While Nicholas Paul, world record holder in cycling's Men's Flying 200m, must wait three more years to display his undoubted class on the world's biggest stage for sports, the Olympic Games, one of his former coaches says Paul may have already done so hence his bizarre experience on Olympic debut, finishing 6th in the men's individual sprint.
Former USA cyclist Erin Hartwell who served a second stint as T&T cycling coach from 2017 to 2019 overseeing Kwesi Browne's and Nicholas Paul's successful Olympic qualification says it is about time that the routine subjugation of cyclists from smaller nations ends.
Speaking from Tokyo on Thursday night, where he is now working as a member of the USA Track Cycling team's technical staff, Hartwell told Guardian Media Sports, "I'll be honest. I did find that when I came back to Trinidad in 2017 and worked with the boys for almost three years, our interpretation was that there did seem to be times when weren't getting the calls that other nations were. The more dominant, prosperous or traditional nations would get the call over the smaller nations."
Hartwell continued, "I'm not saying it's happening or it's not, it just tends to be an observation. My thought here is that Nicholas has risen to a standard - he's the current world record holder, he's obviously producing good results and has been doing so for the past couple of years. He's the Pan American champion, the best in the western hemisphere, he should start getting the calls. Just like in professional basketball, LeBron James is going to get the call over a lesser player and I think the same applies here. Nicholas has earned the right to get the call."
Hartwell was referring to two decisions that went against Paul during the quarterfinals of the men's sprint event early on Wednesday morning.
Paul, 22, had ignited the imagination and then the ire (through no fault of his own) of Trinbagonians as he jumped into the saddle to make his Olympic debut.
In the Flying 200m, the qualifier for the individual match sprint, Paul was one of nine riders to dip under the previous Olympic record of 9.551 seconds set by legendary Great Britain rider, Jason Kenny at the Rio 2016 games. Netherlands' rider Jeffrey Hoogland reset the record to 9.215 although his Dutch teammate Harrie Lavreysen registered an identical time. Great Britain's George Carlin clocked 9.306 to be the third fastest in the qualifying round while Paul was roughly one-thousandth of a second off Hoogland and company with 9.316 seconds.
Enthused by Paul's performance, Hartwell said, "I was most impressed with how focused, mature and able to compete under extreme pressure that I've seen from Nicholas in these games. To qualify top four was amazing, he was literally a tenth of a second from arguably two of the greatest riders in history in Harrie Lavreysen and Jeffrey Hoogland and then you had Jack Carlin (Great Britain) right in front of him by a couple of hundredths. Nicholas was right there."
The stage was set for Paul to further mesmerize the world. Light work against Australia's Matthew Richardson in the 1/32 round and then against Malaysia's Azizulhasni Awang in the 1/16 round-edged Paul closer to his destiny.
Next, Paul would dispatch hometown athlete, Japan's Yuta Wakimoto to advance to the quarterfinal, to arrive as truly one of the best eight sprinters in the world according to Hartwell who told Guardian Media Sports, "What was so important was that as he worked through the rounds he maintained his speed, he didn't lose a round and had to come back in the repechage. Coming into these games and previous competitions Nicholas was a contender. And as we see from the previous World Cups, he is a consistent top-eight performance. Now the Olympics is a different animal, you see people rise to the occasion, you see people fall apart."
Paul was poised to rise to the occasion in his quarterfinal matchup, a best out of three duels against Denis Dmitriev who competing under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee. Resulting from the exposing of Russia's state-sponsored doping scandal first in 2015, Russian athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Games have been asked to compete under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee instead of their country's national flag.
Nevertheless, Paul brushed the "stateless" Russian aside easily in the first ride and looked to have dished out more of the same treatment in the second and putting his foot down as one of the world's four best riders. Moving on to the medal round, the 22-year-old now had a chance to prove whether he was the gold standard.
However, officials subsequently overturned the result of the second race between the two, adjudging Paul to have left the sprint lane while rounding the final bend for home and in the process, impeding Dmitriev from making a pass. Hartwell was not so convinced.
"What we see in cycling is that calls on the track are really judgment calls. Yes, there is a rule book but those rules are to be interpreted. Not everything is black and white, there is a lot of grey area," said Hartwell "My observation and interpretation was that, where Nicholas may have come just over the red line of the sprint lane, which could be an infraction, the reality was that the race was already won. It didn't impede the progress of the Russian and so I was surprised that call was made. Because again, when it's a clear case of the other rider is winning you don't always make that call. That call doesn't need to be made."
Forced by officials to engage in a third and deciding, Dmitriev attempted a manoeuvre ahead of the Gasparillo native along the final 50 metres of the race. To avoid a clash of wheels, Paul flicked around Dmitriev and losing momentum as he watched the Russian ride off into the quarterfinal.
The second injustice was even worse than the first said Hartwell, "With the rides with Dmitriev, he (Nicholas) overpowered him in the first round. Nicholas was just obviously the faster and the better rider on the day. Dmitriev is a former world champion he's one of the modern all-time greats but I think Nicholas had the better of him."
Hartwell explained, "We talked among some coaches to see how are the officials really interpreting this race. The feedback we're getting internally was that what the officials are saying is; coming down the home straight with a lap to go, he (Nicholas) was in the pole lane with Dmitriev just to the outside. What the officials are saying is that because Nicholas dipped below the black line for a split second, their interpretation was that he left the field of play and therefore when the Russian came over into the pole a bit, that it was then the Russian's position and that Nicholas would have had to back out and come around. I disagree personally"
While Hartwell articulates what so many felt and still feel about the series of events, he says that we must accept the decisions of the officials and move on. But he gave cycling fans and Nicholas Paul supporters some hope.
"I'm gutted for Nicko. I'm pretty sure it took the wind out of his sails not to make the semi-finals. I still believe he's a top-four guy here, if not better, if not a potential medallist. So, it's sad, it's unfortunate but I promise you this - that kid is going to be back and he's going to be better than ever and I see him as a gold medal contender for Paris."
Campbell can conquer Paris
Earlier at the games, Trinbagonians shared in the despair of another T&T cyclist, Teniel Campbell. Campbell, 23, also debuted at the games as the first Caribbean woman ever to compete in road cycling. Campbell was unable to finish the race due to cramps and was forced to forfeit roughly three hours into her ride up Mt Fuji.
Hartwell empathised when he said, "One thing I think we need to be careful about with Teniel is that she is a bonafide world-class bike rider. An incredible road racer with so much potential for years to come. I do see her eventually being one of the best. One of the issues with the Tokyo Olympics is that the course was not suited to the style of racing. It was a very hilly course, much more suited to a climber type rider. Teniel is much more of a sprinter that does better on flatter terrain and so the Olympics was always going to be a challenge for her."
After emerging as one of the future stars of the Caribbean and Americas, 23-year-old Campbell joined the UCI World Cycling Centre programme in Switzerland in 2018. There she spent two years before signing a professional contract in 2020 with Valcar Travel & Service. Last year Campbell switched to Mitchelton-Scott Team Bike Exchange as she continued a steep rise in the world of women's road cycling. If she continues along that trajectory, Hartwell says Paris will be her's for the taking. He says her mental strength alone makes her one to pay close attention to in the coming years.
"If your head's not in it your body is never going to follow. So being confident, being motivated is the first driver in becoming a successful world-class athlete (cycling or anything else) and Teniel has that. And I think what is so unique with her and any other Trinbagonian athlete that I've seen is that they wear their country on their sleeve. There is so much pride in being a Trinbagonian and representing Trinidad and Tobago at these events that I think it can be overpowering and may be overwhelming at times but it can also be a great motivator for these athletes."