nation’s ranking and this is exactly what makes it hard for Loo, he’s the only Estonian rider who managed to score a big number of points. It is unfair to punish an athlete for coming from a smaller country where a sport may be not so big. And it is good that the UCI tries to compensate this with the alternative continental championships ranking qualification option. However, the UCI should address this system once again and make sure an individual athlete can qualify as well, independent of what his country is doing. When an athlete is consistently showing he belongs to the top, he or she deserves to chase the Olympic dream.
Back to the wildcard spots, it seems there will certainly be some available. Sweden for example has already announced they will not send anyone to Rio as no one managed to fulfil the additional national selection criteria and the Netherlands will only use one of their two spots. Countries have until June 15 to communicate to the UCI if and how much of their spots they will claim. The UCI will then reallocate the spots and inform the lucky ones by June 30. What is going to happen to the Slovakian application for Sagan, we don’t know but if Lami or Haring could get one, it would only be fair to them. Latvian road rider Toms Skujins also recently announced he would like to compete on the MTB in Rio and why could Loo not receive one? Personally I think that if someone deserves to be in Rio with a wildcard it’s him.