The American road to the big show

By Jackson Weber

Somewhere in Colorado Springs, someone at USA Cycling may be whispering sweet nothings to Madonna del Ghisallo that controversy doesn't rear its head again in 2008 with the US Olympic Team final mountain bike team selections. After a much-maligned selection process for the 2004 Olympic Games mountain bike team, USA Cycling updated the criteria for making the Olympic Team in 2008.

The problems of the 2004 selection were dramatic enough that they drew the attention of Gripped Films, producers of the documentary movie Off Road to Athens. Then, the selection process ended in arbitration for the women. In response, for the 2008 Olympic Games, USA Cycling came out with a new plan, a new system and a new support structure, all designed to prevent a repeat of four years ago.

2004 - Off-track to Athens

In 2004, USA Cycling selection procedures dictated that the primary way to select the Olympic team was to provide automatic nominations for any mountain biker who placed in the top three at the 2004 UCI World Mountain Bike Championships. If no athlete met this criterion, athletes would be selected according to their place in the UCI rankings.

The system had one apparently unforeseen consequence that proved devastating for some of the riders. Because so many events offered UCI points, athletes in the running for the Olympic team couldn't afford not to race every weekend for fear of some other athlete digging up a few extra UCI points and moving ahead in the rankings.

What ensued was a "Greatest Race" style escapade for American racers who roamed the globe questing for precious points. Ask just about anyone except perhaps Adam Craig, and for the elite men, things appeared to go relatively smoothly with Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (JHK) and Todd Wells making the team.

In contrast, on the women's side, all hell broke loose. Thanks to the UCI's approach to maintaining its rankings at the time, when the points chase came to a close, no one was sure if Sue Haywood or Mary McConneloug had the most points, which was important since the US had qualified only one woman for Athens.

"Well, in the end there was an official points tally and an unofficial points tally," explained Haywood. "The unofficial one was tallied by USA Cycling and myself as well. This 'unofficial' tally was all the races in which I actually competed and placed. It was 'unofficial' because USA Cycling had never submitted some of my points even though they repeatedly told me that they had. And they promised that those points would count."

Except they didn't. Because of an error on the part of both the UCI and USA Cycling, Haywood's 15 points at the Sandpoint, Idaho, UCI-sanctioned E2 race were not included in the final official tally. The confusion was so great that both McConneloug and Haywood ended up in court to argue their case (at separate times). In the end, the 15 points that Haywood scored in Idaho were disallowed, and McConneloug went to the Olympics. She placed a creditable ninth, but the damage was done.

"The points race simply wore the athletes out before the actual Olympics," said Haywood, whose sentiments have been echoed by many. "To me, it seemed like the people who made those criteria up were out of touch with mountain biking." USA Cycling refused to comment.

2008 - A better way?

Since 2004, USA Cycling has worked hard to improve the system and avoid a repeat of 2004's selection drama. New selection criteria were set in writing well in advance, and the athlete support system was dramatically improved. Even Haywood acknowledged, "It looks a lot better."

Andy Lee, USA Cycling's Director of Communications, explained the changes in detail to Cyclingnews. "The 2008 Olympic selection procedures have changed in several different aspects," said Lee in an email. "First of all, we created a Long Team concept based on UCI Ranking and Coaches' selection which is determined at the end of the year preceding the Olympic Games."

The Long Team concept means that those athletes who have a chance at making the Olympic team know so well enough in advance that they can plan their seasons accordingly. Given the new selection criteria this planning will be quite important. USA Cycling announced the Long Team in late January after the UCI announced qualifying spots for most nations.

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