Cycling's problematic pursuit of equality
There are times when I think a seat on the sports administration gravy train might just be the very best place in the world: great food, first-class travel, the best seats for the big matches, fancy handbags and so on.
And then I remember they sometimes have to make tough decisions - 50/50 calls that will leave lots of people annoyed no matter which way you call it - and wonder if I really would like that responsibility.
World cycling's bosses are facing one of those lunch-spoiling dilemmas right now and the decision they appear to have made has certainly annoyed a lot of people, many of them British.
But before anybody accuses them of plotting to do us in now that we're good at something we should perhaps try to understand why preventing British cyclists from defending hard-won Olympic titles is not the open-and-shut case of incompetence/insensitivity/anti-British prejudice it might seem at first glance.
Underlying all this - the proposed changes to the London 2012 track cycling programme, the scrapping of traditional events, the introduction of new ones, the complaints and predictions of doom - is a glaring injustice that simply must be addressed: men have more chances to win Olympic medals than women do.
Bradley Wiggins' storming ride in Beijing might be the last ever Olympic men's individual pursuit
This is more than just a bit embarrassing for a movement that considers itself liberal and meritocratic, it also falls short of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) own charter and could even be illegal in many countries (particularly when you consider the public money involved in staging these celebrations of humanity).
Simple, you might be thinking, just introduce more events for the women, 165 gold-medal opportunities each.
If only it was that easy.
Leaving aside any debate on the attraction of women's Greco-Roman wrestling or men's synchronised swimming, there is one massive problem with adding events to the Olympic programme: cost. More events, means more athletes, more coaches, more officials, more rooms, more vehicles, more, more, more.
The price tag of an Olympics is already at the upper end of what most governments think they can reasonably expect their electorates to go for and the IOC knows it. Asking for more is out of the question. So if the federations that run the Olympic sports want new events they're going to have to give up some old ones.
Which brings us to track cycling: Beijing's Laoshan Velodrome was a fantastic venue for top sport, and the scene of many of Team GB's proudest moments, but it was hardly an equal-opportunities workplace.
Of the 10 events, only three were for female cyclists. While this meant Sir Chris Hoy was able to sprint to three golds and a knighthood, Victoria Pendleton had to make do with one and some magazine work.
This disgraceful situation left cycling's governing body, the UCI, open to considerable criticism. And it certainly came, much of it from Britain. But say what you like about the UCI, and many do, nobody can say it didn't listen.
At London 2012, it has decreed, there will be five events for men and five for women: sprint, team sprint, keirin, team pursuit and omnium. So out go the men's madison and points races, the women's points and both individual pursuits, and in comes a women's team sprint, keirin, team pursuit and two omniums.
Those changes are provisional but nobody is expecting the IOC to do anything other than rubber-stamp them at its next board meeting in December.
So, with one bureaucratic flourish, equality between the sexes has been delivered in the velodrome. But what about equality between the cyclists?
The five chosen events can be broken down into three for sprinters like Hoy and Pendleton, one for distance riders like Bradley Wiggins and Rebecca Romero, and one, the five-discipline omnium, for all-rounders. These choices represent a clear shift away from endurance events to more explosive ones, and reaction has divided along those lines (as the video below demonstrates).
Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Geraint Thomas and Lizzie Armitstead on the changes to the 2012 programme
Pendleton, unsurprisingly, is delighted. Sprint king Hoy is pleased for his female counterparts but acknowledges it is hard on the distance riders. Romero and Wiggins, individual pursuit specialists, are furious. The former described the changes as "ludicrous", while the latter said the proposals would "kill off" endurance cycling on the track.
Wiggins, a three-time world and double Olympic champion, was hoping to go for an unprecedented third straight victory in his home city in 2012, and Romero will also now be deprived of the chance to defend her Olympic title. If that's not bad enough, Wiggo has also lost his ride in the madison and Romero her second medal shot in the points race.
And it's not just these two in the GB team left wondering if they have upset the cycling gods. Beijing medallists like Steven Burke, Wendy Houvenaghel and Geraint Thomas can all feel aggrieved about the UCI's "radical" tinkering.
But the link between the individual pursuit and Britain goes deeper than that. Domestic riders have won 21 world titles in the event in the last half century. The greats of British track cycling - Beryl Burton, Graeme Obree, Hugh Porter et al - have specialised in this most pure of contests.
And you could argue that Chris Boardman's individual pursuit triumph in 1992 was the catalyst for Britain's recent Olympic renaissance. The lessons learned by Boardman and his young coach Peter Keen have transformed Team GB from being nice-but-nowhere types to success-hungry medal machines.
So it is more than just another event for British cyclists and while none of them disputes the need to address the male/female medal split, they are wondering if other sports would have been given such a firm one-in/one-out ultimatum.
Athletics, the Olympics' biggest sport, has been allowed to level up its medal split without losing men's events, and swimming, the second biggest sport, has also not had to engage in much horse-trading with the IOC over the years. Are some Olympic sports more equal than others? That, no doubt, will be the topic of much conversation when the track cycling community gathers in Manchester this weekend for the World Cup Series' opening leg.
I expect there will be also be some water-cooler chat about the omnium, which isn't on the World Cup menu but has appeared at the last few world championships. Until now cycling's answer to the pentathlon has failed to tempt the sport's biggest names (Thomas refers to it as a "joke event" in the video above) but that will probably change now there is an Olympic medal to aim for. One rider who appears made for its jack-of-all-trades demands is Britain's Lizzie Armitstead. Remember the name.
It is also worth pointing out that British cycling has been here before. Hoy was devastated when the UCI took away his speciality, the kilo, to accommodate BMX in Beijing. The Scot has admitted to almost quitting but he decided to set himself new goals and emerged four years later as the world's greatest sprinter in both the power events and the more tactical ones. When I spoke to Hoy about this at the Nationals last week, his message was clear: if you want a new challenge, you'll find it.
He's right, of course, His Royal Hoyness usually is. And who knows, perhaps this is the burning injustice that will motivate Romero to a third Olympic medal in different sports/events (rowing, track cycling and road cycling) and Wiggins to Tour de France glory. The UCI would struggle to scrap that.
ps And if you want to read an interview with the man who helped Hoy get over losing his favourite event, click here. It's a great read.