High drama in the women's team sprint
Consoled ... Victoria Pendleton is comforted by a member of her coaching staff. Photo: Getty Images
How could it be that Anna Meares and her team sprint partner Kaarle McCulloch rode faster than the gold medallists yet wound up with bronze?
It's just one of those things that happened. We were probably just a bit too eager and excited for a ride. Now and again rubbish things happen and this is one of those. The only positives I can take is I know I'm in good form
Have you got a couple of minutes? All right, wrap your brain around this:
Anna Meares, fifth right, and Kaarle McCulloch, far right, show off their bronze medals. The Chinese pair, left, were relegated to silver, handing the gold to the German duo, centre. Photo: Getty Images
The first shock in the women's two-lap event on a headspinning opening night at London's Olympic velodrome came when British pair Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish booked themselves a place in the gold medal final, only to be informed that the darling of British cycling had committed a technical blunder so serious in the pair's changeover that they were relegated. Booted out. Gone.
Pendleton was mortified, the one-eyed crowd booed loudly - but the chief judge's decision was final. And so the British duo who set a world record at an Olympic test event at the same velodrome just five months ago left the building empty-handed as fast as they could.
This left Chinese pair Shuang Guo and Jinjie Gong - who broke the world record in qualifying on Thursday night and then bettered it again in the next round - with a new opponent in the race for gold: Miriam Welte and Kristina Vogel. In a time of 32.619 seconds, China beat the Germans, who stopped the clock at 32.798s.
Britain's Victoria Pendleton, right, puts an arm around teammate Jessica Varnish. Photo: Reuters
In the contest for bronze, three-time team sprint world champions Meares and McCulloch - who were seriously down on themselves for missing the race they really wanted to be in - comfortably disposed of Ukrainians Olena Tsyos and Lyubov Shulika, who were late call-ups to the occasion. But just as the Chinese national anthem was being queued for the medal ceremony another bomb was dropped: the judges relegated China for committing the same sin as the British team. It meant that Guo and Gong, who had ridden faster than any other pair in every round of the competition, were demoted a step down the podium.
After flags, scripts and soundtracks were rearranged hastily in the underground corridors of the velodrome, the Chinese pair did a mighty job of not breaking down in tears as Germany's anthem played instead of theirs.
"It's regretful but we accept it with grace," Gong said afterwards, through a translator, before adding that she and her teammate still wanted more clarification on the ruling.
Cannot believe it ... Victoria Pendleton puts her head in her towel after being disqualified. Photo: Reuters
It was hard to take but Britain also accepted that Pendleton, in front of an audience containing a rollcall of royals, had stuffed up royally.
Cycling's world governing body warned teams before the April world track championships in Melbourne that it intended to be more strict about enforcing rules that mandate cyclists in team events must execute their changeovers within a special box marked with white tape on the track boards. There was no disputing that, in this most critical of competitions, the best female cyclist on the home nation's team hadn't done that.
"It's just one of those things that happened. We were probably just a bit too eager and excited for a ride," said a distraught Pendleton.
Eliminated ... Victoria Pendleton reacts after hearing the news. Photo: Reuters
"Now and again rubbish things happen and this is one of those. The only positives I can take is I know I'm in good form."
Meares and McCulloch had ridden legally, but not at their best. Incredibly, in all their years riding team sprints in competition together, they have never missed a ride for first place, and it left them in the sizeable coalition of female sprinters who left the first night of track racing lamenting how things might have been.
"It definitely is a disappointment," McCulloch said. "We came here with gold in our eyes and we wanted it bad. We really underperformed a little bit tonight. We were off our best time by two tenths of a second, almost three tenths. It's disappointing that we could have at least got silver, if not ride off for the gold."
Even one of the victorious Germans, Vogel, felt strange about how it all panned out: "It's weird because the fastest didn't win a gold medal," she said.
Bunking up her teammate, Meares - who became the first female track cyclist to win a medal at three consecutive Olympics - later said that McCulloch had one of the toughest jobs in cycling given that in the two-person event she has to follow, and then lead home, the fastest woman in the world from a standing start.
Looking ahead, Meares said her toughest rivals in the individual sprint and keirin - Pendleton and Guo - would be stewing after their respective misadventures. But there was no doubting that Meares also finished night one of a five-day meeting with an even greater appetite for success than she arrived with.
GOLD GERMANY (Miriam Welte, Kristina Vogel) 32.798 seconds
SILVER CHINA (Shuang Guo, Jinjie Gong) 32.619 seconds *(relegated for illegal riding)
BRONZE AUSTRALIA (Anna Meares, Kaarle McCulloch) 32.727 seconds