By Shane Stokes, Irishcycling.com
Irish cyclist Ciarán Power's 13th place in the Olympic road race was today highlighted by the government-commissioned Athens Review as one of the bright points of the otherwise lacklustre multi-sport campaign at the 2004 Olympic Games. The sport has had little attention in the years following the retirements of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, with Irish attention turning to soccer, rugby, athletics and the national sports of Gaelic football and hurling. The start of the Tour de France in Ireland in 1998 was initially embraced by the media and public alike, but the Festina affair evaporated that interest and further marginalised the sport.
Power's performance was, however, applauded today as the country looked back on an Olympic campaign which brought many more disappointments than successes. Ireland won one medal, the equestrian gold of Cian O'Connor, but even that is now in doubt following the positive drug test of his mount, Waterford Crystal. judgment is pending in that case. By and large, the Athens Review was critical of the Irish multi-sport campaign, concluding that athletes under-performed at the Games. However it referred to Power's ride as one of the 'notable individual performances' in Athens.
"There was an original Olympic performance squad of 28 cyclists which was later revised to 17, each of whom had individual performance targets," the authors said in the report. "Five cyclists had previously represented Ireland in Sydney, but no cycling medals had ever been won. There were no predictions that medals would be won in Athens, either.
"In the event, four Irish cyclists qualified for the Olympic Games, two in the men's road race and a male and a female mountain biker. Only one of the road racers finished, in a highly credible 13th place against a world ranking of 496," stated the report.
Power had what was probably the best showing of his career in Athens, placing 13th. He rode above pre-race predictions, showing the benefits of a carefully planned preparation period which included high-speed motor-pacing sessions.
His ride was all the more meritorious as he expended precious energy when he went clear in a dangerous, but ultimately unsuccessful, six-man breakaway group in the final 70 kilometres of the hilly 224 kilometre event. Power's group was caught with three laps remaining, the Waterford rider finishing tenth in the bunch sprint for fourth place. The gold medal was won by the Italian one-day specialist Paolo Bettini.
It is hoped that Power's showing may have a positive impact on future resources directed into the sport. Mainstream Irish journalists mocked proposals several years ago to build a proper velodrome in the country; two bumpy outdoor tracks in Dublin and Belfast are the only faculties open to Irish riders at present. However today's report plus the track successes achieved by countries such as Great Britain in recent years show that such a short-sighted view of a sport is misguided, to say the least.