A dramatic day of racing at Izu Velodrome in Japan left Canadian Keirin specialist Hugo Barrette frustrated and questioning his future in the sport.
In an interview with La Presse shortly after his race, emotions still running raw and jersey still torn, Barrette shared his frustration with how his Tokyo events ended.
“My Olympics were stolen from me,” said Barrette, adding, “I would like to say that I am coming back, but I am not getting over it. Too often decisions like this happen.”
The events Barrette refers to took place in the heats for men’s Keirin. The Canadian faced a stacked field in the second heat. That included Great Britain’s Jack Carlin and the Netherlands’ Matthijs Buchli, a silver medallist in Rio and the 2019 world champion.
Off the start, Barrette slotted in directly behind the derney. When it pulled off with three laps to go, the Canadian looked strong. Two laps later, Barrette was still on the front and pushing the pace as the favourites scrambled behind him. That’s when the problems started.
The exact sequence of events is hard to determine from watching the replay (which you can watch for yourself. Barrette’s race starts at 30:00). However it started, Carlin and the Malaysian rider, Muhamad Sahrom came into contact. Carlin continued but the Malaysian lost his balance and went down. Kazakstan’s Sergey Ponomaryov, left with no where to go, crashed into and catapulted over Sahrom. The officials gun fired with half a lap to go, ending the race. Barrette, Buchli, Carlin and Australian Matthew Richardson rode out the race.
“At 100 meters from the finish, at the speed we are going, the race is over,” said Barrette on the evening of the race. “They saw that the Briton wasn’t passing and they fired the gun [signaling the stop of the race]. Their argument was that there was debris on the runway. But clearly there wasn’t any: we were done!”
The decision to stop the race was unusual, says Barrette.
“You never stop the keirin race. In fact, almost no race is stopped when there is an accident. ”
“The main reason there is a fall is that the world wanted to come back to me. The guys weren’t able, they panicked and fell. That’s what happened, insists Barrette. I have just completed 750 meters in front of everyone and they tell me we are going to resume the race? I was stunned. In my head, I had won this race clearly and easily, with perfect execution.”
More unusual: it was Buchli that was given a warning when the race restarted. Neither the Kazakstan or the Malasian rider lined up for the re-race, leaving just four riders and two qualifying spots.
The drama was not over. Barrette took to the front again. As riders overtook him, Barrette crossed wheels with another rider, falling and hitting the boards hard. Again, it was Carlin at the center of the action.
“With two laps to go, someone walks past me and I take their wheel. There’s [Carlin] being caught outside, his run is over and I’m about to do the same thing [as before], but he’s coming over to tackle me! He should have been disqualified, but Britain can get away with anything.”
Instead, after much deliberation by officials, it was Buchli that ended up relegated. With Barrette on the floor, Carlin and Richardson move through to the next round. But the Canadian questions that decision.
“It wasn’t [Büchli]. We saw it in the slow motion video, it’s absolutely [Carlin],” Barrette said. “The first fall too! The Dutchman didn’t pass either, but the Briton is doing well. When you see the videos, there is no question.”
Barrette broke a rib in the fall. Still, he got back up and lined up for his repechage in hopes of keeping his Keirin campaign alive. still wearing the tattered kit from the heat, the Canadian couldn’t make it through. With that, Barrette’s competition in Tokyo is over. Under the circumstances, it’s a hard end for the Canadian to accept.
“I feel a great disappointment, sadness, but with hindsight, frustration!” says Barrette. “The Keirin is my event. I was so well prepared and had been waiting for it for so long”
Despite the frustration at the circumstances, Barrette will likely return to the track.
“I’ll get over it, but this one is really hard to swallow. This is a decision that makes no sense,” reiterated Barrette, who compared it to other, much more physically damaging crashes he’s suffered in the past. “I broke my back, some vertebrae, all the bones in my body! The time it hurt the most was because of that decision. It’s like I’ve been told, ’We don’t want you to win and we can do whatever we want.’ It’s tough on morale.”
While Barrette’s own Games are over, he’s not done cheering for Canada. The last track athlete to compete in Tokyo is Sprint sensation Kelsey Mitchell. She advanced to her semi-final shortly after Barrette’s repechage, after facing off against fellow Canuck, Lauriane Genest in the quarter-final. That adds a silver lining for Canada’s Keirin specialist.
“The only good thing is that my girlfriend, Kelsey [Mitchell], is making it to the semi-finals. I was happy for her.”
Mitchell races Sunday in Tokyo. Canadians can watch live late Saturday night, or early Sunday morning, depending on which time zone they’re in.