Stephen Park ‘pragmatic’ about GB medal hopes with 100 days until Tokyo Olympics

Ian Parker, PA
·4-min read

With 100 days until the rearranged Tokyo Olympics, British Cycling performance director Stephen Park admits it would be a “stab in the dark” to predict whether the medal rush of recent years can be repeated.

As coronavirus continues to bring chaos to the global calendar and the Dr Richard Freeman case raises difficult questions at home, the year has thrown up challenges like no other – and there may be a price to pay.

“We’ve got people who we see being able to win medals who might not even get to the Games because of the impact on the qualification process,” Park said.

Olympics Overview File Photo
Laura and Jason Kenny are part of a powerful British team heading to Ghent this weekend (David Davies/PA)

“We have to be pragmatic about it. We can only control the factors within our control. It doesn’t matter how upset we get about it.”

There are no qualification issues in the velodrome, the focal point of Britain’s dominance dating back to Beijing in 2008, but a lack of race opportunities has left the team guessing as to whether they have made up deficits seen at the World Championships in Berlin 13 months ago.

With this month’s Newport round of the Nations Cup cancelled, doubts over the Colombian leg in June and a reluctance to travel en masse to Hong Kong in May, Laura and Jason Kenny are in a powerful British squad heading to a meeting in Ghent this weekend which has morphed into a mini-European championships.

But Park said the “low-hanging fruit” Britain has feasted upon in the velodrome has now gone as other nations have caught up. If Britain hopes to top the cycling medal table at a fourth consecutive Games, he said they must look to the road, mountain biking, and BMX.

This is where Covid-19 has had its biggest impact, with the mountain bike and BMX calendar ripped up to leave the qualification process in chaos.

2019 UCI Road World Championships – Men’s Under 23 Road Race – Doncaster to Harrogate
Tom Pidcock is hoping to compete in Tokyo but is yet to secure qualification (Tim Goode/PA)

In mountain biking, Britain has so far qualified only one place for a female rider, perhaps leaving emerging star Tom Pidcock in the cold despite his obvious potential to medal.

Britain have qualified one male and female rider in BMX and could yet double up in each, with Park hoping enough opportunities arise for the 21-year-old Beth Shriever to get the points she needs to attend her first Games, though time is running out.

As Park tries to make sense of ever-moving goalposts, last month’s verdict from a medical tribunal that former British Cycling and Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman ordered testosterone “knowing or believing” it was intended to dope a rider has cast a shadow.

Park voiced frustration at an imperfect verdict which has asked more questions than it has answered about events a decade ago.

“It annoys the hell out of me that these stories come up and reflect poorly on British Cycling, our current staff and our current riders,” he said. “It makes it difficult and people question whether the brand is tainted.

Dr Richard Freeman
Dr Richard Freeman was found to have ordered testosterone “knowing or believing” it was intended to dope a rider (Eleanor Crooks/PA)

“All that does is impact today’s athletes, it does nothing to punish anybody who did or didn’t do anything in the past…

“I think it would be naive to think it doesn’t have some form of impact and become some form of distraction but we’ve got a lot of riders who are very strong, very resilient and robust and they just focus on what’s next.”

Against this backdrop, the measure of success in Tokyo may look different to recent Games. Park said his goal was simply to create an environment in which riders can perform to their maximum, but UK Sport will want to see more tangible results.

“We are expecting to be medal competitive in the vast majority of our events,” he said. “I realise that’s not a specific answer, but I almost think you’d be taking a stab in the dark at the moment to say much more than that.”