Our Daily Bleg: Will Olympic Cyclists Race Against Their Own Countrymen?

We’ve been quiet on the cycling front here for quite some time, although the topic has come up many times in the past.

Now a reader named Kevin O’Toole writes in with an interesting Olympics scenario, which I’ll post here in the form of a bleg. The primary question to answer is whether cycling may be the sole Olympic sport in which an athlete may have incentive to compete against his own teammates:

An interesting question is being raised on the cycling forums on the internet: What is the incentive for a mediocre cyclist, who probably won’t win the race, to “work” for his national teammate instead of his trade/ professional cycling teammate.

The national teams in the race can have 5 members per country. However, CSC — the trade team that won the yellow jersey and the team competition at the Tour de France this year — will have 14 riders in the race (representing about 7 different countries).

Teamwork is critical in the cycling road race.

Because cycling is an event where all the teams compete at once rather than one team versus another, there is some incentive to work for your trade/ professional team rather than your country. Why? If you’re from Denmark and on the CSC team, but Denmark doesn’t have any real contenders for Gold, then you’re better off helping your CSC teammate. If your CSC teammate wins, then the sponsors of your trade/ pro team are going to be happier; thus you benefit.

I think it would be at least an interesting question to ask your blog readers. I can think of no other event at the Olympics where an individual has a disincentive to work for the country he is representing.

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  1. Chris says:

    This discussion might influence the cyclists behaviour. Media talking about their ‘incentives’ to cheat will remind them of their moral responsibility.

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  2. Paul says:

    Olympic cycling differs from pro cycling in that the athletes aren’t allowed to help each other. Effectively each country is submitting a group of individuals, not a cooperative team. I don’t know how hard that is to police, but it implies that a cyclist who helps their pro teammate would have to be more blatant about it and there is then a counter-incentive of becoming a pariah in their own country. After all, what do you think would happen in France to a mediocre French rider who helped a Spanish pro teammate?

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  3. Mike says:

    As an avid cyclist and cycling fan, I find this very interesting.

    A similar phenomenon is true in soccer, basketball and hockey, as well. Some players may not want to even attend the Olympics, for fear of jeopardizing their professional careers through injury. Once their, how much effort should they put forth if it means aggravating that knee which could cost them millions?

    The answer is that for soccer especially, nationalism has a value greater than money. The World Cup, Euro Cup, and even the Olympics (younger generation players) mean so much in the sport. This really cuts to question of the value of amateur athletics. Why would pros of any sport waste their time at an event like the Olympics for no money?

    Now, cycling is different, because the team/individual dynamic is so … well … dynamic. The riders must always be in constant deliberation whether to be riding for themselves or for team. Often, supporting a teammate comes at great cost to oneself. And if you never ride for yourself, how will you ever get those results that keep you in the big races and on the team? The answer is, the team recognizes the work you do and pays you for it. They put you in the races for that reason.

    The question about riding for country team vs. pro team is similar to the question of riding for team vs. self, only a little more touchy. If a rider is mediocre and probably won’t win an Olympic medal, then why did his country put him in the race? It’s because everybody in his country (and within the pro ranks) expects him to ride for his countrymen. Just as when the team puts him in a pro race he won’t win, they expect him to ride for the team, not his countryman or his brother, or even himself.

    If a rider switched allegiances in the Olympics and rode for a pro teammate, his reputation would suffer. He would be shown as a rider who doesn’t know his role and live up to it. He would be shown to employ a “non-team-player” strategy. This would not be in his interests in that a pro team might not want this sort of non-team-player anyway and he would risk being sacked.

    So the only incentive would be for a rider to ride for his pro teammate, but appear to be riding for his countrymen. Such a “cheater” strategy may materialize and be stable, but I doubt it. First, what does a cheater gain if nobody knows he’s doing it? Sure, a teammate may win the race, but let’s remember that cycling teams are about SPONSORSHIP. A CSC rider is not riding for their sponsor in the Olympics. The sponsor doesn’t get the attention and airtime. The riders aren’t even wearing the CSC jersey. Sure, the sponsor may get mentioned, and there will be a slight benefit in having a gold-metal-winning rider on the team, but this marginal benefit to the “cheater” rider would have to be very small. Would it be worth the risk of being found a “non-team-player”?

    Who will the mediocre riders in the Olympics be riding for?

    Conclusion: the riders in the same jerseys, of course! Same as every race.

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  4. frankenduf says:

    god forbid anyone having national pride, or wanting fame for their country rather than a corporation- another intriguing scenario is from the WNBA- Becky Hamilton of San Antonio is going to play for the Russian team!? (no, her maiden name isn’t shootovsky)- is this the only example of outsourcing players for olympic competition?!

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  5. discordian says:

    what Paul said above.

    Olympic races aren’t stage races like the Tour de France. It’s like one stage of the TdF and everyone is out to win.

    It’s a non issue.

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  6. Jim Walsh says:

    This is poorly thought out. First, it would be really difficult to help another team while not simply ‘throwing’ the race without it being obvious. Further, if your professional team’s leader is seen to win without you (eventhough you actually helped him), your value to the team has actually decreased.

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  7. Amit says:

    This question arises not just at the Olympics, but every year at the World Championships where riders race with their National teams instead of with thier trade teams.

    This was precisely what happened in 2000 in Sydney too, where three riders (Ullrich, Vinokourov, Kloden) from the same team but representing two different nations woked together to take the top 3 spots in the road race and in an order that seemed to have been worked out.

    There are rules in cycling against “collusion” across teams, but the subtle nature of the sport makes it hard to prove and it is rarely invoked.

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  8. Rich Wilson says:

    #2 and #5 I think you’re thinking about track events like the points race. Teamwork most certainly will be part of the road race. Depending on who is strong, and how the race is playing out, the big teams like Spain and Germany will ride for a particular rider. Sure, they all want to win, and sometimes the strongest team on paper loses because they have too many people who think they can win.

    #6 it would be more likely to show up in a small breakway. In 2000, the winning break was made of 3 members of the same trade team (Telekom). It is widely speculated that the finish order was worked out. Ullrich was to take gold, Vinokurov silver, and was not happy about it, and Kloden took bronze.

    I think any real effect is more likely to be due to friendship than sponsorship. If you have no chance of winning, but your effort may help someone you race and room with all year, why not? Better him than the guy who rides for a team that beat yours last month, if both are from different countries than you.

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