In little more than a decade, Great Britain's National Lottery has upended the once amateurish set-up of track cycling and turned it into what is, for all intents and purposes, a professional sport.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

The tidy sum of £26 million fuelled the British to success in London, and a 17.5 per cent increase, £30.4 million will fund Team GB to what seems another almost inevitable medal table-topping effort at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Greed is good. Money is king.

That's not to say other countries aren't joining the party. Australia puts in a handy amount to help the Cyclones do what they do best, as do, to a lesser extent, France, but success is expensive. It's only likely to get more expensive as more of the richer cycling nations try to emulate the Brits. A financial arms race is well underway.

The early signs of this shifting paradigm came at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. After finishing third at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, Great Britain topped the medal tally decisively in China. Beijing 2008 was a game changer, a wake-up call to the status quo.

The rivers of gold flowing out of the National Lottery coffers had propelled Team GB from an undistinguished but consistent performer to a world beater.

The best equipment, sports science and coaching all played a role, supported by added investment. Do I blame the Brits? Hardly. Great Britain, led by Dave Brailsford, did what Australia, France and Germany had already been doing for a long time. It just did it better, and took it further.

But in attempt to stop the rot, in late 2008, Gerry Ryan, a long-time benefactor of Australian cycling, put his hand up to right the ship. Australia had just ridden to a lacklustre 12th on the medal tally. He approached the then high performance director Shayne Bannan about to what could be done.

"I asked Shayne what he needed," recalled Ryan of a meeting with Bannan.

"He told me, 'Gerry, frankly we need more money'."

Dutifully, Ryan agreed to help. Between 2009 and 2012, the Jayco boss bolstered the Australian war chest, and it paid immediate dividends.

Australia topped the UCI track rankings for four consecutive years, an impressive reward for overall consistency, but come the London 2012 Olympic Games, it struggled to compete against the Brits. So, for that matter, did everyone else.

The London 2012 track cycling medal tally says it all. Eight golds for Great Britain, with 10 nations, including Australia, tied for second on a solitary gold.

Even with Ryan's philanthropy and the Australian Sports Commission's ongoing funding, Australia has struggled to close the gap to the British. If anything Great Britain has legged-out further, and other nations are also struggling to keep pace.

Formula 1?

In a recent interview on Cyclingnews.com, former track sprint king Theo Bos described Great Britain as "the only WorldTour level team in an amateur sport".

Bos turned away from the track after Beijing 2008 and has noted how much the sport has changed since he left. "The times they were doing in London (2012), it was incredible," Bos said. "If I was competing today, I'd have no chance.

"But that's (the money side) part of the sport, although maybe it's become a little bit like Formula 1."

It's an easy comparison to make. Just as Ferrari once dominated F1, with better technical know-how and deeper pockets, Team GB is heading the same way. But is that good for track cycling? Is it good for one country to be so totally dominant owing to the financial scales being so squarely in its favour? Is it good for success to be so reliant on the deep pockets of philanthropists or National Lottery Programs?

It would be unfair to the athletes to say that money trumps all. Sir Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny and Laura Trott are all phenomenal athletes capable of phenomenal performances. And it's true that you can have all the money in the world and not turn a donkey into a racehorse. But to find said racehorse, through talent identification, to nurture and develop it, to mentor it and to get 100 per cent of its performance from it, you need resources.

The importance in regulating sport is making sure the balance never shifts too far toward the athlete being a secondary or tertiary part of the process.

Sport is after all fundamentally about the athlete, not the running shoes, swimsuit or bike.

Sensing a trend, some effort has been made to level the playing field by the UCI, including the introduction of technical regulations aimed at stemming innovation that is deemed anti-competitive. All equipment, bikes, helmets, cranks, skin suits and the like must be made publicly available for consumption. The idea is that every team can access world's best practice equipment, nullifying technical advantages.

But enforcing such a regulation is problematic. Bos and others, like Australia's high performance director Kevin Tabotta, question how anyone can be sure that what is 'publicly available' is really the same as what the athletes are using. Even so, it's only one element of the funding warfare.

Combating the financial onslaught, Ryan has upped and extended his commitment to the high performance program through to Rio 2016. But to what end? Ryan's investment, while welcome to Australian cycling just adds further fuel to the fire. Every additional dollar spent puts Australian and Great Britain further out of reach of the rest of the world. Pushes the sporting equation more into the financial world.

"Britain is not going to invest any less over the next four years, and what we've got to do is get our own house in order, and at the very least match their progress," said Kevin Tabotta of the way the sport is at the moment.

"What they have done is put what is possible out of the reach of some nations.

"In the future that may mean countries may need to put their focus in fewer events and really put a lot more resources into a handful of medals."

Trinidad and Tobago's Njisane Phillip who finished fourth in the individual sprint at London 2012 was one such example of a singular approach from a lesser-resourced program, nearly pulling off success. It may be the way for countries to combat financial juggernauts. But performances like Phillip's are far more the exception than the rule. And is that even a good long term outcome for track cycling?

It's probably rich to bemoan a perceived overinvestment in cycling, when just as frequently we cry foul over the most basic levels of professionalism.

We also can't rewind the past 12 years and ask for things to return to what they were. But it would be a shame to see the sport ruled, rather than influenced by the effects of money. There is far more romance to the possibility of the improbable than the almost pre-ordained nature of a financially restricted outcome.