It’s the sprint final at the World Championships in Melbourne, the last major event before the London Olympics. The score is tied at one race apiece between Victoria Pendleton and the Lithuanian rider Simona Krupeckaite, the World Championship is going down to the final race. Pendleton has already beaten her arch-rival Anna Meares in the semi-final on Meares’s home turf with the Aussie in the form of her life; but it all still comes down to this final race.
Except it doesn’t.
The race officials signal that Krupeckaite came off her line during the final sprint and has been disqualified, handing Pendleton a 2-0 lead in the best of three contest. There will be no final race, Victoria Pendleton is the World Champion. Amongst the noise of the velodrome there comes a cry: “Vic, Vic, you’ve done it”. The Great Britain coaches crowd round her and Pendleton stops spinning the pedals of the stationary road bike she was warming up on and dismounts. The coaches give her a round of applause and hugs, some are smiling whilst others are laughing with relief and surprise, but there is little emotion on the face of Pendleton. Dave Brailsford beams from ear to ear and puts his arms round her, saying “brilliant, you’ve done it” and then the new World Champion collapses to her knees in tears. These aren’t tears of relief or victory, it’s a truly visceral and jarring moment. As Brailsford steps back, Pendleton puts her head in her hands and, still on her knees, pushes her hands and face downwards until her body is a sobbing ball on the floor. Brailsford, having already called for team psychologist Steve Peters, moves away.
When asked at what point she realised she might be good enough to be a world champion, Pendleton said that only at the moment when she crossed the line and won gold for the first time did she believe she might be as good as everyone said she was. Whilst she will go down in history as one of the all-time great sprinters, victory and Victoria are not easy acquaintances, her reaction to Krupeckaite’s relegation and the win in Melbourne gives an insight into the type of rider and the type of person she is. Whilst her team were overjoyed at the sudden win, Pendleton hid her face away and curled her body into a ball on the velodrome floor.
Following Pendleton’s career and reading her excellent autobiography Between the Lines, you realise these kind of contradictions crop up often in her life. On the face of it, a beautiful woman who is the best in the world at her sport shouldn’t carry around so much angst, but self-doubt and fear of letting others down have always been the twin demons that have dogged much of her professional life.
The public image of Pendleton though, like the woman herself, is a complicated one. Despite being a great champion she isn’t spoken of in quite the same reverential tones as Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins. When the BBC documentary Victoria Pendleton: Cycling’s Golden Girl was aired, it provoked quite a negative reaction amongst cycling fans. A quick look around internet message boards found the phrases “needy”, “high maintenance”, “over emotional” used regularly. Words such as “nutter”, pertaining to her mental health crept up occasionally too. In his autobiography In Pursuit of Glory, Bradley Wiggins talks about how team psychiatrist Steve Peters helped him overcome mental hurdles in the run up to his Beijing gold rush, but I am yet to see him characterised as a high maintenance nutter.
All of this raises the question of what we want from our athletes. Would Pendleton be celebrated more if she were less open about her feelings? In her book she talks about how she began self-harming and, on one occasion, cut herself in front of coach Jan Van Eijden during a confrontation about her secret relationship with GB coach Scott Gardner (to whom she is now engaged). If this seems shocking it should perhaps serve to illustrate that mental health issues can affect anybody – success, fame and good lucks are no barrier. Some might be uncomfortable with a female athlete talking about this, but it does no one much good to simply sweep it under the carpet.
However, when Pendleton agreed to do a photoshoot for “lad’s mad” FHM we were presented with a different image of the athlete, one that may not have been entirely helpful to perceptions of women’s sport. In her book, the raunchy photos are justified by stating that she had worked hard to get a body like the one she had, it wouldn’t be like that forever and she wanted to show it off. There may be some merit to this argument from an individual perspective but, unfortunately, it only serves to further entrench an all too common attitude that male athletes are role models, whereas female athletes are sex symbols who should be judged on looks rather than athletic ability.
Another contradiction, then. It’s hard at times to reconcile the shy, introverted girl with the Smashing Pumpkins lyrics tattooed on her right arm, to the glamorous sex symbol photographed on the red carpet at movie premières. Some may want athletes to be perfect, true Olympians with no hang-ups or neuroses, when an athlete becomes a World Champion and looks so upset about it, they may turn away in disgust. But what makes Pendleton so likeable is exactly these characteristics. She’s a real person with feelings of self-doubt which will be familiar to many people. Ironically, track cycling may be worse off without Victoria Pendleton, but you get the impression that, with no more expectations and pressure, Victoria Pendleton may be happier without track cycling.