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Jody Cundy: "People have been inspired to take up disabled sport"

Sam Challis
15 Sep 2016

Cyclist spent some time with one of Team GB's most successful track riders to get his take on the Paralympics.

The heroics of Team GB’s track cycling team will already be a fading memory by the time Jody Cundy and the rest of the ParalympicsGB squad touch down in Rio for their shot at glory.

Most would be intimidated by the bar being set so high but, speaking to Cundy ahead of the Rio showpiece, the para track cyclist is adamant that Team GB’s Olympic exploits have only served to generate greater momentum and drive within the ParalympicsGB team. And he’s confident they’ll deliver. 

‘The Olympic and Paralympic teams have very similar programmes, so judging by their success it’s looking good for us too,’ says Cundy.

His confidence is founded on more than just an educated prediction:  ‘The tandem lads riding the endurance events just keep smashing records, the sprinters are going as fast as they’ve ever gone and the endurance girls are knocking out times they were consistently struggling to do pre-World Championships. So we’re in really good shape. Personally my times show that I’m coming into a nice little vein of form, too.’

Timing is everything

The impeccable way Team GB has timed its preparations to ensure everyone hits peak form at exactly the right time is a familiar story by now. The Olympic and Paralympic teams returned some decidedly ordinary results in the four years following London 2012, but it was all part of a larger plan. And that plan, so far at least, is working to perfection.

Team GB put on an utterly dominant show at the Rio Olympics and, thanks to his first-hand experience of Team GB’s methods, Cundy is well placed to comment on how they do it.

‘It is pretty simple really,’ he says. ‘We get the best kit. Our behind-the-scenes team of sports scientists and aerodynamicists are world-class and work on everything: bikes, skinsuits, helmets, shoes. Most of it we are only allowed to use once, every four years. Everything we use at the Games is unique to us and completely new, and never gets used at any other competition.

Add to that Team GB’s funding structure, which is also geared around the four-year Olympic cycle, and it means the athletes have the resources to peak perfectly. 

‘All other competitions are seen as stepping stones – rainbow jerseys are a nice bonus but really they’re just a marker of form in the grand scheme of things. Over the last couple of Olympic cycles Team GB has really got the process nailed.’

Cundy himself is a shining example of that four-year plan come good. He claimed gold in the 1km time-trial (or kilo) and team sprint at Beijing in 2008 and followed that with bronze in the 4km pursuit at London 2012, after being controversially denied an almost certain gold in the kilo, ostensibly due to problems with his start gate. ‘That affected me for a while,’ he says. ‘But winning gold in the kilo at the 2014 World Championships was a redemption of sorts and made me even more motivated to put things right in Rio.’

Cyclists are inherently obsessed with technology, but Cundy has an additional avenue to explore – carbon prosthetics. And his prosthetic leg has gone through several iterations over the years. 

‘First we looked at how it would attach to my leg,’ he says. ‘It has a rubber O-ring that creates a vacuum as I push my leg in, locking it in place for maximum pedalling efficiency. After that we thought we might as well make it as aerodynamically efficient as possible, but there was a learning curve.

‘For Beijing we designed something that looked right, then for London 2012 we worked with Team GB’s aerodynamicists and orthopedics specialists Össur to get it bang-on – narrowing the frontal area and making it lighter.

‘Technically there aren’t any rules governing the shape of my leg, but we kept to the 3:1 aspect ratio that’s applied to the frames. We were tempted to make some huge aerodynamic blade to put everyone off, but in the end we were happy with the shape it is – it doesn’t put me at any disadvantage.’

Class legislation

How levels of disability are classified for Paralympians can, from an outside viewer’s perspective, often appear to offer certain athletes an advantage over their competition.

For example, it seems unjust to pitch an upper limb amputee against a lower limb amputee in a track cycling event, where one might judge the power of having both legs would be a huge benefit. But there’s clearly more to it than is immediately obvious.

Cundy, who races in the C4 category, says, ‘I don’t think the classifications help the accessibility of Paralympic sport, since the official descriptions do little to clearly explain the track cycling classes. Basically it works on a scale of one to five, with one being the most severely disabled. C5s tend to have hand or arm injuries or maybe mild cerebral palsy – they’re impaired but largely able-bodied. C4 is my class, and most of these athletes are below-knee amputees, but you do get C4s with hands missing as well. C3 is a more diverse class – it covers a lot of different disabilities that are judged to amount to the same impairment. C2s are below-knee amputees, often with other impairments too, then C1s are double or triple amputees.’

Rarely are two athletes in the same class completely alike, so is this really the fairest way to race? Cundy is pragmatic: ‘I think the classifications are appropriate. There are always individuals who are on the borderline. Sometimes it works out that they are streets above in their class or at other times miles behind, but this is relatively rare.

‘Most people fall neatly into their classes and the system is rigorous, so I really don’t think misclassification is an issue. The gaps in performances [within categories] are indicative of how close the level of competition is.’

Level pegging

Cundy attributes prime-time TV coverage and increased professionalism among the athletes as the main reasons why para-sport has found its way into the limelight in recent years. ‘The Olympics has always been the premium event that everyone recognises, and in the past there was huge disparity between the two types of Games,’ he says.

‘It wasn’t really until Sydney in 2000 that the Paralympics came onto people’s radars, but since then the BBC and Channel 4 have taken it to another level.

‘The situation in London – we had prime-time TV viewing with live coverage plus red button options to choose events – was incredible and so beneficial. All of a sudden Paralympians started to become household names. Now, so many more people know who we are and what we do, and have been inspired to take up disabled sport – and in particular cycling – which only makes the pool of athletes bigger.’

On top of that, the popularity of recent Games has prompted sporting federations around the world to reassess the infrastructure of their funding systems. Historically, Team GB earned funding through winning medals, but now they must be able to show investment in developing and recruiting new talent as well, and this doesn’t just mean young athletes.

‘That’s the great thing about disabled cycling – you don’t have to be a youngster to develop. Anyone can lose an arm or leg at any point in their lives so having the ability to access these programmes, like we do now, is key for the further growth of Paralympic cycling,’ says Cundy.

There’s still plenty of work to be done, though, before anything close to true parity is achieved between the two Games, and Cundy has a suggestion he thinks will help keep the gap closing. ‘What’s to stop the UCI integrating able-bodied events with disabled ones? Given enough attention the logistics could be solved and it is already working really well for triathlon, which has culminated in the event being included in the Rio Paralympics.’

This stemmed from a Paratriathlon World Cup series that now accompanies the regular World Cup, which has proven itself to be a good working model. ‘The para event is held on the same day, maybe an hour after the able-bodied event, and with the media already there as a captive audience there isn’t going to be a journalist who won’t stick around to cover it,’ he says. ‘They’ll spot one or two people doing something special and all of a sudden disabled sport starts to get equal coverage.’

While an equal profile between Olympic and Paralympic sport is something to be encouraged, a higher profile would also increase the pressure on athletes to perform and would make Paralympic sport more susceptible to issues like doping.

According to Cundy, as it stands there isn’t enough to be gained from doping for it to be an issue in Paralympic sport. Even so, the International Paralympic Committee’s blanket ban of Russian athletes from the Rio Games is one way for governing bodies to ensure doping remains an unattractive option.

‘It’s a tough call by the IPC but I quite like the fact that they have taken a firm stance. It sets a precedent,’ says Cundy. ‘The International Olympic Committee, on the other hand, is influenced a lot more by money from various factions, so would have so many more people to answer to if they put out a blanket ban. 

‘At times like this it is nicer to be in the Paralympic environment – it’s far less political.’

Cundy paints an encouraging picture of Paralympic sport both now and into the future, but stories of sub-standard ticket sales and budget cuts in Rio at the time of writing are a dark cloud threatening to stall that momentum.

The medal tally over the preceding week will have enabled you to judge for yourself, but the overwhelming impression is that ParalympicsGB will make the Rio Games a success regardless of the circumstances.

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