Dr Hutch: I need to talk to you about the omnium

Trying to explain how the track cycling omnium works just got even harder, says Dr Hutch

I had hoped that it would not be necessary to revisit this subject, but I’m very much afraid we need to talk about the omnium.

The omnium was conceived in a sweaty hurry in a borrowed office while the International Olympic Committee hammered on the door and demanded to know what was taking so long. It has been an uncertain and problematic child ever since.

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In the original six-event format (flying lap, kilo/500m, scratch race, elimination race, individual pursuit and points race) it might have had a chance if they’d called it the ‘sexathlon’ because the sort of people who watch naked dating shows would have tuned in in droves and at least some of them might have stayed. Instead it was named in Latin, so that only people who listened to Radio 3 knew what it was.

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It’s hard to pronounce and harder to explain — I should know because I have repeatedly tried to do so. “It’s like a decathlon,” I might say. “It’s an all-round event.”

“Hmm,” would come the reply, “why does it contain events like the elimination race that don’t exist as stand-alone events, then? It’s like the decathlon having an egg and spoon race.” It’s very hard not to just agree with this.

The women's omnium points race gets underway, Rio 2016 Olympic Games

An omnium, yesterday

That’s what happens if you’re talking to someone who already understands track cycling. Your only hope of explaining the omnium to a non-cyclist is to describe the points race and just hope that since that’s the only element of it that’s going to be live on BBC1, that’s the only bit they’ll watch.

Talking tempo
The current attempt to find a solution to all the problems has been to drop the timed races — the flying lap, the kilo/500m and the pursuit — and introduce the tempo race, which is a second points race, with slightly different rules from the other one.

In a triumph of making the already incomprehensible more difficult to understand, this means all the events in an omnium now look exactly the same. I watched a TV feed without commentary from the Glasgow World Cup meeting last weekend and it took me 10 laps of the track to work out what race I was looking at.

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(Well, I knew it wasn’t an elimination race, but that’s still only 25 per cent of the problem solved.)

The idea that the external appearance of each event is identical, and the only difference between them is the internal motivation of the riders means that the omnium is now, in essence, a Harold Pinter play.

Multi-discipline all-round events depend on contrast, because half the appeal is watching the ebb and flow of athletes who are good at some disciplines having also to cope with the ones they aren’t so great at. In the decathlon, the pleasure is in watching someone who can chuck a 16lb metal ball 17 metres as he tries to finish a 1,500m run on the same day that he started it.

Track cycling is always a bad place to run that sort of thing, because there’s a limit to how much visual contrast you’ll ever achieve. But the current version is attempting to make a virtue out of not even trying. At the very least we need the extremes of 13-second sprinting and 40-minute endurance races.

A keirin would have been preferable to the tempo race. As it is, we’re surrendering any right to criticise swimming for a programme of events that are indistinguishable from each other, because the new omnium is even less wide-ranging in the skills required than the 400m individual medley.

The only real benefit I can see to the new set-up is that it will maximise the number of crashes, and crashes are one of track cycling’s main selling points for a general audience. I still think we all deserve better.