This Wednesday, 37 Australians – 17 athletes and 21 staff – will walk into Berlin velodrome representing their nation on the opening day of the 2020 UCI Track World Championships. With an Australian flag hanging from the roof and rainbow jerseys on the line, these Australians will be doing all they can to make the country proud.
But they are not the only ones. In Berlin, at least three riders and four coaches with links to Australia are representing other nations.
“It brings back good memories,” says Martin Barras, head coach of New Zealand, as his riders train alongside their Australian counterparts. “I spent 16 years with the Australian national program and five years in state institutes – I consider myself to be Australian.”
Gary Sutton, who rode for Australia at two Olympics, is another alumnus – having coached with the national team for 26 years. “I stay in touch with the Australians, so it is great to see them here at the velodrome,” admits Sutton.
The experienced coach did not have his contract renewed after the 2016 Olympics. “Originally it was a bit of a shock to be moved on, but it has been good,” he says.
The duo are not the only Australians plying their trade with other teams. John Beasley heads the Malaysian cycling program – a role he has held since 2006 – while Jason Niblett is an assistant coach with the Japanese sprint program.
“(Australia is) a good team run by good people,” Sutton says. “As long as they don’t get in our way, I want them to do well!”
Sutton and Barras credit Australia’s long-term investment in high performance sport for this phenomenon. “We have had a very good system for decades, going back to the foundation of the Australian Institute of Sport,” explains Barras. “Cycling was one of the first sports in the program.” Not only did this system develop world class athletes, but it also moulded excellent coaches. “We were good at developing coaches, probably better than most other countries,” says Sutton. “Our success as a team meant other nations wanted that information.”
That demand saw Barras move to England in 1999, to work for British Cycling. “They wanted that Australian expertise,” he says. “That has not changed – they still want it. Australian expertise is a valued commodity internationally, particularly in an environment that is as specialised as high performance cycling.”
While nomadic coaches and a multicultural staff roster may no longer be unusual, the proliferation of Australians is not limited to coaches. Melbourne-born Shannon McCurley made history for Ireland as the first Irish rider to compete in the Olympics (although she is not racing in Berlin).
Commonwealth Games gold medallist Jordan Kerby switched to New Zealand after being cut from the Australian national team in 2018, and will ride the team pursuit this week. Jai Angsuthasawit won a junior world title with Australia before deciding to represent Thailand, and will face off against Australian Matthew Richardson in the Keirin.
But perhaps the most high-profile Australian racing in another national team’s colours this week is Shane Perkins, whose dramatic defection to Russia in 2017 generated headlines. The two-time world champion sprinter, who claimed bronze for Australia at London 2012, will race the Keirin in Berlin and is expected to compete at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I still speak to my old team-mates and coaches,” says Perkins. “I often get supportive messages from them, saying that they are loving my passion and commitment. They are pleased that I have found another way to do things.”
Barras, Sutton and Perkins all told Cycling Central they wished the Australians luck during the week ahead. “I am with the United States to do a job, and ultimately I want the US to win – that’s the bottom line,” insists Sutton. “But I still follow what the ladies are doing and I want them to be successful,” he says of Australia’s female endurance squad.
With the US women highly-rated in the team pursuit, and Australia the defending world champions, it is not impossible that Sutton’s current and former riders could find themselves facing off in the final on Thursday. “There wouldn’t be too many coaches in the world that have coached every athlete in the final of, say, a 100-metre running race,” he muses. “It would be a bit weird!”
While Sutton might have divided loyalties in that eventuality, he otherwise hopes the Australians have a successful Track World Championships. “It’s a good team run by good people,” he says. “As long as they don’t get in our way, I want them to do well!”