Friday, 20 July 2012

Olympic Stars #8 - Victoria Pendleton

By Shane Thomas

Britain have three gilded queens who are going to the Olympics. Jessica Ennis on the track, Rebecca Adlington in the pool, and Victoria Pendleton in the Velodrome. But unlike Ennis and Adlington, Pendleton brings a magnitude of emotional baggage to go with her crown.

A superb recent BBC documentary exposed what was common knowledge to many sporting observers. Pendleton is one of the most compelling and fascinating athletes of her era - in any sport.
To understand the multitudinous facets behind this complicated cyclist, we first have to talk about something that's often the bane of sporting women. The nicest way to put it is that Pendleton is, shall we say... aesthetically pleasing. Image search her on Google, and a large proportion of the pictures won't be showing her on the cycling track. However, Pendleton has managed to offset any criticism that derides her as nothing more than a clothes horse. Her record speaks louder than any of her photo shoots; the reigning Olympic champion in the sprint, and a nine-time World Champion at the same distance. She has a strong claim to be called cycling's greatest ever female sprinter, and all at the age of 31.

This is an outlandish theory, but hear me out. During the promotion for Spiderman 2, I saw an interview with Tobey Maguire, in which he stated that he doesn't think the character of Peter Parker enjoys being Spiderman. It seems to be a common theme in the world of superheroes. Well for Spiderman, read Pendleton. One thing seems clear, when at work, she's not fueled by joy.

Pendleton's journey was shaped from a tender age, forged from misfortune. At the age of four, her twin brother, Alex was diagnosed with cancer (he thankfully survived). It goes without saying that this put an onerous strain on her family, and as a result, a lot of attention was understandably focused on Alex. The family patriarch, Max, was a keen cyclist, and had unfulfilled dreams of being a top professional. His love for the sport was passed onto a young Victoria, and he played a major part in her fledgling cycling career. The initial purpose of this was to stop Victoria feeling neglected, but it was soon apparent that she had a formidable talent.

Victoria has often told of how her father was a hard taskmaster, demanding much of her. It's not uncommon for parents to be overbearing towards their children in the world of sport, often vicariously using them to succeed in an arena where they fell short. That's not to say that Max Pendleton was a monster, far from it. There's no doubt that Victoria would never have achieved what she has without his initial coaching, but she has admitted to eschewing the activities of a regular teenage girl, more out of a sense of duty. A common theme in Pendleton's life has been not wanting to let other people down. Beyond that photogenic face lies someone who often seems to be carrying the weight of the world on her slender shoulders.

There's a reason for my use of the word "slender". It's not to disrespect Pendleton, but to show how unique she is in cycling. The demands of the sprint lend to people - of either gender - with robust frames and powerful stature. Pendleton's body type is more will-o'-the-wisp, and in her early days, she was looked at with scorn because of it. She talks of her rivals disparagingly patting her on the backside before races. As far as they were concerned, Pendleton didn't belong. It was if the plot of the Brian De Palma film, Carrie had made its way to the world of cycling.

And like that aforementioned movie, Pendleton exacted revenge on more than one occasion. In London, she will once again do battle with her bete noire, the Australian Anna Meares. Meares looks the way a cyclist "should", and the relationship between the pair crackles with froideur. It may appeal to the worst sides of the human character, but a rivalry between two athletes who genuinely dislike each other takes sport, and turns it into soap-opera. It seems oddly fitting, given Pendleton's propensity for emotional sensitivity, that is anathema to many of her peers. Her reaction to winning back her World Sprint title earlier this year was to fall to the floor in hacking sobs.

Whether it's been her father, her coaches, her teammates, the press or the fans, Pendleton always seems to be achieving for the pleasure of other people. Falling in love with Scott Gardner, part of her coaching team, looks to have finally given Pendleton a sliver of happiness for herself. They are now engaged, but as the BBC documentary showed, it caused deep fissures within the Team GB cycling outfit, as it broke "protocol".

She seems to have already lived three lifetimes, and will retire from cycling after the Games. For the sake of her peace of mind, it seems a wise decision. But what a potential way to go; in her home country, against her greatest rival, with her event's most prestigious title at stake.

I referenced Spiderman earlier, but if she's like any superhero, it's probably Batman. Twice in the moribund Batman Forever, words are spoken that could apply to Pendleton. Bruce Wayne talks of leading a double-life, and explains that he's both Batman and Bruce Wayne, not because he has to be, but because he chooses to be. As I said earlier, Pendleton can be a kittenish pin-up and a hard-nosed athlete, all at the same time.

In the same movie, Dr Chase Meridian explains her fascination with Batman, stating she can't understand why he has committed his life to fighting crime, "It's as if he's been forced to pay some great penance." Now read this post again. Pendleton's career seems to have been a torturous crusade to gain the love of either her father, or surrogate father figures.

And finally, in The Dark Knight Rises, Batman is told, "You don't owe these people anymore. You've given them everything", to which the Caped Crusader replies, "Not everything. Not yet." I think we can guess the metaphor there.

Regardless of what happens at London 2012, Victoria Pendleton will leave cycling a legend. But personally, there's no one I'd rather see win a gold medal more. Lord knows she's suffered enough.

"The Greatest Events in Sporting History" is available to download from, e-mail us at and you can follow us on Twitter @TGEISH

No comments:

Post a Comment