Britain’s Jason Kenny (R) competes against New Zealand’s Edward Dawkins in the Men’s Sprint qualifying session at the 2012 UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Melbourne in this April 6, 2012 file photo. (REUTERS/Daniel Munoz/Files)
By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON, April 27 (Reuters) – Britain’s and Australia’s powerhouse track cycling teams had “raised the bar” at the recent world championships, but New Zealand’s high performance manager is confident his young team will provide them with a real challenge at the London Olympics.
New Zealand named their largest track cycling team to contest an Olympics on Friday, and after the world championships earlier this month in Melbourne, Mark Elliott is confident the planning and development of the country’s high performance programme will ensure they meet their target of four medals.
“We had 80 percent of our athletes PB-ing (setting personal bests) at the world champs and expect they will be able to do that again and go to another level in the next three months,” Elliott told Reuters via telephone after the nine man, six women track team was confirmed.
“We have always been open that four medals is our target. We have eight programmes that are in the top three in the world, so we are looking to convert 50 percent of that and probably more.”
New Zealand finished the world championships with five medals, with the men’s team winning four bronze medals, while Alison Shanks won the non-Olympic women’s 3000 metres individual pursuit title.
It was the third-equal highest total, behind Australia (15) and Britain (13) though New Zealand finished sixth overall, and Elliott said indications were good for London as the depth in Melbourne was better than it would be at the Olympics because of UCI and IOC quota restrictions.
Elliott said the selectors had agonised over the composition of the squad, with Sam Webster, who won bronze as a member of the men’s team sprint in Melbourne, missing out and being named only as the reserve.
“It has been a challenging situation but at the same time this is a great place to be in when you have world class riders who you can put into the reserve spot,” he added.
“I know that’s not great for those riders. Because, bar the quota number, we would be taking them to the Olympics.
“It has been a challenge, but it’s a better challenge to be in than thinking ‘my goodness do we have anyone at that level we can be considering’.”
Elliott said the situation was a far cry from even at the Beijing Games when New Zealand was struggling to find enough depth; and the ability to name such a large squad on Friday had come about due to the implementation of a true high performance programme.
New Zealand had produced a number of outstanding individual track cyclists in the past, most notably 2004 Athens 3000 metres individual pursuit champion Sarah Ulmer, but those performances were just that, from outstanding individuals rather than from an organised team-based programme, he said.
“The success we have had is built on what we did with the track programme in 2008,” Elliott said.
“The support financially and structurally we have had with technical staff and analysts and medical support… it adds value and you can start applying that across your business.
“Then you get economies of scale and you get an acceleration or performance across every area.
“There has been a consistency of staff, who have grown with the programme. Our programme has grown from seven to a staff of 20 now and with that 20 there is more knowledge, more experience and more capacity to make gains and you can apply that across programmes.”
Elliott said those gains would increase in the near future with the development of a purpose built high performance centre in Cambridge, which would centralise the entire programme in the Waikato town, coincidentally close to Rowing New Zealand’s high performance centre.
“That’s set for completion in September-October next year,” Elliott said.
“It’s not only an exciting opportunity for Rio and beyond but also for high performance sport (in New Zealand).
“Having both ourselves and rowing in a centralised environment, it will become a hub for high performance sport and when you get momentum like that things will spin off it.”