The Medal Factory: British Cycling and the Cost of Gold

Kenny Pryde

Pursuit £16.99

Review by Hugh MacDonald

The most enduring cliché in modern sport was first seen in print in July 2008.

The term "aggregation of marginal gains" has attained an almost religious significance since, mentioned with awe in a litany of other sporting imprecations by a host of athletic performers and their coaches.

It has, of course, a worth. It is heavily diminished, though, by the crushing weight of money. Gold makes gold. This may be the most important lesson of 21st century sport.

This truth is simply articulated in this fine, reasoned and informed book about the rise of British cycling and the controversies and scandals that accompanied a programme that yielded 43 Olympic medals, three Tours de France and a veritable host of world records.

It has so much to recommend it. Pryde is an experienced Scots cycling journalist and he brings both insight and a range of contacts to a story that holds an intrigue and importance far beyond the grands tours or indoor tracks.

This is a story of how a sport struck gold – in the shape of national lottery funding – and how participants both seized success and were consumed by it. In a matter of 25 years, British cycling rose to a prominence that invites comparisons to Icarus. It reached for the sun and many of its participants were severely burned.

Pryde is forensic in laying down the truth of the importance of money. He is frank about how it was sourced. British Cycling was seen as a fast track to Olympic gold, particularly track cycling, where the competition was limited and rivals severely compromised by much lower budgets. Recently an official in Belgian cycling – the country of Eddie Merckx and Freddie Maertens – pointed out that country's budget was 10% to 20% of what Britain could lavish on its cyclists.

So cycling was chosen for its potential to provide success. It duly succeeded. This, of course, was down to such talents as Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Nicole Cooke, Laura Trott and a veritable cavalry charge of others. But it was also a product of those who stood and watched. The most influential characters in this category were Peter Keen, largely viewed as the visionary of the sport, Dave Brailsford, the executor of the programme, Shane Sutton, the committed coach who later faced charges of bullying, and Dr Steve Peters, the psychiatrist who offered help and support to the men and women placed in the crucible of elite sport where tension, self-doubt, exhaustion and the sheer obsession with winning conspire to create an atmosphere that is toxic to well-being.

This where the “aggregation of marginal gains" becomes not just a sunny mantra but a seductive invitation to take matters to the very limit and beyond. It is in the area marked “grey” that British cycling found personal pain and national scandal. Pryde meticulously covers the sagas of Jiffy bags, therapeutic use exemptions and asthma medication that blighted the reputation British Cycling as a body, and Team Sky as a commercial enterprise.

Pryde investigates the allegations laid against the coaches and the executive, particularly against Sutton, with an impressive grasp of the detail and the larger issues in play. He is the most impressive judge. He has been around the sport so long that he knows the characters of those placed in the dock. There is nuance in every piece of evidence. The most obvious case is that of Sutton, accused of “discriminatory language” and found guilty on one charge by an investigation. The Australian coach can be portrayed as aggressive, foul-mouthed and intimidating. But he was also capable of inspiring his charges to unprecedented heights and, almost incidentally, decorating gold medallist Victoria Pendleton’s flat when she broke up with a boyfriend.

The crux of the book is how hope and aspiration travelled through success and historic achievement to disillusion and controversy. This, of course, is the true sporting narrative. The "aggregation of marginal gains" has been practised by individuals and teams down the ages. But elite sport thrives on even more primitive mantras.

It is populated by those who see obsession as strength, who push themselves and their co-workers to excesses that have the capacity to break minds and bodies and whose focus naturally blinds them to the larger reality of life.

This is true of all sport at the top level but cycling is Britain is a garishly apt case study. Pryde has conducted it with a sober, exemplary judiciousness.