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Never better than when Olympic glory is at stake, Great Britain’s three-time track cycling gold medallist Jason Kenny will be defending the individual and team sprint titles at Rio 2016.
“Jason sees the Olympics as the end goal and he has a plan to get there,” said Sir Chris Hoy, a legend of British track cycling and a former team-mate of Jason Kenny’s. “It’s not that he doesn’t want to win. He doesn’t go to the worlds or a World Cup thinking: 'I cannot be bothered.’ He still wants to do it. There is obviously something that doesn’t quite engage mentally or physically until it really counts. It’s quite a nice thing to have in many ways because his rivals will be terrified. They won’t know what is happening with him.”
The most decorated Olympic cyclist of all time, with six gold medals to his name, Hoy certainly knows what he is talking about, a point three-time Olympic champion Kenny proved on 5 March 2016 in winning the world sprint title at the Lee Valley VeloPark, the venue where he won two golds at London 2012.
Cheered on by a typically vociferous home crowd, Kenny beat Australia’s Matthew Glaetzer in the best-of-three sprint final, a timely boost for the Briton with Rio 2016 just five months away. Asked how he manages to hit peak form every four years, Kenny had a simple answer: “I don’t know,” he admitted.
Kenny’s first taste of the Olympics came at Beijing 2008, where he linked up with Hoy and Jamie Staff to defeat three-time reigning world champions France in the team sprint final, the British trio posting a world-record time of 42.950 seconds in the process. The Bolton-born Kenny then went head-to-head with team-mate Hoy in the individual sprint final three days later, but had to be content with silver.
In the years between Beijing 2008 and London 2012, Kenny was regularly eclipsed by France’s Grégory Baugé at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships, though he made the world title his in Apeldoorn (NED) in 2011 when his French rival was subsequently disqualified after winning the sprint final 2-0. Baugé promptly regained the crown in Melbourne (AUS) the following April, however, tuning up for the London Games by defeating Kenny once more.
Kenny enjoyed the best possible start to his second Olympics, surging to the team sprint gold with Philip Hindes and Hoy. After going fastest in qualification in a new Olympic record of 43.065, the British trio outpaced the field again in the first round, posting a new world record of 42.747 in Heat 4 against Japan.
The home favourites found even more pace in the final, eclipsing the French threesome formed by Baugé, Michael d’Almeida and Kévin Sireau in a time of 42.6, another world best.
Four days later Kenny went in search of a fourth Olympic medal in the individual sprint, beginning his quest by going quickest in qualification and then easing past South Africa’s Bernard Esterhuizen in the last 16, Malaysia’s Azizulhasni Awang in the quarters and Trinidad and Tobago’s Nijsane Phillip in the semis, which left him facing his old foe Baugé in the duel for gold.
In the opening race of the final, Kenny sat behind the Frenchman before passing him on the outside in the sprint for the line. Setting off first in the second race, the British rider was closely watched by Baugé before making a break for it on the penultimate lap, opening up enough of a gap to seal the gold, to the delight of the crowd.
“To be honest, my last race wasn’t that great. I just let the crowd carry me home to the finish line,” explained Kenny, who lamented the absence of Hoy in the individual sprint, adding that he would never have won gold had his legendary team-mate taken part.
The following year Kenny recorded what he considers one of his finest victories, albeit an unexpected one, as he took the world Keirin title in Minsk (BLR).
Though the Briton has tended to underperform at world championships, his 2016 sprint victory in London is yet further proof of his uncanny ability to hit form in an Olympic year, and augurs well for his hopes of adding to his already-impressive medal collection in Rio.