The British have an enviable record in Olympic Velodrome cycling. Apart from tremendous, powerful, and super-human athletes, British cycling has worked, and then worked some more on what they have called marginal gains.
Everything is reviewed and optimised: the bike’s aerodynamic shape; the materials it is built with to give maximum strength, minimum weight, bend and twist when needed; the shape of the helmet shape, and of course, the materials used to make the kit. All is considered and tested in wide tunnels.
It gets on the nerves of the opposition and it always ends with someone questioning the legality of what the British are doing.
Go back to the Summer Olympics of 2012 and France’s director of cycling Isabelle Gautheron said: “We are looking a lot at the kit they use. We are asking a lot of questions: how have they gained so many tenths of seconds? I am not talking about any illicit product because anti-doping tests are so strong. Honestly, we are looking a lot at the kit they use. They hide their wheels a lot. The ones for the bikes they race on are put in wheel covers at the finish [of a race].”
The French were further unnerved when Sir Dave Brailsford, the head of British cycling replied, “I told them we had some special wheels because we had made them especially round.”
British humour was yet again lost on the French. Referring to a French make of wheel, French paper L’Equipe’s ran a headline “Magic or Mavic.”
Brailsford was forced to later add, “The French seemed to have taken it seriously, but I was joking. They are the same wheels as everyone else. There is nothing special about them.”
When victory is measured in hundredths of seconds, it is the sum of all those tiny fractions of one percent of marginal gains that can be the difference between winning and perceived failure. A life can be forged out of the two Olympic weeks and an athlete wants every chance they can to win.
The debate about the British focus on marginal gains has reopened at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The Skeleton is an event for either the maddest of the mad or the bravest of the brave. You lie on a sledge and head down the course for around 50 seconds, head first at speeds of over 80 miles per hour.
For the last two Olympics the UK has won the women’s Gold Medal and defending champion Lizzy Yarnold is there again. The women’s medals haven’t been decided and overnight Dom Parsons won a bronze in the men’s race.
But in training, Yarnold, team-mate Laura Deas and men’s slider Parsons have performed much better than was expected based on recent World Cup performances. Could it be that they are just simply better at learning the best way down a course that no one has used before, or have they peaked at just the right time?
Of course, those were the reasons, but the British have done it again, announcing that for the first time the British sliders are wearing new hi-tech suits. Competitors are asking whether their new attire has played a part.
The complaints prompted the sport’s governing body to clarify that the suits were legal. It said: “The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation currently checked race suits of the British skeleton team. There were no rule violations at the presented suits.”
Just as in cycling there are marginal gains to be made on the equipment but to question the kit that takes away all the credit from the athlete who has the skills, the muscles and focus. They train hard and the harder if they want to get to the top. These guys are dedicated beyond what most of us could imagine.
As Lewis Hamilton, the Formula 1 driver almost always reminds us when he wins, winning is a team effort. The driver, and that includes Skeleton drivers Yarnold, Deas and Parsons, are at the tip of a massive team effort of coaches, nutritionists, dieticians, physios, and science.
When a footballer is injured, and the manager says he will be back playing in three weeks that isn’t a guess. The physios are supported with a massive array of quantitative biometric and scan data. The answer is the answer of science.
Sometimes, it is the science of food. Harry Kane is an English footballer. Some might argue that he is currently the best centre-forward in Europe. This is what he said in October last year.
“I think, over the last year or so now, I’ve changed a lot off the pitch with the nutrition side of it, It kind of clicked in my head that a football career is so short. It goes so quickly, you have to make every day count.
“So, I have a chef at home to eat the right food, helping recovery. You can’t train as hard as you’d like when you have so many games, so you have to make the little gains elsewhere, like with food.
“I was always eating well, never badly. But I have a guy come round and he explained what you could do, eating the right food at the right times. You could eat healthily all week and then carbs [carbohydrates] before a game, and that could make your body go into shock because you’re not used to it. So, maybe higher carbs sometimes, lower other times, making plans around training. I started doing that on Jan 1, a New Year resolution.
“I met the guy in December. I spoke to him and it blew me away a bit. I’d never looked too much into it, but when he explained what the body does and how he could help me recover… He helped me in the recovery from the [ankle ligament] injury, with certain foods I was eating. It opened my eyes a bit.
“He’s there [at Kane’s home] every day, Monday to Saturday, and leaves it in the fridge for Sunday. I hardly ever see him because I’m at training, but he’ll cook the food and leave it in the fridge. We’ve got a good plan going and it seems to be working.”
The Skeleton, in Great Britain, was funded £6.5 million over 4 years up to Pyeongchang to win a medal and there is already payback.
To win, the athlete needs to be funded. The funding pays for both the athlete’s own costs and the technology development. That is why the slider who wins will come from one of a very few countries. We may want to know who the best slider is, but we won’t. What we will learn is which supreme athlete also has the best team working with them.
Is this what we want from our sport? Would we rather watch every athlete wearing the same suits and riding the same board? No, and it can never be, and never was.
One of the criticisms of Formula 1 car racing is that we all believe that Lewis Hamilton is the fastest driver, but we can’t be sure because of the differences in the cars. So, it is with every sport.
Kane is a professional footballer and the Skeleton sliders are professional athletes and so it is right that they search for and find every source of marginal gain to add to their own abilities.
Winning is a massive team effort. Applaud the whole team and not just the man or woman who stands on the podium.