08/02/2012 08:19 EDT | Updated 10/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Column: At London Olympics, the blink of an eye separates champions from losers

LONDON - In less time than it took you to read these 12 words, four Olympians' hearts were crushed. Two others were filled with joy.

Losers, winners, just like that.

Gallons of sweat, litres of tears, hours upon hours upon hours of grind over years of slog and training that, in "a hundredth of a second, a blink of an eye," were either tossed away or rewarded.

Victoria Pendleton choked out those words. For Britons, the Olympic hosts, she is one of the faces of their games. Feisty, fast, telegenic. Britain expected great things of her. She expected great things of herself.

But in her sport, track cycling, the line between winning and losing is razor-thin, a matter not of centimetres and seconds but of millimeters and milliseconds. It is as much a science as it is a sport. To be faster, always faster, no detail is too minute.

To keep their muscular thighs warm so they would be in optimum shape to produce speed, Pendleton and her teammate Jessica Varnish wore battery-powered heated pants before they raced — an equivalent for humans of the heat blankets used to warm tires in Formula One.

Their bikes are sleek to cut through the air. Their helmets, too, and built with honeycombed aluminum to make them light and tough. And the Olympic Velodrome — a new arena as wondrous as the athletes who compete in it — is kept tropically warm, because warm air is less dense than cold air and so slightly easier to slice through on an aerodynamic bike. That, too, shaves milliseconds off races. And because of all this attention to detail, chances seemed good that world records would fall on the track made of Siberian pine.

And they did.

Pendleton and Varnish broke one with their very first ride on Thursday night. Three minutes later, the Chinese team of Gong Jinjie and Guo Shuang then broke it again — leaving us wondering whether that was itself a world record for the shortest time that a world record has lasted. In all, the crowd of 6,000 saw "world record" flash up on giant screens six times over the evening.

But one thing sports scientists, engineers and coaches cannot guard against is human error.

Pendleton and Varnish committed the track cycling equivalent of dropping the baton in a relay race. So did the Chinese duo.

In the team sprint, a new Olympic event, riders set off together, one behind the other. After one lap of the 250-meter track, the lead rider peels away and the second rider then completes a second lap to the finish. If you're in the crowd and go to the washroom or to buy a drink, the race is over before you have had time to squeeze out of your row of seating. The new world record the Chinese set in the women's team sprint over two laps is 32.422 seconds.

The British and Chinese mistakes came in that changeover from racer 1 to racer 2. They have a 30-meter window, marked in white tape on the track, for the first rider to peel away and for the second to take over.

And they do that at speeds of around 60 kilometres (37 miles) an hour.

"There's just the white tape on the track, and you can't really see it," said Miriam Welte, the German gold medallist with teammate Kristina Vogel.

Vogel interjected: "Imagine you are in a car and driving your car at 60 kilometres per hour, and on the road is a small tape, small red tape. You think you will see that?"

"It's the same on the bike," Welte said, completing the sentence.

Pendleton and Varnish practiced that changeover thousands of times to prepare for this night, for this rare Olympic chance that comes only once every four years. But in just their second race of the night, Varnish swerved away, or Pendleton took over, just a fraction too early. Pendleton said "we're both partly to blame" and that they were only "a meter or so" out.

"So we're talking, like, a hundredth of a second, a blink of an eye," she said. "It's a split-second mistake, you know. It's happened so fast."

There has been much talk at these games about whether the British team would get an advantage from performing before roaring home crowds. The royal princes, William and Harry, and William's wife, Kate, plus Prime Minister David Cameron were in the house, and Princess Anne was on hand later to present medals to the men.

But the way Pendleton described it, it was more stressful than helpful. "We were probably a bit too overwhelmed by the whole thing, excited about the ride and just a bit too eager."

And so out they went, disqualified. Thanks, goodbye. In 116 years of Olympic history, there has been oceans of pain and mountains of heartbreak. But this, because of the blinding speed of it, seemed particularly cruel.

And perhaps even crueler for the Chinese, Gong and Guo. Because similar happened to them in the gold medal race. Having crossed the line first, they were already celebrating and answering reporters' questions all smiles when word started to filter through that their changeover had been flawed, too.

A couple of hours later, having given blood and urine to drug testers, Gong was still struggling to digest how the gold they thought was theirs ended up draped around the necks of the Germans, with the Chinese bumped to silver.

After they were disqualified, Welte said she went over to commiserate, telling the Chinese: "I feel really sorry for you because this wasn't the way we wanted to win."

But they took it anyway.

"You can't have more luck than we've had today," she said.

Luck. How bizarre that seemed in a sport that fixates so intensely on minutiae.

But also how human.

"That's what sport is about, human error, making mistakes," said Anna Meares, the Australian bronze medallist with Kaarle McCulloch, "the less of them that you make sometimes is what makes the difference."


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at) or follow him at